QUESTION: Are bike computers worth it? There are a lot of options, and some of them cost hundreds of dollars. Can’t I just ride without one? –
Stan Purdum replies: The short answer is “Yes,” but since there are two classes of bike computers, the longer answer is “It depends on what you want to know about your ride.”
Bike computers can be classed as “basic” and “advanced,” though they aren’t usually identified by that terminology.
Basic computers, which range in price from $10 to about $100, typically provide a handful of data readouts: odometer, current speed, maximum speed, average speed, trip distance, trip time, clock. Some at the upper end of the price range may also include stopwatch, altimeter, cadence, temperature and/or target heart rate functions,
That’s a lot of information, and with it you can compare your performance on one ride with the next, gauge the effect of hilly routes with flatter ones, determine what ride length works best for you, keep track of how long you can go between maintenance of bicycle components and replacement of wear-and-tear items like tires and chains.
Basic computers tend to be simple to set up and once in use, don’t usually require you to fiddle with them to keep them functioning. This is important if you aren’t techno-geeky or just want simplicity. And unlike units in the advanced class, the basic models don’t link to a phone app and are complete in themselves.
Many serious and longtime cyclists are content with the basic units and consider the data they provide sufficient.
Advanced computers, which typically cost a few hundred dollars, provide all the data that the basic units do, but they also provide navigation help — GPS, route planning and tracking, turn-by-turn guidance — as well as the ability to download your data and routes to a linked app for analysis, to share with others and to compare to the performance of riders in the online community. To be able to use the full functionality of the app, you usually need a subscription, which, of course, adds to the cost of using the computer.
Many riders, however, find the sharing of data a useful way to set performance goals and measure their fitness progress. The shared routes help them find new rides and the navigation functions enable them to explore without having to keep checking a map.
Expect that as technology improves and becomes more affordable, some of the functions included in the advanced devices will become available on the basic models.
You Can Also Just Use Your Phone
If you have a smart phone, there are multiple free and low cost apps that give you most of the features of a GPS bike computer right on your phone. One friend of mine uses the Strava app to record his bike rides so he can look later and see how far he rode, how fast, etc. He keeps his phone in his jersey pocket and doesn’t look at any of the information while he’s riding.
But other cyclists buy mounts so that they can glance at the screen while they are riding and see all the typical information like their speed, average speed, distance, time, navigation etc. A high quality mount will hold your phone securely.
Readers, what is your bike computer set up, and why?
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.