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.
This 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 smartphone, 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 cyclist, 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 Cycle 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 Edge 1030 Plus GPS Cycle Computer Bundle also provide comprehensive training programs 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 $200: Entry level
- Current speed
- Maximum speed
- Average speed
- Elapsed time
- Trip distance
- Wireless compatible
$200 to $500: 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
$500 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 pedaling 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