What is a cycling computer, and what can it do for you? Wiggle's comprehensive guide to this two-wheel loving tech is here to help you find out.
Bike computers attach to your handlebars or stem and display a range of real-time information on your speed, distance, trip time and much more.
They have soared in popularity in conjunction with the growth in performance software, such as Strava, providing a world of statistics and data for cyclists everywhere.
Unlike many other sports, where marginal gains are obvious (think doing more reps in the gym, or beating a colleague in the squash court for the first time) cycling’s long distances and incremental improvements make it difficult to accurately track progress.
Which is why the ability to visualise your improvement using a computer and the latest software has found a home on the front bars among a vast proportion of the cycling community.
But it’s not just aspiring and experienced athletes that benefit from the technology. For commuters and hobbyists, cycling computers offer features like navigation assistance, connectivity with their smart phone, and weather information, alongside the ability to dip their toe in detailed data.
How does a cycling computer work?
The devices use small sensors that attach to the wheels and forks (and in the case of cadence sensors, to the chainstay and pedal crank), recording the frequency of each wheel revolution.
Typically a small magnet is attached to a spoke on the front wheel, and a sensor to one of the fork legs. Riders are initially required to calibrate their computer with their specific wheel size (the instruction manual will give details on how to do this), so that each time the magnet passes the sensor, the computer recognises the distance travelled by the wheel (according to its diameter) and can measure the speed according to the frequency of wheel rotation.
They can also be linked to heart rate monitors to provide a full picture of how you and your bike are interacting.
From these inputs, along with GPS and accelerometer readings, bike computers can record speed, distance, cadence (the number of pedal rotations per minute), calories burned, elevation, heart rate, temperature, and more.
This can provide you with valuable information, revealing if you're pedalling too quickly on hill climbs, or accelerating erratically on sprints, and how efficiently you’re performing overall.
While most cycling computers offer real-time onscreen information (for example, speed and heart rate), it’s often after the ride that they become most useful.
Hook your bike computer into one of the many cycling performance programmes on your laptop or smartphone and you can spend hours analysing your route and performance, comparing your gains over previous weeks and months and seeing just how far you’ve come.
Can I use my smartphone instead?
The short answer is – up to a point - yes, but there are drawbacks. Firstly, because they’re designed to work exclusively with bikes and bespoke sensors, cycling computers are much more accurate at measuring speed, cadence, and acceleration, for example.
Because they’re so specialised, bike computers are pre-loaded with suites of programmes and displays targeted exclusively for the cyclists, so you’ll have direct access to all the pertinent information you need. They can often also be customised, delivering the most vital data to you for that specific ride.
One of the biggest benefits, however, is their ability to handle all-weather. Their generally more robust chassis will have few problems in the rain. And, unlike your £600 smartphone, they’re designed to survive occasional unscheduled involuntary alighting (*a crash).
Budget and high-end bike computers were formerly divided according to how the computer unit connected to the sensor, with cheaper computers using wires and more advanced models transmitting the information wirelessly – making installation simpler, and giving a less cluttered appearance.
However, all but the most budget friendly models now feature wireless connectivity, such as the Cateye Velo Wireless Plus Cycling Computer.
Which bike computer is right for me?
Even the most basic bike computers will be able to give you information on how fast you are going (speed), how far you have gone (distance) and how long you have been riding (trip time).
More advanced models will include GPS and add data on average speed, maximum speed, and lap times. High-end computers also measure cadence, usually by means of a separate magnet-and-sensor set which attaches to the pedal crank and chainstay (to count the number of times the pedals are rotated).
The latest models, such as the Garmin 1030, also provide comprehensive training programmes and monitoring, along with features like full turn-by-turn navigation, phone and text answering services, the ability to download apps, and integration with electronic gear shifting.
Common bike computer features
Let's look at an outline of what you can expect from cycling computers at different price points. Not all features will be limited to these divisions, but this will give you an idea of what you can expect to see for your money.
Under £100: Entry level
- Current speed
- Maximum speed
- Average speed
- Elapsed time
- Trip distance
- Wireless compatible
£100 to £250: Intermediate
- Weather information
- Colour display
- Heart rate (when combined with a heart rate sensor – usually available separately)
- Calorie counter
- GPS maps
- Turn-by-turn navigation
- Customisable data fields
£250 and higher: Advanced
- Cadence compatible
- Strava integration
- Electronic shifting integration
- Muscle oxygen sensor integration
- Smartphone notifications and automated responses
- App installation
- Advanced training programme monitoring
- Rider to rider connectivity
Considering a cadence sensor?
Cadence is a technical concept in cycling technique, employed by top riders to maximise their performance.
The technique involves maintaining a constant pedalling speed regardless of the actual speed of the bike itself. So, when accelerating to a fast speed, you graduate through the gears in such a way your pedalling speed remains constant and therefore your technique is stable and consistent – the same applies to cycling on gradients, except you'll be moving from a low gear to a high. It’s a concept regarded by most top cyclists and trainers as essential for achieving the most efficient performance.
The ideal cadence will differ from rider to rider but leisure cyclists typically aim for a range of 60-80rpm, while competitive riders will be able to sustain a much higher cadence.
If you are already riding competitively, are interested in preparing for a race, or simply wish to hone your technique, then a cadence compatible computer is something that can deliver effective results quickly.
Not all computers are compatible with cadence monitoring, so make sure you check the specifications carefully. You will most likely be looking for a bike computer toward the top end in terms of price and may require some additional kit, such as a bespoke cadence sensor or power meters.
Wiggle’s top tip
- Some fork and/or handlebar mounts will have a limited size range so for non-standard components (e.g. mountain bike forks with large-diameter bars, aero road forks, aero road bars) check the dimensions before you buy.
Whatever computer you opt for, look for:
- A secure and compatible mounting bracket
- An easy-to-read backlit screen
- Robust and weather-resistant housing
- The necessary sensors, if you do not already have them
Five of the best cycling computers
The latest biking computer by top tech maker Garmin, the Edge 1030 is the company’s most powerful piece of cycling kit to date.
This top of the range computer comes stuffed with software features, a large screen, and 20-hour battery life. The Edge 1030 can analyse and relay huge amounts of information about your performance and fitness, including a training load metric that can tell whether you’re doing too much, too little, or just the right amount to help you improve faster. The Edge 1030 comes preloaded with Strava Live Segments, a new Segment Explore feature, and rider-to-rider messaging that lets you stay in contact with other cyclists in your group. Both ANT+ and Bluetooth compatible, it can pair with virtually any sensor around giving you unrivalled options.
A small step down in functionality, but a big step down in price is the Garmin Edge 820. Lightweight and compact with 2.3-inch high-resolution, its capacitive touch display works when wet and even with gloves. It also carries a GroupTrack feature that keeps tabs on everyone in your riding pack.
Advanced performance monitoring includes VO2 max, recovery advisor, Strava live segments, performance condition, and advanced cycling dynamics. A built-in incident detection system is also included, as is compatibility with accessories such as Varia smart bike lights and rearview radar. Bike-specific navigation comes preloaded with Garmin Cycle Map for turn-by-turn navigation.
The Wahoo Elemnt GPS Cycle Computer Bundle has been designed for ease of use. With all the setup done through your phone, this GPS removes the need for a PC and provides everything you need to track all your data. Its wealth of features include Strava Live Segments integration, live tracking, electric shifting integration, muscle oxygen sensor intergration, smart notifications, and it’s Android and iPhone compatible.
Freely customise your onscreen data fields using the easy-to-navigate menus. Both Bluetooth 4.0 and ANT+ compatible, the 820 also comes with Wahoo TICKR heart rate monitor as well as RPM Speed and Cadence Sensors.
The Polar V650 Cycling GPS Computer will analyse every aspect of your ride and focus your training to give you the edge on the competition. The device features one of the most accurate calorie counters on the market, and comes with a Smart heart rate sensor included in the bundle option. Its heart rate zone feature provides an easy way to select and monitor the intensity of your training and to follow heart rate based training programs. The full colour screen also provides top-down maps for navigation.
Don’t be put off by the black and white LED screen - the Lezyne Macro Cycle GPS is a serious piece of kit that’s packed with top-level features. Despite its low price, the computer comes with turn-by-turn navigation and Strava Segments. Its Bluetooth connectivity will pair with all your sensors, including power and cadence meters, allowing you to analyse every detail of your performance.
When used in conjunction with the Lezyne app, the features expand, giving you a comprehensive array of modern conveniences, including pop-up email, text message and phone call notifications whether you run iOS or Android.