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With watchOS 8, Apple takes its first serious step into outdoor cycling fitness

By Aaron Yip - 23 Sep 2021

WatchOS 8 brings updated functionalities for cyclists

When Apple revealed at its California Streaming event that its watchOS 8 update (available now) would bring with it some major quality of life upgrades for its Outdoor Cycle workout, cyclists like me sat up. Up until now, tracking features on the Apple watches for cycling have been pretty limited - functions like auto-pause and ride detection that most of us cyclists take for granted on our Garmin or Wahoo computers are absent. But watchOS 8 will change all of these and then some.

That Apple showed and focused on a mountain biker during the presentation is a watershed moment for cyclists using an Apple Watch. It’s possibly the only major fitness segment that the company hasn’t quite dominate like it did with other mainstream fitness areas like jogging and yoga. With cycling facing its biggest “bike boom” during the pandemic (be prepared to wait for months if you’re looking to get a foldie or a roadbike now), it’s timely for Apple to jazz up the latest watchOS with sensible cycling functions that meet the demands of cyclists.

“With watchOS 8, we just wanted to do more to improve the experience,” Julz Arney, Director of Apple’s Fitness for Health Technologies told me over a video call. “And this year just felt like the right time to pull together features that not just people who might consider themselves as pro cyclists, but also everyone who rides a bike could enjoy.”

Essentially, watchOS 8 turns your Apple Watch into a cycling computer of sort with the improved Outdoor Cycling workout. Now it can automatically detect when you begin cycling outside and remind you to start a workout based on advanced algorithms that analyse data from the watch’s sensors – the GPS, heart rate, accelerometer and gyroscope – to understand when you're riding a bike. To prevent false starts (and Strava cheats), it also recognizes an elevated heart rate due to pedaling, which can help the watch distinguish whether you're truly riding a bike or traveling in a slow-moving car.

Julz also revealed that the watch’s magnetometer, which is basically the compass, helps detect any change in orientation as well. This detects subtle swaying, a natural cycling movement, and helps to confirm that you’re riding a bicycle before sending an outdoor cycling workout reminder.

Then there’s self-explanatory auto pause and resume feature – a blessing for OCD cyclists who must constantly pause their workout and watch out for traffic at the same time. It’s not ground-breaking, to be certain but it’s a handy feature for anyone who bikes in dense cities like Singapore.  

But perhaps the most critical update is the improved fall detection.

Apple introduced fall detection three years ago for their watches and it quickly became an impactful feature for many users, especially the elderlies. With the new update, the Apple Watch will now be able to recognise the unique motion and impact of falls from a bike, in a bid to keep users safe when out on the roads. 

“We realized that falls can be incredibly detrimental not just in everyday activity, but also and maybe especially when you're being active while exercising. When you're on your bike, whether you take a turn too tightly, hit something on the road, or perhaps forgetting to unclip at a traffic stop, falls from cycling are no small thing,” said Julz. “So, we've updated fall detection for cycling by optimising and tuning the algorithms to recognize that unique motion and impact of falls from a bike.”

To do this, Apple conducted extensive studies to validate the motion and impact of falls that happened during an outdoor cycling workout. So, just like how fall detection has always worked, a hard fall alert is sound off to a user’s Apple Watch following a significant impact, and you can either dismiss it, or initiate a call to emergency services right from the notification. If Apple Watch detects that you're not moving, and you can't communicate with emergency services, it plays an audio message when the call connects, so you can be sure to get help. A real lifesaver should the unthinkable happen. 

The best part of it all is that you don’t even need the announced but yet-to-be-launched Apple Watch Series 7. While watchOS 8 will require an iPhone 6S or later, and running on iOS 14, it will be compatible with all Apple watches, including the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch SE, although fall detection is only supported from Apple Watch Series 4 onwards.

That said, watchOS 8 is still not ready to replace your Garmin or Wahoo cycling computer – yet. Apple Watch cannot measure other key readings, such as cadence and power. Julz explained to me that the company have heard from a lot of customers, mostly customers who consider themselves a pro level or pro recreational level that they would love for their additional sensors such as a cadence meter or a power meter, or even their head mount, connect directly to Apple Watch.

“They have asked if, you know, we would open up the Bluetooth profiles in order to do that. We don't have anything to announce around that right now. But it's exciting that so many cyclists are motivated by their Apple Watch and we hope that this will just be the beginning of what we could do for people who love to ride their bike,” Julz said, as we finished off our video call.

Apple watchOS 8 is available as an update now.

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