To say the pandemic threw off my exercise routine would be an understatement. I was a gym regular who thrived on treadmills and weight machines, and I suddenly had to improvise with pushups and runs. I struggled to maintain a routine, and for a while gave up entirely. How was I going to stay fit at a time when merely ordering dumbbells was a challenge? Late last year, though, I resolved to get back into shape and bought a $397 Echelon Connect Sport exercise bike ($599 here in Canada) to use in tandem with an $80-per-year Apple Fitness+ membership. I haven’t regretted it.
The math behind my decision was simple: I wanted a quality bike that wouldn’t tie me to one service or empty my bank account in record fashion. That quickly ruled out Peloton, whose Bike ($1,495 as I write this) and full subscription ($39 per month) were overkill for someone who mainly wanted to shake off some cobwebs. The Connect Sport was appealing precisely because it didn’t chain me to anything; I could put my phone on the built-in stand and use a lower-priced service like Fitness+ to guide my workouts. I was poised to save hundreds of dollars per year, even if I had to buy the virtually mandatory Apple Watch. (I already own a Series 5.) An iPhone is also required, of course.
Yes, the Connect Sport amounts to a Peloton Bike doppelgänger without the screen, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Echelon’s machine feels solidly built, and it’s stable even in the midst of an intense workout. The flywheel-based mechanism is also remarkably quiet. Apart from a clacking sound that disappeared after the first three weeks, the loudest noise I’ve heard was my own breathing. The handlebars and seating are highly adjustable, and the pedals use cages to keep your feet in place (thus letting you use ordinary shoes) instead of clips. This is a bike that’s easy to live with, letting me concentrate on the task at hand rather than my equipment.
The quirks mostly stem from the inherent nature of full-size spin bikes like this. The Connect Sport isn’t as compact as some alternatives, particularly folding models like Echelon’s own Flex Ultra. At 92 pounds, it’s also too heavy to casually move between rooms. And while you don’t need electricity unless you intend to use the built-in Bluetooth telemetry, the included power cord isn’t lengthy. I wouldn’t choose this bike if I was a space-conscious apartment dweller.
I’m happy with its Apple Fitness+ performance, though. To start a cycling workout, I just need to put my iPhone on the stand, launch the Fitness app and go. The exercise data I care about (heart rate, calories burned, duration) comes from the Apple Watch, so I don’t even need the Connect Sport’s Bluetooth functionality. I would only want to plug the bike into power if I craved the Echelon Fit app’s cadence and resistance info, which aren’t necessary with Apple’s service. Just be prepared to buy a tablet if you plan to use Echelon’s app (in its open-ended “free ride” mode) and Fitness+ at the same time, as you can’t juggle both on one screen.
Fitness+ works about as well as it did when Engadget tried it on launch, but that’s plenty for someone getting back into shape on the Connect Sport. Apple’s cycling coaches are friendly, helpful and accommodate a wide range of ability levels. Instead of demanding precise cadence and resistance ranges like you might see with some services, they frequently ask you to match a song’s beat or tweak the resistance to feel enough leg strain. That may be too fuzzy if you’re eager for consistent numbers, but for me it’s perfect: I’m measuring progress in terms of how well I can sustain an all-out push, not how closely I mimic someone else’s settings. The bike’s resistance knob is easy to adjust, so it’s trivial to ramp up the difficulty if a ride is too much of a cakewalk.
I’ve found Apple’s cycling workouts challenging enough as someone relatively new to spin bikes while still well-acquainted with structured exercise. For one, there’s a healthy variety of classes now that Fitness+ has been available for over a year. Many of them rely on a familiar hill climb metaphor that alternates between intense pushes and easy recoveries, but I’ve sometimes encountered welcome twists, like rides that get progressively harder without significant breaks. While these classes likely wouldn’t push a pro athlete or dedicated amateur to their limits, they’ve gracefully scaled with me as my abilities improved.
More importantly, the sessions are engaging. I find myself picking workouts based on well-chosen music with some surprisingly deep cuts. Ever rally to nostalgia-inducing late ‘90s dance tracks, or a coach’s favorite heavy metal band? I have. And while the inspirational talk is borderline cliché, the personalities often shine through and help me look forward to classes from my favorite instructors. I just wish there were more episodes suiting my exact music tastes. It’s no fun to “settle” for a rock workout when I really hoped for dance, no matter how thrash-worthy that rock might be.
As a result, the combination of a Connect Sport with Fitness+ works very well for me. Exercise is a pleasure I look forward to, and I’ve seen tangible improvements to my leg power and even my posture. I wouldn’t recommend the pairing to everyone, though. As you might have guessed, Fitness+ is a no-go if you’re either an Android user or seriously considering a switch. You’re thoroughly locked into Apple’s ecosystem if you sign up between the iPhone, Apple Watch and subscription. I would also pass if I were a pro or serious amateur racer — you just won’t get the detailed stats needed for targeted improvements. Spring for a dedicated sports watch and a more demanding membership instead.
If you do live in Apple’s universe and aren’t competing for glory, though, this duo is easy to recommend. It’s an affordable, effective way to cram some cycling into a packed schedule. Moreover, Echelon’s bring-your-own-device strategy offers a convenient escape hatch if you ever want to ditch a service without replacing your bike or rigging an ad hoc solution. For me, the results speak for themselves: I’m in the best shape I’ve been for two years, and I can’t ask for much better than that.