Indoor exercise bikes have been around forever, but it feels like Peloton turned what used to be a dull, monotonous fitness activity into something exciting. Unfortunately, Peloton also turned it into something expensive: With prices ranging from $1,895 to $2,495, these "smart bikes" cost considerably more than most "dumb" ones. And that's not even factoring in the required subscription for exercise classes, which runs $40 a month.
Let's forgo the debate over whether the bike and service are worth the money. Instead, let's look at ways to get a Peloton-like cycling experience at home for less -- quite possibly a lot less.
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For starters, I've already tested a number of affordable Peloton alternatives -- "connected" bikes that have similar designs and, in some cases, similar spin-class offerings. But even then you're looking at around $900 at a minimum. Surely there must be cheaper DIY options for budget-strapped cyclists?
- You can buy an inexpensive exercise bike and use it with any number of "experiential" iPad or iPhone apps -- including Peloton's (see below).
- You can buy a "trainer" and use the outdoor bike you already own -- again with apps to enhance the experience.
The hardware is actually the easier part of the equation, so let's start by looking at the software.
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It's all about the app(s)
As you know, the Peloton bike slings all manner of live and recorded classes to its big built-in screen. But what you may not know is that Peloton also offers these classes to the masses -- those who don't own the company's equipment -- courtesy of the Peloton app.
Available for Android, iOS, Fire TV, Roku and Chromecast, it allows you to "BYO bike" (or treadmill, just FYI), though with one key omission: You won't get all the same live stats and metrics (distance, resistance, calories burned and so on) as you would from a Peloton bike. Likewise, it may be difficult to mirror the exact resistance called out by instructors during classes; a "20" on the Peloton bike has no real correlation to a bike that uses an analog dial for resistance. You also don't get the Peloton's large screen to watch classes or keep track of your stats, but I'll cover how to replicate the experience below.
However, you can feed heart-rate data to the app -- all you need is an inexpensive third-party heart-rate monitor. Similarly, the app can capture cadence (i.e., pedal-rate) data, which, again, can come from an inexpensive sensor. More on those options later.
Here's the real surprise: The Peloton app costs just $13 per month, not $40 like for owners of the Peloton bike. Whatever bike you end up using, your overall costs will end up much lower.
Since you're going the BYO route anyway, you don't necessarily have to use the Peloton app. Or, you can switch between that and any number of others. Maybe you're not interested in spin-type classes; maybe you'd prefer virtual rides through famous city streets or on beautiful mountain trails. Maybe you'd like to compete in virtual races. There are lots of cycling apps designed to let you do all that and more. A few examples:
There are two newcomers worth mentioning as well: Fitscope Studio ($10 a month or $80 annually) and Motosumo ($13 a month). The latter promises to "turn any bike into a smart bike," offering live indoor cycling classes with various stats (collected from a Bluetooth HR monitor and power meter) displayed on your phone. Fitscope Studio offers a wider array of classes (including elliptical, treadmill and "scenery runs"), but without the live option or stat-monitoring.
There's no law that says you have to use a cycling app at all. Maybe you'd prefer to read a book in the Kindle app or stream The Queen's Gambit on Netflix. That's about as far away from the "Peloton experience" as you can get, but it's also a very low-cost option. (Here are 10 free Netflix alternatives to keep costs even lower.)
Inexpensive indoor exercise bikes
As noted, there are exercise bikes that cost a fraction of what you'll pay for the Peloton. You won't get all the same features, and build quality might not be as good. But if your goal is simply to ride inside while enjoying instructor-led classes, that's easily accomplished.
What should you look for in an indoor bike? A few key specs: The weight of the flywheel (conventional wisdom holds that heavier is better), the type of resistance (friction or magnetic, the latter typically quieter) and the inclusion of a phone or tablet holder. This last is pretty important, as you'll need a device for whatever app(s) you plan to use. You can buy a third-party holder if the bike you like doesn't include one -- more on that below.
However, any bike in the $200-$400 range won't be "connected," meaning it won't have any way to pair with that device. If you want heart-rate and/or cadence data from your rides, you'll have to add that equipment on your own.
Search Amazon for indoor exercise bikes and you'll find a dizzying array of choices, many of them from brands you're not likely to recognize: L Now, Pooboo, Pyhigh and so on. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make your decision that much more difficult.
Having perused a lot of these brands and models, I found a few that appear to tick most of the important boxes. The Pyhigh S2 Indoor Cycling Bike features a 35-pound flywheel, an LCD monitor that displays basic cycling stats and a tablet holder. It currently sells for $307, though in the past it's been as low as $220.
The S2 is also notable because it has over 1,700 user reviews, and those average out to a solid 4.4 stars. With that kind of review volume, it's less likely you're seeing a preponderance of fakes, something to consider when looking at a product that has only a couple dozen ratings. (Find out more about this in my story on how to spot fake Amazon reviews.)
If you want a bike that uses magnetic resistance, which will definitely get you a little closer to a Peloton-like ride, check out the Joroto X2 for $400. It has a 4.5-star rating from over 1,900 buyers.
Again, these are just two options out of many. You could also head to your local sporting-goods store in search of bikes you can actually try before buying.
Indoor trainers for your outdoor bike
Avid outdoor cyclists will tell you to skip these fancy (and even less fancy) exercise bikes in favor of the one you already own. You'll spend considerably less money and get a much more familiar (and realistic) riding experience.
The key piece of hardware you'll need: An indoor trainer, which typically combines a simple stationary stand for your front wheel and a roller for the back one. The trainer holds your bike upright; all you do is hop on and pedal.
These things range in price from under $100 on up to $1,000 and more, depending on design and features. One standout is the Saris CycleOps M2, a "smart" trainer that connects directly to apps like Rouvy and Zwift. Its electromagnetic roller will automatically adjust the tension to correspond with your virtual ride. (Pedaling up a hill, for example? The tension will increase.) The M2 is currently selling for $550, but has been as low as $430 in the past.
Looking for a less expensive option? For $150 (previously as low as $90), the Sportneer Bike Trainer offers a simple rear-wheel roller along with a handlebar-mounted remote that provides six resistance settings. It has a 4.4-star rating from nearly 4,000 buyers.
Just one wrinkle in this plan: Your bike probably doesn't have a place to put a tablet. You could always prop it up on a nearby table or shelf, but that'll make it harder to see and impossible to reach while riding. Thankfully, there are super-cheap tablet mounts designed for indoor bikes (ironic!) that should also work with your road bike. Here's one that costs all of $16.
Other gear you'll need
There are a couple key stats that go hand-in-hand with the Peloton experience: heart rate and cadence. Fortunately, you can track both without spending a lot, and feed that data directly to whatever app(s) you're using.
The Wahoo Cadence Sensor is a popular choice; it can mount on your shoe or, more permanently, one of your bike's crank arms. It sells for $40.
Wahoo also makes a chest-strap heart-rate monitor, the Tickr, that runs $50. However, if you don't mind going a little off-brand, you can get something like the CooSpo heart-rate monitor for $39.
Finally, although you can use your phone, a tablet with a larger screen is really the ideal option -- the better to see your instructor or virtual bike trail. One of the cheapest options: The Amazon Fire HD 10, which sells for $150 but routinely goes on sale for $30-$50 less. There's a version of the Peloton app available for Fire tablets, same as for Android and iOS tablets.
Now for the bad news: Peloton is just about the only popular cycling app that's available for Fire. No FulGaz, no iFit, no Rouvy, no Zwift. If you want to run those, you'll need an Android tablet or an iPad. Check out CNET's roundup of the best tablets of 2020 if you need some recommendations.
My advice: Be on the lookout for an iPad deal. The current-gen iPad 10.2, for example, lists for $329 but often goes on sale for $279. There aren't many Android tablets available these days, and anything with a 10-inch screen is likely to cost you more than that iPad.
Let's do the math
When all is said and done, how much will it really cost you to recreate the Peloton experience without the Peloton bike? That depends on how much equipment you might already own and how much you need to buy. But the Peloton app itself feels like the real bargain at just $13 per month. In addition to live and on-demand cycling classes, it serves up a wealth of other fitness content: cardio, HIIT, yoga, meditation, stretching and more.
At the top end, you might spend $400 on a bike, $250 on a tablet and $100 on miscellaneous extras, for a total of around $750. That's still less than half the price of a Peloton bike, and you're not locked into a $39-a-month subscription.
Now let's hear from you: What kind of home-brew Peloton setup are you planning to put together? And if you've already got one, what kind of gear does it have, and how's it working out?
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