Trying to decide which is the best road bike computer for you is a bit of a challenge as there are so many options out there. It’s one of those decisions that could leave you scouring the internet for weeks looking for information and reading reviews before you finally go for it. Often I find that when I do that I just come back to the first thing that I saw anyway but it’s good to feel as though you have explored all the other avenues as well!
I’ve just gone through this process myself as, if you have been reading my blog regularly over the last few weeks, you will know that I had my bike (complete with bike computer) stolen not so long ago. I’ve now finally decided (I think!) on which is the best new bike computer for me but it’s been a bit of a journey to say the least!
Hopefully this post will save you some research time and give you some new nuggets of information that will help you on your cycle computer journey!
Do I Need a Road Bike Computer?
First off let’s just think about if you actually really need a bike computer in the first place. Because all “proper cyclists” have one and they look cool of course! Well possibly but do you actually really need one?
I cycled with a basic computer for quite a long time, it just recored time, average speed and distance and obviously showed how fast I was going. After my bike was stolen I cycled without a computer for a bit and at first it felt a bit strange not watching the minutes tick by and not berating myself for being lazy and going too slowly! I also didn’t really know what the time was whilst I was cycling, I didn’t know how far I had been or what my current average was and it was……well….kind of liberating after a while. I started thinking about other things and enjoying my cycling in a slightly different way.
Maybe we are a bit too obsessed with recording our every move, putting numbers to our performance and catagorising every ride? Everything these days has to be done in public and put on line, compared and computed………ahhh, for the days when you could just cycle fancy free without a care in the world or a notion about a Strava segment…….
However, after a reasonably short space of time I came back to my senses and also the 21st century and started craving some hard core cycling data again baby.
And in a big bad way. I desired something more technical than my previous computer yet, being of a strange tight fisted predisposition, I wanted lots of computing power for as little money as possible.
Enter drum roll………….the seduction of Andrew by road cycling apps!
Using your phone as a cycling computer
I have a relatively new and nice phone with lots of giga cores and bitty bytes of ramming memory so surely this “computer in my pocket” will make an awesome bike computer?
There seems to be several advantages to this. Firstly I don’t have to spend any or much more money to get what I want – awesome! Secondly I already take my phone in my back pocket anyway so no extra weight to carry around – groovy! (Groovy is a sad Dad trying to be cool word according to my children who don’t appreciate post ironic humour!) and thirdly I can listen to music, take phone calls and use Google maps when I take a wrong turn more easily – fabby!
I downloaded Map My Ride with a smug feeling of “job well done who needs Garmin” sort of vibe going on.
Map My Ride is nice. You can literally, erm map your ride as it uses the GPS on your phone to record your speed, distance and route and it works out averages for speed and altitude. It also pauses when you are stuck in traffic which is good for making your average speed look faster and the nice lady in the app even tells you when you are pausing stopping/starting. I use cheekbone headphones on the bike and the nice lady inside the app will even talk to me every mile and tell me how slow I’m going, how rubbish my average speed is, how little ground I’ve covered and “how the hell did it take me so long to do so little” type information – bonza!
There really is something heart warming about a post ride cup of tea and a perusal of your stats! Map My Ride also creates “splits” where it tells you what your speed was for certain sections of your ride, compares your previous times in the same place and also gives you a bit of information about what other riders did at the same point.
You can also connect other devices to Map My Ride such as a Heart Rate Monitor, Cadence Sensor and Power Meter and obviously the app processes and number crunches all of this data too.
The interface is welcoming, easy to use and friendly. All in all I liked it and though that I had found the perfect solution……however……..
Me being me I wanted to check out the competition so of course I downloaded the Strava app as well. OMG, love at first sight! It’s like map my ride but sexier, slicker, bigger, more cyclist-y, it makes me feel fitter, faster, cooler – erm part of a cycling community…..nice. The point with Strava is that it is first and foremost a cycling app rather than Map My Ride which is a basically a running app converted for cycling. Strava is really, really nice and rather than having “splits” it has “segments” where you can compare yourself to……..Jeez there’s a hell of a lot of cyclists in my area and dear god I’m slow! But this stuff is mouthwateringly, droolingly addictively wonderful especially with a hot chocolate in your hand post ride!
Map My Ride is very good at saying “well done Andrew, you got a bit faster and beat your personal best, lovely stuff, pat on back”. Strava is more “come on you lazy git, become a real cyclist and start training like a man”.
Both apps will record heart rate and cadence and power with additional sensors and both apps charge a premium fee for this – fair enough. Strava is a bit more expensive.
The final nail in the Map My Ride coffin for me was when I went online. In a rather last century way I expected to have to “upload to Strava/Map My Ride” and so went about looking for a USB cable muttering about inconvenience under my breath. Obviously I was utterly thrilled when I realised that my rides and stats from the apps had uploaded automatically onto the online sites – magic! The Map My Ride site is basic, has a large number of ads and is clunky. Strava is, well a thing of beauty to behold. I’m completely seduced!
What I really want to be able to do is to see my heart rate in real time so that I can do my own rather watered down version of zone training. It would also be nice to be able to see some basic information in front of me as well and, with the phone in my pocket this was obviously impossible.
How do I Mount My Phone Onto my Bike?
If I’m going to fasten the best part of $500 worth of phone onto my handle bars I want it to be very secure, shock proof and preferably have some sort of weather protection. Yes, you can buy handlebar mounts for very little money but surely that’s like strapping your baby into a bargain basement car seat – you just don’t do it!
So Quadlock it is but actually they look a bit ugly. How long is my phone screen actually going to last for on a ride before the lights go out and the battery runs down, what happens if it really really pours with rain, will I be able to see the screen in bright sunlight and was it really designed to be bounced and shaken about for hours on end on a bike handlebar.
I don’t think so.
Man that Quadlock’s not cheap for what it is so. Back to the drawing board.
If only there was some way of beaming the info from the phone to a little screen on the handlebars specially designed for the purpose……
The answer to my prayers. Why hasn’t someone else thought of this before? So, what the Wahoo RFLKT does it literally reflect the app from your phone to a screen on your handlebars via bluetooth. You phone stays safely in your pocket and you can save your battery power and still see the data you want on the handlebars in a specially designed screen.
What’s not to like!?
I really, really seriously nearly went for this. However, having looked at it in more detail I’m not 100% sure that it will work with my Android phone (definitely will for Iphone). Do I also want the faff of bluetoothing everytime I go for a ride? I already bluetooth my cheekbone headphones, then I would potentially bluetooth a heart rate sensor and also the Wahoo RFLKT as well. This is starting to get a bit complicated and the more complicated things are the more there is to frustratingly not work and go wrong. I think you also need to use the Wahoo fitness app as well either in it’s entirety or as a bridge between Strava and the RFLKT and I also read that it works well with Map My Ride but not so well on Android with Strava. Dear god this is getting stressful.
If you add up the cost for the RFLKT and a heart rate monitor plus the ongoing STRAVA subscription to measure my heart rate then it’s about the same as a nice simple “proper” bike computer and a free Strava subscription so……….that’s where I’m finally at!
So, the plan is to keep my phone in my pocket and to use the lovely free version of Strava for the moment. It will record my rides, speeds, times etc etc but not my heart rate without paying which I’m happy not to do for the moment. I can always upgrade later and upgrading also allows me compare my performance to others in my age group rather than just everyone (damn you fit young upstarts!) which is appealing.
Navigation – wise I’m personally not too concerned about having on handlebar maps or directions for the sort of cycling I’m currently doing and a quick stop and a look on the phone at Google Maps works well for me. So that’s that sorted then. I now just want something on my handlebars to give me basic real time riding information and, most importantly shows my current heart rate.
What are the options?
The Cateye Velo
If I wasn’t bothered about recording my heart rate I’d probably be a cheap skate and go for another Cateye Velo 9. This was the computer I had stolen off my bike, it’s gloriously simple, gloriously small and light, robust, fuss free and the battery lasts forever. Best of all they are cheap as chips!
Now obviously this has it’s limitations, it doesn’t actually record your rides but just keeps a running total of your time, distance and average speed until you reset it. It stops when you stop and it’s relatively easy to flip through the various screens to get at the different displays. The velo is a small little beastie and a bit tricky to operate with gloves on but it’s basically a set it and forget it type of thing anyway so it doesn’t really matter.
Setting it up is dead easy and it has a sensor wire attached to it which has to go down onto the front forks. A magnet in the spokes of the front wheel is the final part of the kit.
Polar M450 and Garmin 25
Ok, these are basically the next step up and you get GPS, heart rate and cadence with extra sensors and a whole host of other toys to play with as well. Neither of these computers has full functional navigation but they do have pretty much everything else you could wish for.
Firstly, the Garmin Edge 25 is the replacement for the slightly older Edge 20. Don’t confuse them as there’s currently not a lot of price difference between them but the Edge 20 doesn’t allow you to connect to your phone to upload your ride data and (if you really want to!) to have notifications from your phone if you get texts or calls. The Edge 25 has ANT+ connectivity for cadence and heart rate and uses bluetooth to talk to your phone.
The Edge 25 is a small computer but the actual screen size is pretty much the same as the Polar M450. Both computers are operated with push buttons on the side, they aren’t touch sensitive and they are obviously fully weather proof and the screens show up well in all kinds of light.
The full features of the Edge 25 are below:
Speed and Distance
Simple turn by turn route navigation – following a downloaded route (called a course)
8 hour battery life (Yay!)
Personal Records – longest ride, highest climb etc
Targeted Ride options -> Free ride (default), Distance, Calories or Time based.
Route Recording. Your route is recorded for later analysis or sharing with Strava MapMyRide
Standard Garmin Quarter Turn lock
Comes with 2 x Bike Mounts and multiple silicon fastening bands
Dual GPS options. GPS (default, regular US system) and GLONASS (Russian system)
Heart Rate via ANT+ HRM strap
Cadence via ANT+ optional sensor
Indoor Speed via optional ANT+ sensor
Smartphone download of data via Bluetooth Smart to Garmin Connect APP
Smartphone notifications to Edge 25 eg. incoming call, text etc.
Well that all sounds pretty much perfect. I can’ think that I would possibly desire anything more than that but wait, the Polar M450 does have a few more bells and whistles so let’s run a quick comparison:
Longer battery life – up to 12 hours
Sport Profiles – you can set up your own profiles for Mountain Biking, Indoor Bike, Road Riding etc.
5 x Heart Rate, Speed and Power zones (all user configurable from Polar Flow)
Easy to Read display with bright backlight
Quarter Turn locking to easy to fit bike mount (either handlebar/stem fit or “out front” available)
Bluetooth support of cadence, power metres and heart rate sensors.
User customisable training views – see what you want to see during your ride. 1,2,3 or 4 metrics per view.
Training benefit review at end of each ride
Training load and recovery review (via Polar Flow)
Zone Lock – press and hold red button to LOCK your HR (speed or power zone)
Favourites – set your own phased training targets, time or distance based with HR or Speed based limits.
Barometric pressure sensor for accurate altitude feedback
As you can see there’s an impressive amount of bits and pieces to play with here and there are certainly a few more functions than on the Garmin. The front facing emergency light is a nice feature too and the whole unit is a bit bigger than the Garmin.
One thing that might be of concern is that to connect both computers to Strava you need to go through either the Polar Flow app or Garmin Connect. Garmin connect is clearly slicker and more comprehensive than the Polar equivalent and the connection between Polar Flow and Strava is relatively recent. It might well be a small point but it’s the type of thing that, if it doesn’t do what you want as easily and smoothly as possible, it can become increasingly frustrating. You really don’t want to have to get a USB cable out after every ride and plug into your laptop!
Note also that the Garmin sensors use ANT+ and the Polar ones are bluetooth. This may not be that important if you are starting from scratch but if you already have one type of sensor or the other it does become an issue to consider.
One step higher – The Garmin Edge 520
For a majority of cyclists either the Edge 25 or Polar M450 is going to make them very happy and satisfy most of their data needs for quite a long time. However, if you feel the need to step it up a notch in terms of performance measuring then the Garmin Edge 520 is the next step.
It features a glorious colour screen and is basically an electronic trainer with one of it’s main features being that you can download all of your local Strava segments into it an get live feedback on how you are performing as you ride them. The navigation is basic however as this is a bike computer for the serious performance cyclist rather than the exploring tourer.
If touring is more your thing and navigation and mapping is your main priority then the Garmin Edge Touring Plus is a side step from the 520 and is basically like a car navigation system loaded with cycle friendly features. It even, rather gloriously, has a full colour touch sensitive screen!
Going the whole hog
If you feel the need to luxuriate in what is essentially the ultimate bike computer and combine the ultimate in performance features along with superlative navigation then it’s got to be the Garmin Edge 820. There is also the Edge 1000 which is essentially a slightly physically bigger version of the 820 and these two computers do at the moment represent the pinnacle of bike computer excellence!
Bike computer conclusions
This has been a bit of a long journey and I’m left really wanting a Garmin 520 but settled on either the Garmin 25 or the Polar M450 – I can’t really decide between the two. It will probably come down to which I can get for the best deal and frankly it’s too late in the evening and I’ve been typing for too long to be bothered to start looking into that now!
I suspect that many other cyclists will go through a similar thought process and I hope that this post has gone some way to helping you out and saving you some research time!
I have to say, right at the end of it, that there really is something to be said for just getting on the bike and riding irrespective of time, cadence or even destination. Going where the whim takes us is a bit of a dying art and I think I might have a practice of it for a few more times before I whip out my credit card and lock myself into a self imposed Strava data fest.
Cycling is freedom. We don’t always have to have a destination……..