Tim Cook had me at hello.
Advanced word had already spread that the Apple Watch was trying to be the ultimate fitness tracker before the big reveal last September, but when Cook started showing that gorgeous video during his presentation that included a cyclist wearing the tech giant’s newest device while bombing down a winding coastal highway at dusk, I knew I had to have one. As a cyclist and a regular bike commuter, I’ve been searching for a device that I could wear every day that would account for the miles I pedal. Over the past year I’ve toyed with UPs, Shines, and Activités, but according to the data recorded on those devices, I’m slightly more active than a sloth even though I average about 16 miles per day on a bike, burning over 800 calories. I needed a device that could record my miles (as well as steps) and give me an accurate picture of my daily fitness routine. From every indication, the Apple Watch was that device. And after a month of testing, I can confidently say it is — sort of.
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In my dreams, the Watch was going to sit on my wrist like the beautiful piece of tech it is, while quietly compiling all my activity — including rides — in the background. That didn’t seem like too much of a fantasy. After all, my iPhone 6 appears to know exactly how many steps I take each day, even how many flights of stairs I walk up, without me ever having to tell it I’m on the move. But in reality, any “workout” you want to log with the Apple Watch has to be initiated with the Workout app. It’s simple to find from the Watch home screen, and sure enough, “Outdoor Cycle” is one of the preset choices. You can set a goal (time, distance, calories), or choose “open cycle” so the Watch just tracks your ride — this is what I do most days when I’m commuting. On the road, a quick glance at my wrist allows me to check my distance, time, calories, speed, and even heart rate as I pedal. Best of all, when you’re done (or after you push on the face of the Watch to tell it when you’re done), those metrics are recorded and immediately transferred to Apple’s Activity app, which logs your progress in three categories: Move, Exercise, and Stand.
The problem is that Apple’s Workout app is pretty basic, and although those few cycling metrics are key, you’re never going to get a very nuanced picture of your ride. I was most surprised that there was no location tracking, and therefore no record of altitude gains and losses. That doesn’t seem hard to achieve because your iPhone, with a very capable GPS, is in your pocket anyway. Seeing a map showing your route, as well as the miles traveled, is always a plus for cyclists after any ride. Additionally, the data the Watch does record is kind of buried in the Activity app once it’s stored there. You can find individual rides by going back to that particular day, but it does not show how you’re riding during a week-long period or over the month. Basically what was missing from logging rides with the Watch’s Workout app was the experience you get from using Strava.
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Fortunately, Strava was one of the first fitness-related app maker’s to announce they were readying a Watch version of the app for the device’s launch. Unfortunately, that app does little more than provide a way to start recording your ride from your wrist — and it doesn’t even do that particularly well. The first version of the Strava Watch app required that you open the app on your phone first, and while the second version was supposed to fix this bug, it only works intermittently. I find that most of the time I still have to take my phone out, and then I don’t really need Strava on my Watch at all. During a ride, you can use it to see the basic speed/distance info, but it’s no better than the Workout app. And my biggest issue with Strava on the Watch is that (at this point) it does not integrate with Apple’s Activity app. In other words, if I use Strava to record rides, I’m stuck with the same old problem of not getting “credit” for those rides toward my fitness goals.
What does this all mean? Like the Watch itself, the cycling tracking is definitely a work in progress. Do I wear my Apple Watch every day and record my rides, getting a fairly accurate picture of my daily fitness? Yup. Do I enjoy a quick glance at my wrist to check on my mileage and speed? Of course. And do I especially love the ability to take a quick call or glance at a text as I’m riding? Definitely. So while the Apple Watch is probably not the ultimate fitness tracker for all cyclists (namely those who are serious about using it as a tool to track metrics, compare performance on particular segments and improve their overall riding), it’s definitely the ultimate fitness tracker for me.