Dr Hutch: Are smartwatches now ruling our lives?

Cycling Weekly's columnist discuses the pleasures and pitfalls of owning something tracking every movement he makes in a day

Dr Hutch
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Last Christmas, Mrs. Doc gave me a smartwatch. As soon as I put it on, I started to notice all the other people with identical smartwatches and realised what we had in common: that our nearest and dearest had, at some point recently, been really stumped for what to buy us as a present.

I like it, though. I like getting notifications that save me feeling I ought to check my phone, I like being able to check the weather forecast constantly. And I both like and despise the activity tracking that is really the watch’s main selling point.

When I set the watch up, there were various optional targets for physical activity. I set all of these to the maximum suggested, while simultaneously muttering to myself that this watch was never going to know what had hit it.

The first activity goal is to do an hour of exercise a day. I’m continually confused by my watch claiming I’ve done five minutes exercise by 8 am, when I think my sum total for the day has been to drink tea and bitch about the government. (On one occasion while I was bitching about the government, the watch chimed in with, “Would you like me to play some relaxing music?” and came very close to an encounter with the reset-mallet.)

On the other hand, it’s very prone to asking, in an infuriatingly passive-aggressive tone, if I’m by any chance out for a bike ride, when what I’ve been doing for the previous hour is some of the most accomplished cycling it or any of its brethren will ever have encountered.

There is a calorie count. I picked the maximum option of 900 kcal a day, while also dismissing that as infantile. It takes its revenge by being very stingy. It deducts about 30% when compared to a powermeter. Unlike the exercise monitor, it doesn’t unexpectedly give you bonuses. It never randomly decides that watching The Repair Shop burned 200 kcal.

ACTS OF CYCLING STUPIDITY

 An account reaches me of a team time trial, at Loxwood in Surrey. One team featured none other than this magazine’s editor. And it was his team that picked up a puncture, on the machine of their strongest rider.

They elected to stop so that he could take a wheel from a weaker rider, before the remaining three continued to the finish.

It was only several hours later that one of the team thought, “You know what? I wonder whatever happened to Geoff after we took his wheel?”

This nagged at him for a while, before he went back to look. Geoff was still where he’d been abandoned. He was quite annoyed.

The final insult is the interface, which is designed to be appealing and user-friendly. I, on the other hand, am an athlete. I prefer difficult infinitely configurable graphs, metrics and spreadsheets that extend to the horizon in all four directions. After all, how do you find self-deluding excuses in a simple circle that just fills itself in when you’ve hit your target?

I don’t want a buzz at my wrist, a tiny picture of some fireworks, and the congratulations of an American corporate behemoth on my bike ride. I don’t want told 3 rides in six days is impressive. And I don’t want my wrist to announce, “Great Job, Michael!” under any circumstances.

Apart from all that, there are things that are genuinely wrong with it as a training tracker. It takes almost no account of exercise intensity, and it regards a recovery day as a sign of weakness and tells you off for it. I’ve learned to use the good bits and ignore the rest, but you do need to know a little about it all.

All of that is in worrying contrast to how I use its sleep tracker. Unlike training and exercise, I know next to nothing about the intricacies of sleep. So on the subject of a good night’s sleep I regard the watch as the Voice of God.

If it tells me I slept well, I’m happy. If it says I slept badly, I’m sad. If it tells me to go to bed I go to bed, and I’ve handed over control of my morning alarm entirely to an algorithm dreamed up by some dude in California. And I’ve found I don’t really mind that at all.

I spend a lot of my time these days wondering if I’d be happier all round if I just gave the watch what it wants and submitted on all fronts. It would be a lot easier.

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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine


As a writer, he wrote the award winning The Hour about his attempt on the sport’s most famous and sought-after record. He followed that up with Faster, about the training, the science the genetics and the luck behind the world’s fastest riders, and Re:Cyclists, a history of cyclists from 1816 to the present day.


He’s written for outlets ranging from Cycling Weekly to the New York Times, and has presented and and commentated for the BBC, Eurosport, Channel 4, and Sky Sports.


Before he did any of that he was a legal academic at Cambridge and Sussex universities. He now lives with far too many bicycles in London and Cambridgeshire.