Guide to Cycling Computers
What is a GPS Cycling Computer and Why You Need One?
Cycling can be pure and simple experience: two wheels, a handlebar, pedals and the open road or trail. In this age of smart phones, screens and never-ending data scrolling, one could understand the temptation to leave it all behind for your bike ride, but today’s latest GPS Cycling Computers are affordable, incredibly powerful and packed with exceptional ride-enhancing benefits that no cyclist should be without.
GPS-based cycling computers have been around for 20 years, and the latest devices like the Stages Dash have benefitted from the leaps in technology we’ve seen in phones and other small devices. Ranging from the size of a cookie to as big as your mobile phone, GPS computers contain onboard processors, a rechargeable battery, built-in data storage, and a variety of sensors ranging from Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors that read signals from a network of orbiting satellites to determine rider speed and position, to barometric pressure sensors that estimate temperature and other factors. Some have monochrome (black and white) screens while others have vibrant full color screens. Some have touch screen interfaces which can be hit-or-miss on wet rides or when operating with sweaty fingers, and nearly all are designed to mount on your handlebars or stem. The latest GPS Cycling Computers wirelessly measure rider speed, distance, ride time, altitude, vertical gain and more. Many include built-in mapping and navigation features. Nearly all GPS Cycling Computers are now Bluetooth or ANT+ compatible and can ‘pair’ to connect with additional sensors even from different manufacturers to get info such as rider heart rate, power (wattage), manage and control Smart Lights and even Radar which can alert riders of approaching cars. Having so much data at your fingertips can be overwhelming but the best GPS cycling computers are easily customized and designed to be very intuitive to use, allowing the rider to see as much or as little ride info as they’d like. Nearly all GPS cycling computers are compatible with a range of manufacturer-supplied and 3rd party support apps for phones and desktop, which help with setup and post-ride review.
Simply put, a GPS cycling computer can help you maximize the time you have on your bike, making your ride more enjoyable, more efficient and possibly even safer.
Train, race and pace smarter with power and heart rate.
When connected to a cycling power meter and heart rate monitor (available separately) you’ll have access to the same incredibly sophisticated working and training information used by top professional riders, but it’s worth noting that even the average enthusiast can benefit from the use of this ride data as it can help you pace yourself on long rides so you’ve got something left in the tank for that last hill.
Use built-in cycling maps and navigation to explore new roads and trails.
Most GPS cycling computers use the onboard GPS sensor and storage space to overlay real-time rider position over a detailed regional map. You can easily see where you’ve been and where you’re headed, and with many models you can upload GPX or FIT files from a variety of 3rd party navigation apps directly to your GPS computer and get a display of your route and turn-by-turn notifications to keep you on course. Perfect for not getting lost when riding a new area, or finding new roads and trails in your own back yard.
GPS cycling computers can provide way more benefit than how fast, how far and how hard you’re riding. Units like the Stages Dash have cycling-specific maps that show you bike paths and roads with separate bike lanes so you can choose routes with less traffic, which is especially handy when riding in a new area. And some GPS computers are compatible with 3rd party devices such as car-sensing, rear facing radar that can show you on-screen when a car is approaching from behind. And a new generation of ANT/Bluetooth compatible ‘Smart Lights’ can be controlled and monitored from a GPS cycling computer, allowing the rider to keep an eye on battery status or change flash modes while riding.
It’s true that smart phones and apps can perform many of these tasks as well as, and in some cases better than any GPS cycling computer. However, there are some significant tradeoffs to using your smart phone as your cycling computer. First of all is battery life. GPS cycling computers are designed to provide ample runtime for your longest ride, and can use auxiliary battery packs to extend their runtime. And using a cycling computer saves your phone battery for other tasks and emergencies. Cost is also a consideration, as smart phones are generally three times the price of even the nicest GPS cycling computer and can be lost or damaged in the event of a crash, especially as they tend to be bulkier and heavier than cycling computers. Last but not least, smart phone touch screen technology is a marvel of modern engineering but it can be frustrating when your hands are sweaty, or it’s raining, or you’re wearing gloves that aren’t touch screen compatible.
All this ride information can be a little overwhelming. Most currently available cycling computers are easy to customize with a variety of ride profiles for different styles of riding (for example, mountain biking vs road riding) and within those profiles you can customize multiple ‘pages’ each with its own mix of data cells displaying what you’d like to see, and this can range from dozens of data cells to one big, single data cell. It’s up to the user and many computers make customization easy with included support apps.