It’s easier than ever to obtain data on where, how fast, and how far you ride your bicycle. Modern cycle computers allow you to map your ride, check your speeds, count your mileage, keep an eye on your cadence and even monitor your heart rate. But what kind of bike computer is right for you?
Three basic types of bike computers are available on the market today: traditional magnet-and-wire cycle computers, GPS/fitness-based models and smartphone cycling apps. Each has its own pros and cons, but the type of cycling you do should dictate your choice.
If you’re a commuter, not riding for many hours at a time but riding each day, a smartphone app might be right for you. These apps are cheap and full of features, and they use the GPS on your phone to track your distance, speed, elevation gain and route taken. This allows you to compare different ways to get to work and to ascertain how difficult and time consuming each route is. You can even get real-time directions if you’re exploring a new way.
The main concern with using a smartphone as a cyclometer is that it rapidly drains your battery life. This is not an issue if you are riding from home to work, but in the wilderness or on longer rides, this becomes a problem. Another concern is how to mount your smartphone on your bike. If you want to know how fast you are going at any given moment or you want to look at a map of your ride, you need to have the phone somewhere on your handlebars.
Backroads Pro Tip
Remember, having your phone on your handlebars requires a special case and mounting system, which, in the event of a crash, exposes your expensive phone to great risk. Take this into account when considering a smartphone app.
The Fitness Enthusiast
For those who ride primarily for exercise, a GPS/fitness watch or cyclometer bundle might be the best bet. These are the most feature-packed option of the bunch. They can monitor your heartrate, speed, calories burned and elevation—pretty much every data point you could wish to have about your ride. These computers have better battery life than your smartphone—usually around twenty hours—and they run on rechargeable batteries. If you use it every day, then you will have to charge it every few rides. These can also be quite expensive, but if you want accuracy and a lot of data, this is the choice for you.
The Recreational Cyclist
The third option, a magnetic cyclometer, is best for touring cyclists or anyone wanting some data on their rides. They are accurate, light and relatively cheap, and they have an amazing battery life (one to two years). These computers give you all the vital bike stats—speed, average speed, mileage and cadence. They cannot, however, map your ride, give you directions, measure your elevation gain or tell you how many calories you’ve burned. Magnetic cyclometers are best for cyclists who only want the simplest information about their rides or know how to turn bike-specific data into actionable insights. These computers are lightweight and have a low profile once mounted. They are perfect for long self-supported tours, or to simply find out how fast you just went down that hill!
The most important thing when making this decision is to identify what data you want and then choose a system that can accommodate. If you’re concerned with getting directions, don’t rely on a magnetic cyclometer. If you’re trying to track your workout, a smartphone won’t be of much use. If you just want to know how far you’ve ridden, there’s no point in spending money on a more complicated system.
Of course, it’s never a good idea to spend too much time looking at a screen when you’re riding a bike. Whatever system you choose, be sure you’re always paying attention to the machine beneath you and the machine that is your body!