How the Apple Watch could turn you into a serious cyclist in 2022
The Apple Watch is so much better for cyclists now, thanks to WatchOS 8. Let us count the ways.
Lexy SavvidesPrincipal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
ExpertiseWearables, smartwatches, mobile phones, photography, health tech, assistive roboticsCredentials
Apple gave its smartwatches some cool new cycling features in this year's WatchOS 8 update, and you don't have to buy an Apple Watch Series 7 to try them (though we do love its bigger screen and durable construction). The new features, which include automatic cycling detection, fall detection and better calorie tracking when you're riding an electric bike, could make it easier to stick to your bike-related New Year's resolutions. They'll probably also make bike riding even more enjoyable.
I've been using the bike features on the Apple Watch Series 6 and Series 7 for a while, and though I don't think the watch is ready to replace a dedicated cycling computer just yet, it's now way more helpful for casual riders to track their workouts. Here are some of the new bike features on the Apple Watch and why they've changed my riding experience.
Automatic cycling detection is great for forgetful cyclists like me
Sometimes, you just want to jump on your bike and go. I often forget to manually start workouts and when I finally get to my destination, I'm bummed that I won't be able to get credit for it. The Apple Watch can now detect when you start riding, then prompt to record your ride a few minutes later. While automatic workout detection has been around for runs, walks, swims, rows and elliptical workout types for a few years, cycling is now supported for outdoor rides on the Series 6, 7 and Apple Watch SE.
By analyzing your GPS data, readings from the accelerometer, gyroscope and your heart rate, the watch can now determine when you're riding. Plus, the magnetometer also works to detect the small sways that happen on a bike. Basically, it knows that you're cycling as opposed to watching a scary movie on the bus.
I've been surprised at how nuanced workout detection can be. Regardless of whether I'm on my regular bike or an electric bike, the watch always recognized when I forgot to start a workout. Sometimes, I've even tried to trick the watch by starting at the top of a hill and coasting downhill without pedaling. But, it still detected the ride and took just over 3 minutes to notify me with a haptic buzz or chime.
Another time, I was just about to confirm the auto-detected workout when another notification popped up on screen, which wiped out the workout prompt. Thinking I lost the option to get credit for everything I just did, I kept going and a few minutes later the prompt started again. To my surprise, I tapped confirm and it had kept recording in the background from the first prompt so I didn't lose any time or credit.
The only difficulty has been trying to press the screen to confirm I'm working out. When I'm riding, removing my hands from the handlebars might not be the best idea, especially while on a faster e-bike. Maybe a future update could let you use Siri to start the workout, hands-free, like you can if you're not relying on auto detection.
Automatic workout detection should be turned on by default but if not, go to Settings > Workout > Start Workout Reminder on either the watch or iPhone app. Note that this only works for outdoor rides, not for rides on stationary bikes.
The Apple Watch is not the only wearable that offers automatic workout detection. Some Garmin watches offer it through Move IQ; Fitbit has SmartTrack that detects activities like outdoor rides after 15 minutes; while older Samsung watches like the Galaxy Watch Active 2 and Watch 3 also have auto cycling detection. But oddly, the newer Galaxy Watch 4 doesn't support it.
Electric bike owners get better calorie tracking on Apple Watch
There's been a surge in electric bike ownership since the pandemic and the Apple Watch is supposed to give you more accurate calorie tracking when you're riding with assistance.
Again, using the GPS and heart rate data, the watch will detect when you're getting a boost from your electric bike. Say you're speeding up but your heart rate isn't rising proportionally, it's going to gather you're getting help from the bike, then your calorie rate is going to be awarded based on your heart rate. Note that there's no special e-bike workout type -- it's all counted under the outdoor cycle option.
To test it out, I had to set myself a challenge that would determine how much of a difference this new algorithm really makes in overall calorie count. I decided to ride exactly the same route on my regular bike, then rinse and repeat with a Zoomo Sport electric bike. But I didn't make it easy on myself, riding up some of San Francisco's notoriously steep streets with an elevation gain of over 440 feet. You can watch the full result in the video on this page, but the calorie count was lower on the electric bike than the workout done on my regular 18-speed bike.
Third-party apps can also plug into the new outdoor cycling algorithm to use the same electric bike calorie algorithm as the Apple Workout app.
Workout times aren't affected by stops thanks to auto pause and resume
Say you're commuting and you're making lots of different stops along the way like at traffic lights. All that time spent waiting for the light to go green can not only add to your overall workout time, but potentially affect stats like average speed. All Apple Watches from the Series 3 onward now have auto pause and auto resume for bike rides, but it might not be turned on by default.
Find it by going to Settings > Workout > Auto pause and turning the toggle on, either on the Watch itself or in the app on the iPhone. I found it took around two to four seconds for the watch to notice whether I stop or resume biking, pausing or continuing tracking respectively. Some third-party Apple Watch apps also have this feature, but it's now native to the Workout app.
Fall detection now knows if you come off your bike
If you're 55 and over, fall detection is turned on automatically. But if you're between the ages of 18 to 55, you can also have fall detection turned on for all the primary workout types -- that includes running, walking, cycling and so on. Just make sure you are updated to the latest version of WatchOS and have an Apple Watch Series 4 or later, then go to Settings > SOS > Fall Detection and turn it on for workouts, or at all times. If the watch detects you come off your bike and remain motionless, it will call emergency services and can alert your emergency contacts with your location.
Voice prompts can speak your cycling stats to you
This is one of those love it or hate it features. The Apple Watch can now give you audible cues when you hit certain workout milestones while riding, like when you hit a 5-kilometer or -mile split, average speed, when auto pause and resume occurs or when you close your activity rings. I found it was most useful when I was trying to beat my own personal time on my regular route, so I didn't have to glance down at my wrist to see my overall speed. You'll be able to hear the prompt from the watch's speaker, or in your Bluetooth earbuds or headphones if you have those connected. Just make sure that you don't leave the watch on silent mode like I did and wondered why I wasn't hearing anything for my first 5-kilometer split.
The Apple Watch makes a great cycling companion, but it could go even further
I'm a casual cyclist who bikes for recreation and exercise, so the Apple Watch works great for me to track my rides. I don't have to think about adding more gear like a dedicated heart-rate strap or tracking GPS separately because it's all on my wrist.
But more serious cyclists are probably not ready to trade in their bike computer just yet. Glancing down at your wrist to see your workout metrics, or even trying to press the screen with your other hand is still more difficult than checking a screen sitting on the handlebars. Maybe you want to add extra tools like a power meter or a cadence sensor which generally only work with cycling computers.
Then there's the question of battery life. The Series 7 will last up to seven hours with GPS for an outdoor workout, or six with GPS and LTE, which might not be enough for day-long mountain bike rides.
I'd also love to see Apple take its watch safety features one step further, offering a similar feature to Garmin's LiveTrack, where you can share a real-time location and route with your emergency contacts. Some third-party apps available on the Apple Watch, such as Strava, offer a similar feature. You can use the Find My app to share your current location, but it only works if your contacts are also using Apple devices.
Don't have an Apple Watch yet? Read our comparisons of the latest models so you can make your decision: