Apple Watch Ultra for cyclists: is it worth it?

A couple of months ago, I decided to get the new Apple Watch Ultra. I already had a couple of earlier versions of the Apple Watch (since the launch of the original Apple Watch). Though I love(d) the Apple Watch, there were some serious downsides, especially when using it in endurance sports.

The Apple Watch Ultra is specifically positioned towards endurance sports and those that go beyond the limits to explore the world. This comes with some excellent features, of which the longer battery life is the most important.

My overall opinion

The Apple Watch Ultra in perspective on a desk.

The Apple Watch Ultra is a giant leap forward. The Apple Watch was a singular invention, but it has always been more of a design object. Though health and sports have been a part of it, the Apple Watch was mostly fragile at some points and did not live up to the expectations of those actively engaging in sports. By shifting focus and thinking from the perspective of their sports audience (or probably those currently not using the Apple Watch for these reasons), they have launched a product that was not only aesthetically superior but also functionally moved up the ranks.

The positioning was also nicely picked. I guess that they deliberately chose ultra sports and endurance, not only because other sports mainly had enough support from the original Apple Watch (hence the Apple Watch Nike, which doesn’t exist anymore — the bands and watch faces exclusively built for the Nike version are now available to every watch), but it allowed them to market and position the watch as such. The downside of choosing an ultra sports, adventure and endurance angle is that this audience is very well aware of the tech, obsessed with numbers and data and is very picky on their material.

In that way, I don’t think they quite nailed the Apple Watch Ultra yet. It’s a superior smartwatch, but entering a strongly competing world, they have only figured out a piece of it.

What about those that go sailing across the ocean, those that fly across the continent in a glider plane, and those that cycle through mountain ranges?

The basic functionalities are there, but some functions are missing. This either warrants a competitive product or puts you backwards another couple hundred because you still have to buy additional equipment.

This comes down to ecosystem thinking (not necessarily to native support by the apps). While the Mac, iPhone and iPad are excellent examples of what an ecosystem can do, the Apple Watch has not been able to operate at the same level. In my view, this is due to the strict requirements around the Apple Watch, the lack of integration (see further), and the lack of Apple weighing in on the development of apps with partners as they’ve done in the early days of the iPhone, the iPad and even the Mac (though the Oceanic+ app was nice). It makes the Apple Watch less attractive for those developers whose primary focus is their trade (sports) and who often lack a team to get an app up and running.

If Apple wants to break into this part of the market, starting to think in an ecosystem again and frameworks to support craft people rather than developers might be the right way. I am pretty happy with the functionality of the Apple Watch Ultra, but I expect more. And that will probably come now that Apple has seen the Apple Watch Ultra's success.

Now on to some of the more details.

Look and feel

The Apple Watch Ultra in perspective on Joeri's wrist.

The most noticeable thing is probably the look and feel of the Apple Watch Ultra. You can still recognise the normal Apple Watch form factor. However, it’s beefed up. Not in a way that they just added stuff. They thought it through functionally and aesthetically. The design component is still important, but they also considered functionality much more.

The Apple Watch Ultra reminds me of those luxury watches originally designed as functional watches for diving, aviation, sailing and submarines. For the aficionados, think Panerai, Breitling, Bell&Ross, etc.

It’s significantly larger than the original Apple Watch. To compare it: imagine the extruded screen comes on top of the original form factor. The extrusion on the right with the digital crown and button doesn’t feel that much. I like the extrusion on the right because it makes manipulating the watch in action much easier.

Contrary to how it may look (and often the case with luxury watches), it’s not heavy. Actually, it’s very comfortable and light. This is due to the material choices (titanium and ceramic). I haven’t had any hard encounters yet with my watch, so I can’t say much about its effectiveness against scratches and dents. Yet.

In the end, I’m a fan of the design.


So what about the bands? They surprised me with the bands. Especially the Alpine Loop band. They complement the watch. The only downside is the colours. The colours are quite limited, especially compared to the other watch models.  I didn’t like the orange version much as I expected.

The Ocean band is probably my second favourite. However, I would have loved it to be wider. It’s considerably smaller than the other two bands (which also have a titanium end).

You can also use the bands from the other models, which are relatively smaller. They fit, but given that they are smaller than the Alpine Loop and Trail bands, it doesn’t favour the big size of the Apple Watch.

I do miss an Ultra interpretation of a leather band. The only leather bands available are the Leather link bands (or go third party but they usually don't match the titanium case). They are smaller, but I’ve had issues with the strength of the magnets, so I’m worried about the band's strength compared to the watch’s use. And finally, since these bands contain a lot of magnets, it puts the compass off…

Finally, the Trail band. It’s good, really good, but it’s purely for exercise. It’s functional, but I don’t like how it looks so I only use it during a workout. It's light though and easily adjustable. It's probably the most functional band Apple has come up with.

Battery life

I’m mainly into endurance sports, specifically cycling. I do some crosstraining and running as well. I also like water sports in the summer, such as surfing, windsurfing, etc.

I love the long rides, to go out and explore and seek adventure. I’m not at the top when it comes to hours in the saddle (with my average of 4-8 hours per week, I’m somewhat on the lower end). Nevertheless, I do love to push my boundaries. This year on my agenda: the Tour of Flanders cyclo (177 km — as I’m from Antwerp and this year’s start is in Bruges, I’m postponing the full distance for a year) and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège challenge (255 km).

Is the Apple Watch Ultra the perfect companion for these rides?

Last year, I rode the Paris-Roubaix challenge (145 km) and had my Apple Watch Series 7 with me. I don’t track my workouts on my Apple watch as I rely on my bike computer for that (coming back on this point). The Apple Watch only lasted to get back to the hotel, after which the battery was completely drained. I’ve had this with other longer rides as well. Even though I’m not tracking my workouts (and I ask the watch not to remind me about working out), wearing the watch on endurance rides kills the battery. I do use my Apple Watch for additional information during the ride. Altitude, direction, hourly weather forecast and wind direction. It helps to know if the next 25 km will be bashing against the wind. Until now, the Apple Watch Ultra battery has lasted very well. When wearing it and actively using the watch (something I did not do with the previous versions), I get more than the advertised 48 hours. The battery holds up pretty well during long endurance rides, even though I’m using the Wayfinder face (which has a live compass).

Conclusion: longer battery while I’m more actively using the Apple Watch. So the battery is convincing to get one.


Apple has improved the controls on the Apple Watch Ultra, so it’s easier to use in ‘ultra’ circumstances, e.g. when using gloves, underwater,… In addition, they added the customisable action button.

I had no issues using the controls while working out and even wearing gloves. Though the experience is not always that smooth.

I found that the experience is not smooth when scrolling during a workout. When I turn the digital crow, I skip a screen quickly. That’s a software issue though… The current experience takes too much ‘effort’ to scroll one page further.

What I also noticed, with the other Apple Watches and still do with the Apple Watch Ultra, the unintentional use of the screen or buttons. Many have already complained about the touchscreen invoking unintended touches (or not functioning correctly) because of sweat. On top of that, I also encountered unintended button presses. If you’re cycling in the winter, the watch is under your jacket or jersey with your gloves. I’ve had a couple of these unintended button pushes thanks to my gloves or my jersey, calling emergency services or activating the emergency siren… So I often use the water lock function to avoid this, which makes the watch inoperable. The solution is not necessarily in the hardware but in how they consider operation through (customisable) software since it will vary on the sport and the conditions of use.

I do like that action button. But I’m afraid it will have the same history as the touch bar. The current use is too limited, and the button is not intelligent. If Apple doesn’t fix this, it will only serve as an additional system button or die, like the touch bar. A lot of potential is left on the table, and I hope Apple will also see that potential.


The screen is just marvellous. I never had issues with the previous Apple Watch versions’ screen size. However, this screen is next level. The brightness (2000 nits instead of 1000 nits) helps in bright light. It also helps when using it as a flashlight.

One thing endurance athletes all have encountered is running out of light. Whether it’s on a ride or when you need to fix something in the dark (garage lights with timers are horrible when fixing a bike). There are many situations where having a backup light is welcome.

I did need to get used to the flat screen, whereas the regular Apple Watches have a curved screen. This is a difference with mainly an impact on the watch faces. Some watch faces were lovely on the curved screen, others not. I found that it is almost the opposite of the flat screen of the Apple Watch. It makes me re-use other watch faces I stopped using because I didn’t like how they wrapped around the screen (more on watch faces later).

Another new introduction is night mode. It allows turning the dial on the Wayfinder face to transition the screen into a red mono-colour interface. It makes using the watch in the dark much easier on the eyes. I wished I could also use this overall function in other watch faces. Similarly, being able to turn the watch face on night mode automatically would have been a killer move.

Water resistance

Though water resistance isn’t immediately something you would associate with cycling, I think it’s still an important function. Contrary to what the pictures on social media love to imply, it’s not always sunny weather when we go out for a long ride. Gravel riding is much more fun in the off-season. This also means rain, rain and a lot of rain. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the Tour of Flanders Cyclo, which rained all day. A smartwatch equipped to deal with harsh rainy conditions helps. The Ultra being approved for diving gives me the confidence to get through those rainy conditions. Previously I was always a bit wary about that.

On top of that, many cyclists like to get everything out of the summer months. This means a lot of very warm days, often during holidays with the family. Water sports are very welcoming in between. So having a watch which deals very well on and underwater is a nice plus. The automatic diving app is nice and switches on and off very neatly. I haven’t tried it for actual diving though.

Is it all positive then?

After several months of using and experimenting in many situations and various use cases, I can say it’s the best Apple Watch ever. But that doesn’t mean Apple fully nailed it yet. At least not for cyclists.

Here are some thoughts about where I felt the Apple Watch Ultra didn’t meet my expectations.

Overall UI

I like how Apple has revamped the Apple Watch Ultra’s UI elements with a different font and distinct colours. It matches a more ultra-style. However, they haven’t done this consistently through the UI. Selecting the Ultra’s font in other watch faces or as the default font in apps would have been nice. Similarly with the colours. There’s some uniqueness to it. Imagine how cool the Modular and Numbers watch faces would be with an Ultra look.

Ultra watch faces

This brings me to the next topic where I felt underwhelmed. The Wayfinder watch face is great. But it’s another reinterpretation of traditional watch faces. There are plenty of those in watchOS. I would have liked Apple to do something more extensive with the Ultra, thinking about more modular and modern reinventions of watch faces, using the benefits of the larger screen (rather than displaying everything larger). A more modular Wayfinder or watch faces around specific uses (e.g. with a map or the orienteering view of the compass) or complications specifically for sports and adventure (life wind direction vs heading is one that I would love to have as a cyclist).

Another option that would benefit using the Ultra in (ultra-)endurance is the full integration of the workout app in a watch face. If you’re working out, returning to the workout app is the default response. It’s fine if you’re doing a short run. But it's not the best view when you’re doing longer distances and long hours in a workout. You miss out on other data that might be useful such as live weather data or routes. Being able to see all of this in a customisable watch face as an alternative (or maybe as a specific page in the workout) would be nice.

Finally, having a blackout mode, similar to night mode, would have been awesome. Some watch faces approach this very closely such as the Unity face when you choose black as the watch face colour. It may help to reduce battery usage but it also is less distracting.


Apple has somehow popularised health through the Apple Watch and the Apple Health app. It tracks so many things and already provides many insights and trends. Given that the basis is in there, I found it strange that they didn’t focus more on the metrics that ultrasporters and adventurers tend to use to track their health and performance, similar to what Garmin already does.

To give an example: the Apple Watch tracks heart rate, HRV, sleep and workout data (duration, calorie usage, heart rate zones,…). That combination is the basis for providing insights into recovery and readiness. Many competitors out there do it: Garmin, Whoop, Oura,… The fact that Apple already has extensive access to this data and has a solid record of accurately using that data to provide insight, would have been an easy gain (don’t forget besides health and medical experts, Apple works extensively with exercise and sports experts for Apple Fitness+). There are some apps out there that do the same thing, but they lack accuracy and insight.

To avoid driving too much of a gap between the Apple Watch versions, they could have made this accessible as part of watchOS rather than the Apple Watch UItra. They did the same with the compass app and the backtrack functionality.

Finally, Apple added a way of tracking body temperature in the latest Apple Watches (this is not a functionality limited to the Ultra). Body temperature is an important metric during training and competition, and adjusting for rising body temperature is important. The downside: these sensors are super expensive. Having one of these in your Apple watch makes this much more accessible. Unfortunately, Apple only tracks body temperature during sleep. I hope Apple will expand this to other use cases with the following watchOS release.

Integration and ecosystem

If one thing has disappointed me for years, it’s integration and the larger ecosystem. I remember when the first app store was launched on the iPhone. For years, apple collaborated closely with developers to bring cutting-edge apps to the iPhone, iPad and Mac. Every keynote included well-known and new developers, that pushed new devices or software to the edge. Somehow the Apple Watch has never reached that level.

The Ultra did include 1 developer: Oceanic. They helped to build a dive computer for the Apple Watch. That’s cool. But then I immediately felt even more disappointed. Why would you work with a developer to create a dive computer and not with others? Especially for cycling. There’s so much gear in cycling that the Apple Watch will never be able to replace: power meters, cadence, and hill predictions. Turn-by-turn navigation is much easier on a mounted GPS, compared to watching your Apple Watch (I would not suggest operating your Watch during cycling, it’s dangerous). Heart rate monitoring isn’t very accurate because of your hand position and sweat. So I always use an external heart rate monitor. So reaching out to developers would have made sense right?

Then it dawned on me: they don’t need to integrate externally or link it to another ecosystem.

Somehow Apple has been living very isolated compared to other devices like a Garmin watch, which can easily replace your mounted computer. In some disciplines when you don’t need one for your routes or want to pay attention to other metrics, like cyclocross, they only use a Garmin watch to track everything.

It will probably be the number 1 reason to prevent many users of competitor products from switching to an Apple Watch (even though these people all use an iPhone, iPad and Mac). As long as Apple doesn’t snap into the reality that a lot of sports besides running, climbing, hiking and diving, require to integrate with other equipment, they will always be a niche product for those that prefer the interaction model of an Apple Watch over those of other products or are very keen on integrating with the rest of Apple’s iOS ecosystem. Admittedly, they have Gymkit. But I’ve been in gyms where they have devices that should support Gymkit and I never got it to work… It’s also not that difficult. A lot of sports equipment uses Bluetooth and supports ANT+. It’s more of Apple willing to include others in its ecosystem. Even considering the business value of those added data points would make the case for opening up. It reminds me of the “There’s an app for that” commercials.

Alternative sports

I already hinted at this in the earlier parts of this article, but I’m missing the connection to other sports than running, hiking and diving. Cycling is one of them but the first ones that came up were flying and sailing. Some people fly thousands of miles (or kilometres) with gliders and others sail across the ocean alone. Many other sports out there are extreme and have the same audience size as those that run ultra-endurance races through a desert.

But you have to start somewhere, and running and hiking are easy to connect with other people. It’s easier to see how you relate to an ultra-endurance runner when you jog every day than people dry on land figuring out what it would be like to glide a plane over mountains in Switzerland. I hope that in the next iteration of the Apple Watch Ultra, Apple will be more mindful of the potential of the Watch in other sports. Considering those pushing the boundaries daily, just not on their feet or under the water.


Joeri on his bike riding over the finish line of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège cyclo.
Proudly wearing my Apple Watch Ultra during the Liège-Bastogne-Liège Cyclo.

The Apple Watch Ultra is a great new direction for the Apple Watch and a huge step in the direction of those that frequently engage in endurance or adventurous sports. Though Apple went to great lengths to add functionality, there’s still a gap to bridge between the competition such as Garmin, Wahoo, and others.

I think it won’t take Apple that long to figure this out. They probably have started with the easiest sports (running, hiking and diving) to see the device's traction first. Rumours of an iPhone Ultra probably confirmed Apple should continue in this direction. I guess the 2nd version of the Apple Watch Ultra would add a lot of new functionality (maybe even a new watchOS and we don’t have to upgrade our watches).

Would I buy the Apple Watch Ultra again? Yes, I think so. If only because comparable competitor watches are more expensive than the Apple Watch Ultra (or you’d have to settle for a less functional version). Especially in my case, I was already using an Apple Watch (since the first version was released). As I am not sponsored and found some apps that can provide similar functionality to those I’m missing natively, it was a solid upgrade compared to my previous Apple Watch.

Can I recommend the Apple Watch Ultra for cyclists? Yes and no. If you’re in my case and already have an Apple Watch, most likely. I wouldn’t immediately see a reason to upgrade to the competitors unless you want to ditch your current Garmin or Wahoo bike computer (since the Ultra doesn’t do that). Another reason may be if you rely on specific metrics that Apple doesn’t support yet (however, there are apps out there that provide similar insights). However, if you already have a Garmin or Wahoo, I don’t see a reason to switch now unless you are looking for better interaction or more tight integration with the Apple ecosystem (e.g. because you use it not only for sports). I would keep an eye on the upcoming watchOS in June and the next version, probably released in the fall of this year. That may change a lot.

As a final note, I think what Apple is really good at is re-thinking what the tools are that athletes may need and how the watch adds value. They've been doing this for the past years. The Apple Watch Ultra tries to do this in some parts, but is a more careful approach. I hope that next iteration takes that a step further as well.