Indoor cycling is all the rage. That's in part because it's easier on your knees and an indoor cycling bike takes up less space than a now-infamous Peloton commercial, a Peloton bike starts at $2,200, and a class subscription will run you another $39 per month. Show of hands: Who'd like to see a Peloton alternative for less money?, and in part because you can experience virtual rides and cycling classes via an interactive screen. But here's the thing: As you probably learned from that
Meeee! Spinning is a great workout and thankfully, there are plenty indoor cycling options. Below I've rounded up some of the latest and greatest so you can see just how much cheaper. I have firsthand experience with several of them, and will be updating this post in the coming weeks as I'm able to try others.
For now, let's talk about the two key features that impact an indoor cycle's price: The screen and the subscription.
The screen: Built-in or BYO?
The sexiest aspect of the Peloton bike is, without question, its integrated 21-inch HD touchscreen. It just feels really luxurious to interact with such a spacious display, whether for browsing Peloton classes, viewing your cycling stats or just watching your onscreen instructor. Of course, that's also a big reason the bike is so expensive; most competitors come with a smaller screen or none at all.
For example, the Bowflex C6 costs just $900, but doesn't come with any kind of display. Instead, it has a mount for your tablet, which connects to third-party apps via Bluetooth. The smaller tablet screen may not draw you in as much, but a tablet allows you to do things other than watch class videos, like read books, stream Netflix or even go on virtual outdoor rides.
I'm not saying one is definitively better than another, just that there are pros and cons to built-in and BYO screens.
The subscription: Mandatory or optional?
If the goal of purchasing a piece of home-fitness equipment is to avoid pricey gym or class memberships, some of these bikes may leave you scratching your head. As noted, Peloton charges $39 per month, while Echelon's plans range from $20 to $40.
If you purchase a NordicTrack cycle, you get your first year of the companion iFit service at no extra charge. After that, it costs $39 per month, or about $33 if you prepay annually. Bowflex is the outlier here, with no required membership: It's designed to work with various third-party services, including($13 per month) and Zwift ($15 per month).
You can use any of these bikes independently, of course -- you don't have to take a class (though Peloton does require a minimum one-year subscription as part of your purchase). But if you decide not to pay for a membership, some bikes will no longer collect or display data (speed, distance, etc.) about your rides.
What's more, as much as you might dislike the idea of yet another monthly subscription, even if $40 is less than what you'd typically pay for just two or three drop-in classes at your favorite studio. The key is to factor that cost into the overall expenditure and, where possible, look for discounts on prepaid, annual subscriptions.
Peloton's cycle is, without question, the Bentley of home exercise bikes -- a sturdy and beautiful machine that feels every inch like a premium product. Of course, it's priced to match: $2,245 (which includes delivery and setup) and $39 per month for on-demand and live classes.
Because I tested only the less expensive alternatives, I'll turn you over to CNET colleague Megan Wollerton's Peloton review. Even with the need to purchase special clip-in shoes, she found it a "worthy splurge." Read our Peloton Bike review.
If you want something close to the Peloton indoor bike experience without the price, look to Echelon. The company offers a very similar class structure, both live and on-demand, but it's available via less expensive hardware. The EX3, for example, costs $1,040, or you can get it with a one-year subscription for $1,400.
Actually, Echelon's new EX5s ($1,640) comes closest to matching the actual Peloton hardware, thanks to its massive 21.5-inch screen. Other models in the lineup, including the EX3, require you to bring your own screen, in the form of an iPad or similar tablet. That means a smaller display, but it also opens the door to nonclass activities like reading books, streaming Netflix or the like -- options unavailable on the Peloton.
However, you can't use an Echelon bike with any third-party cycling apps -- not if you want real-time stats. For the moment, the bikes can pair only with the Echelon app. As noted, that app delivers a very Peloton-like experience, but also has roughly the same subscription rates.
To find out more, read my Echelon EX3 hands-on story from a few months ago.
NordicTrack's bike uses a mechanical shaft to simulate the inclines and declines of actual bike riding, so that when you're pedaling a virtual hill, it feels more like a hill. What's more, class instructors and virtual-ride leaders can remotely adjust your bike's incline and resistance levels, meaning you're not constantly futzing with controls.
That's pretty cool, and one reason the S15i stands out among the bikes in this roundup. However, while the flywheel itself is all but silent, the rest of the machinery gets loud every time there's an adjustment to your workout. Likewise, the built-in fan is noisy to the point of distraction, even on the lowest speed.
My bigger complaint is with the integrated iFit software, which provides access to a wide assortment of classes, virtual rides and off-bike workouts like HIIT and kickboxing, all via a 14-inch touchscreen. Unfortunately, it's marred by an aggravating interface. Scrolling is slow and jerky, and there's no way to sort or even search the content, which isn't categorized in any meaningful way. So if you wanted to find, say, a yoga class, you'd have to scroll-scroll-scroll down the list until you eventually found the yoga section. And the bike classes are all prerecorded; there aren't any live spin classes like with Echelon and Peloton.
At least the first year of iFit is free. After that, it would cost you $39 per month or $33 if prepaid annually. You don't have to use it, but there's nowhere on the bike to rest a tablet if you'd rather, say, watch Hulu.
The bike itself is comfortable to ride, easy to adjust and fairly attractive, save for the the chunky-looking arm-mounted screen. On the plus side, it can rotate for any off-bike classes you might want to take (though it can't tilt down, so it's hard to see during floor exercises).
Hardware and iFit issues aside, I really liked riding on virtual global roads and trails and letting instructors control the bike's incline and resistance. If that kind of exercise experience appeals to you, there's no better option than the S15i.
Nearly all the other bikes here have one thing in common: They effectively rope you into their ecosystems, requiring a membership to fully take advantage of the hardware. Not so the Bowflex C6 -- It can pair via Bluetooth to a variety of different exercise apps, including Peloton's. Add to that one of the lowest prices of any "connected" bike and you've got a serious contender.
The included assembly manual provides very little actual instruction; it's mostly just a few diagrams. Using these, I was able to assemble the bike in about 45 minutes, with only a few head-scratching moments along the way. But Bowflex really should include a printed version of the more complete manual that's available online. That guide also covers using the control panel, which is barely mentioned in the print version. Even then, there's not nearly enough instruction on Bluetooth pairing.
The C6 looks a little skinnier, and therefore less substantial, than bikes costing more, but it feels mostly sturdy while you're riding and makes virtually no noise. The pedals have toe cages, but can also be used with clip-in shoes. I did encounter one mechanical issue: My handlebar post wobbled just a bit, even after being fully tightened, though thankfully it didn't bother me while riding.
What did bother me was the tablet mount, which puts the screen at a very shallow angle and can't be adjusted. That mount sits just beyond the bike's control panel, which comes to life as soon as you start pedaling and displays six key metrics: time, calories, speed, distance, resistance level and pulse. Pulse readings come from an included rechargeable forearm monitor. Also included: a pair of 3-pound weights and two roomy water-bottle holders.
As noted above, the C6 works with a wide variety of third-party apps. I tried it with a few, including Peloton and Bowflex's own Explore the World. The latter takes you on virtual rides around the world, matching the video playback to your pedaling speed, but it's nowhere near as good as one called FulGaz. What's great, though, is you can try these and other apps to find whatever you like best.
That flexibility, coupled with the relatively low price of the machine itself, makes the C6 a great choice for the budget-minded biker.
A newcomer to the market, Myx Fitness has what appears to be a straight-up Peloton clone: A bike with a 21.5-inch screen and original, in-house fitness programming. However, the similarities end there: The Myx costs just $1,199, with a monthly membership fee of $29. So while it's not the least expensive option in the roundup, it may well offer the most bang for the buck.
I haven't yet had the chance to try the Myx, but a demo is in the works. So check back soon for some hands-on (make that feet-on) coverage.
As noted above, stay tuned for additional reviews as I'm able to test more bikes. In the meantime, if you've already pulled the trigger on one of these models yourself, hit the comments and share what you like or don't like!
Originally published last month.
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