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I tried Echelon's $1,000 alternative to the Peloton bike. Here's what happened

It's a similar product for a considerably lower price, and Cheapskate readers can get a free tablet and heart-rate monitor.

echelon-connect-ex3

The Echelon Connect EX3 costs significantly less than a Peloton bike, but gives you essentially the same experience.

Echelon

I first encountered a Peloton exercise bike at a cousin's house. It was hard not to be impressed by its premium design, mammoth touchscreen and studio-like streaming classes. But $2,200-plus for the bike and a $39-a-month subscription? Yikes. Thankfully, you can get a Peloton-like experience for less -- and Cheapskate readers can score an exclusive bonus as well (see below).

Echelon is a direct Peloton competitor, and the company's Connect EX series of bikes has a starting price of $840. Why the big discrepancy? For starters, three of the four models are BYO screen: They pair via Bluetooth with your phone or tablet (a free one is included -- see below for that as well) for your cycle-class sessions. Beyond that, it's hard to see many differences. The bike I tested, the EX3, looks and feels like a premium product, and the classes come straight from the Peloton playbook.

Read more: Peloton bike review

Although my overall experience with the latter is limited to the aforementioned family encounter and a quick trial of a neighbor's machine, I wanted to see for myself: Could a $1,000 exercise bike measure up to one costing more than twice as much?

Short answer: yup. While I'm not fully sold on indoor exercise bikes in general, I think Echelon's hardware and ecosystem will please anyone seeking this kind of cycling experience.

Setup and design

The Connect EX3 took about 45 minutes to assemble, courtesy of a simple (and occasionally amusing) instruction video. I paired it with an old iPad Air, which, of course, is no substitute for Peloton's stunning 21-inch display -- but it gets the job done. It also offers one notable advantage: If I don't feel like taking a class, I can use the iPad to watch Hulu, Netflix, YouTube or whatever.

The machine itself is an all-metal beauty -- sleek, sturdy, compact and impressive-looking. It's easy to move around thanks to the wheels on one end, and it's virtually silent in operation. Although I used headphones during workouts, they weren't necessary; I could easily have relied on the iPad's speakers. (One more perk to using your own tablet: It should work with just about any Bluetooth headphones. Peloton's system works with only "some" of them.)

For the record, I'm 6 feet tall, 175-ish pounds. (OK, trying to get back there from 179.) I find the Echelon to be very stable while riding, even when I'm up out of the seat. Granted, I'm not rocking wildly back and forth; I keep my body pretty centered. But although the EX3 is lighter overall than the Peloton, the former feels very solid. I can't say I found the seat or handle grips very comfortable, but that's true of my regular bike as well. Your mileage may vary.  

What it's like to take a virtual cycling class

I'm a newcomer to all this. I own an outdoor bike, but I've never taken any kind of indoor-cycling class. My machine of choice has always been an elliptical, one pointed at a TV so I could watch something while working out. That's how I make the exercise tolerable, so I was a little leery of Echelon's classes. They sounded boring.

I started with a few 20-minute introductory classes, which honestly felt like a slog. I couldn't see myself doing this activity for 30 or 45 minutes at a time, let alone an hour. But then I did a 30-minute class and found, to my surprise, that the time went by pretty quickly. From there I tried a live class and started to see what all the fuss is about: A good high-energy instructor, especially when she calls you out by name, makes it pretty fun. Similarly, I liked monitoring all my stats (speed, output, cadence and so on, all of which appear in real-time in the app) and seeing how I fared against other riders on the leaderboard.

I also found that the seat, which felt uncomfortable at first, started to break in. Long story short: Like any new exercise regimen, it got easier and more enjoyable the longer I stayed with it.

The Echelon app looks very similar to Peloton's and includes access to scenic rides in addition to studio classes. Those classes range from live ones scheduled throughout the day to dozens of on-demand sessions of varying length and skill level. Your subscription also affords access to Echelon's FitPass, which streams live and on-demand nonbike classes (stretching, strength, yoga and so on) as well. In other words, you're getting a very rounded fitness service here, not just something that's 100% bike-oriented.

Here's one thing I didn't like: Each time I returned to the bike to take a class, I had to manually reconnect it to the app -- a process that's three or four taps deep. There's no reason the app shouldn't be able to autoconnect when you hit the bike's power button or start pedaling. Similarly, I'm bummed the app doesn't currently offer Apple Health integration, though Echelon's CTO told me that capability is on the way.

My only real complaint with the bike itself (and it's a minor one): I wish you could adjust the seat tilt without breaking out the two included wrenches. I mean, once it's set, you shouldn't need to adjust it again. But until you get it positioned the way you like it, you may have to go to the wrenches a few times.

Read more: 3 smart gyms tested and rated: Peloton, ClassPass and Mirror

Pricing

Add the two accessories first, then the bike (any model/package), then apply the promo code.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

As noted, the base-model Echelon, the Connect EX1, starts at $840. Whatever model you choose, you have the option of buying either a one- or two-year class subscription bundled with it. The EX3, which I tested, would run $1,040 for the bike and first month of classes; $1,400 for the bike and one year of classes; or $1,600 for the bike and two years. Obviously the longer the package you buy, the lower the amortized per-month rate works out to be.

Peloton offers no such discounts. The basic bike package is $2,245, and classes run $39 per month, period. So your two-year cost comes out to $3,181 -- literally twice the price of Echelon's option. (Again, this doesn't factor in the screen, which definitely has value.)

Another expense to consider: shoes. The Peloton bike relies on clip-in pedals and requires compatible shoes -- a hassle I don't particularly appreciate. The Echelon pedals can be used with SPD shoes, but also have toe cages if you prefer to ride with running or other shoes.

So here's the deal: You can get a free 10-inch Android tablet and a free Echelon Advanced Heart Monitor with promo code CHEAPSKATE. (The tablet freebie is available to all; only Cheapskate readers get the monitor as well.) Just add them individually to your cart, then add whatever bike model/package you want, then apply the code at checkout. (If you have trouble navigating to your cart after all that, try echelonfit.com/cart.)

Certainly there are indoor exercise bikes that cost even less than this one, and there are indoor-cycling apps priced well below $40 per month.

However, if you've been lusting after a Peloton but simply can't invest that kind of money, the Echelon EX3 is an excellent alternative. I'm pretty on the fence about what to do after my loaner unit gets returned, which it will shortly, so I definitely recommend trying one first if you can -- or even just taking a spin class or the like to make sure you enjoy this kind of exercise. 

Your thoughts?

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