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Updated 1:51 PM EDT, Fri July 9, 2021
Smart bikes — indoor exercise equipment with a built-in screen to display and track cycling workouts — aren’t exactly cheap. So to help you decide which machine is the best investment for you, we spent several months clipped in, tapping back and turning up resistance on the five best bikes on the market. These three stood out the most:
Best smart exercise bike overall
The Peloton Bike+ came out on top (but honestly, just barely) due to its sturdy construction, variety of knowledgeable, inspiring instructors and many high-quality off-the-bike classes. It’s a great something-for-everyone buy.
Best smart exercise bike for music lovers
If you love to spin to the beat of the music, you’ll love SoulCycle the most. It’s better for out-of-the-saddle riding, and the instructors are incredibly magnetic, motivating, cultlike leaders in the best way possible.
Best smart exercise bike for scenic rides
The NordicTrack S22i bike’s workouts are addictive and efficient, and we were truly transported by the travel rides. Want to bike (with a trainer) up the slopes of Mount Fuji? Or through Patagonia with a life coach? This is your bike.
Peloton has been at it the longest and has had the most opportunity to optimize the category and the experience. The bike lives up to the hype and came out on top in our overall testing.
We appreciated how the bike seamlessly syncs with the Apple Watch, launching the “indoor cycle” workout tracker when you pair before a class, letting you know how hard you’re working throughout and then stopping when the class stops. (As of our testing, Peloton was the only bike that synced with the Apple Watch at this level, but we know it’s on a few of the other bikes’ road maps.)
We also loved how leaderboard-motivated riders can seemingly find a live riding pack every one to five minutes in the new “sessions” feature regardless of when the class first aired, and how you can really make sure you’re working as hard as the instructors want you to work with very clear resistance, output and cadence numbers.
Peloton, at press time, had just launched a “strive” score, which uses the readings from your heart rate monitor to deliver a score based on how much time you spend in each of the heart rate zones — the higher the zone, the more your score goes up. It’s a great way to compare your performance across workouts whether you’re on the bike or on the mat.
There were misses, but not many: In about 5% of our rides, the instructors would call a cadence or resistance range that wouldn’t reflect accurately on the display, or there would be an annoying delay in the readout, but for the most part it worked perfectly. (You can also select an “auto follow” feature where the instructor sets the resistance, but we didn’t love it.)
The ability to flip the screen around, set up a yoga mat and do off-bike workouts like barre, Pilates, yoga and meditation live or on demand with the same excellent instructors completes its category dominance. The “Works” Bike+ — the model we tested — is $2,795 and comes with 2-pound weights, shoes, a bike mat, a yoga mat and a resistance band, though it was a little annoying to have to skip over classes where the instructor was using a different kind of resistance band than what actually came with the bike, and/or heavier weights. In those cases, you’ll need to supply your own.
Peloton offers a ton of daily live rides, and any of those rides immediately then go on-demand so you can take them at your leisure later. Peloton also just started offering guided scenic rides, but other bikes were better at this. Another negative: You may have to wait to get your hands on a bike; although Peloton is working on the issue, shipping times are extremely lengthy.
The SoulCycle bike was by far the sturdiest of the bikes we tested. If getting out of the saddle a lot or doing the SoulCycle sway as you power up hills is your thing, this is your best bike match.
But even more impressively, the instructors here are next level. If you miss leaving your in-person spin class with tears of joy streaming down your face, having experienced a life epiphany, thanks to the driving beat and sage counsel of these aerobic leaders, then there will be no substitute for you.
SoulCycle classes are also all about riding to the beat of the music, which is a blessing and a curse. It’s the greatest motivator: You will certainly be pushed to stay at the right cadence, but alternatively you may feel like you can’t get your legs spinning fast enough. Like other bikes in our testing group, many rides are themed around a playlist, which you can preview before you ride, but only Soul Cycle is so focused on spinning to the music throughout the class. At the end of every session you’ll get a “beat match” score, which tells you how often you were successfully pedaling to the beat.
What’s a little more challenging on the SoulCycle bike than on our other two winners is getting the resistance right. Instructors will make requests for quarter-turns, or a “couple big turns” to the knob, but we were never sure we were hitting exactly what was being asked. Some people might not be bothered by this slight ambiguity, but it’s a thing.
You can also select a free ride option where you can stream Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video or your own music. Like the Peloton, you can ride live or on demand, and the SoulCycle bike also comes with hand weights.
We were not prepared to love this bike as much as we did. One of its biggest differentiators is that it auto adjusts resistance and incline as you ride in a way that naturally echoes the terrain you’re covering. Although Peloton offers an auto resistance option, the NordicTrack is the only bike to feature both auto resistance and auto incline. This means you don’t have to do a thing (except keep up) as you exercise. You know exactly how hard your trainer wants you to work at any given moment, and they’ll also call out RPMs or a cadence number so you know how fast you need to pedal.
The ride itself is smooth, and since the bike adjusts when the coach wants you to work harder (or you go up a hill) it really maximizes every second of your workout (no moments lost fiddling with knobs).
NordicTrack leverages the excellent iFit studios and trainers and, as a result, the other real superlative here is its coached scenic rides. Peloton and SoulCycle have versions of scenic rides too, but the NordicTrack is the clear leader in this category. Although Peloton is beginning to invest in trainer-led scenic rides, the vast majority of them are just you pedaling by yourself against a picturesque backdrop. Conversely, NordicTrack’s rides are the real deal. You’re out there following your trainer, a world-class cyclist/trainer (also on a bike), leading you through a gorgeous (and likely hilly) part of the world, from cobblestoned southern France to Moab, Utah, and every beautiful bike route in between. There’s nothing quite like learning about Tour de France etiquette while spinning on that exact stretch of road, or like whizzing by a little Argentinian pension as you bike through jaw-droppingly gorgeous Patagonia. New travel series get added weekly and include 10 to 20 different workouts depending on the destination.
Because you’re pedaling through real life, the class lengths are also slightly irregular in a “real” way — many are 22 minutes or 38 minutes instead of the round 30-, 45-minute durations of the competitors.
The NordicTrack also comes with 2-pound hand weights and a built-in fan trained on your f
Is Peloton worth it? We tested smart exercise bikes to find out
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