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Can bike computers survive the smartwatch threat?

Sam Challis
18 Sep 2020

The all-powerful bike computer may have met its match in the latest breed of wearable devices. Photography: Rob Milton

Once upon a time, time was the only thing a watch could tell. Now, however, they have got smart. Watches have become increasingly capable and versatile to the point where they can accurately track, record and analyse countless metrics.

As a result they are now being touted as a valid alternative to the bike computer.

Conversely, the ‘head unit’ has been a valuable tool for many years and is a device so ingrained in cycling culture that many don’t see it going anywhere fast. So what are the factors that could see the balance of power shift definitively one way or the other?

One of the main advantages smartwatches have over dedicated cycling computers is their ability to track physiological and performance metrics across different sports.

‘Different exercise strains the body in different ways, so our Polar Grit X watch has a feature called “Training Load Pro”,’ says Polar’s Olutoyin Fatile. ‘It gives the individual data on how training sessions strain both their cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.

'The individual can add subjective strain into the mix as well, so they get a holistic view on how training sessions stress the body and how performance may be affected. It can help find a balance between training and recovery.’

Rich Robinson, Garmin’s UK product manager, explains it isn’t just different types of sport that influence performance and recovery, but lifestyle factors too. All of which a smartwatch is ideally positioned to record because, unlike cycling computers, it can be used around the clock.

‘Imagine your body as a battery,’ he says. ‘Let’s say a typical day runs you down to 50% and after a good night’s sleep you are “fully charged”. Adding in some training will drain your battery further, then you throw in family life, work stress and a bad night’s sleep, and you may only “recharge” to 80% or 90%.

‘After a while that trend will be detrimental to your performance and ultimately your health. That is why watches like our Fenix 6 Solar have a “Body Battery” feature that helps the user make informed choices of when to train and when to rest, as opposed to just trying to hit a given TSS (Training Stress Score) or distance in a week using a bike computer.’

As Coros owner David Song mentions as well, smartwatches offer the opportunity to streamline connected technology. Coros’s Apex Pro watch tracks heart rate, negating the need for a chest strap, and also claims to assess oxygen levels in the blood, which may be beneficial when training at altitude.

Battery life tends to be better than in cycling computers too, an advantage that Garmin’s newest smartwatches extend even further with their solar power technology.

Not so simple

Framed in that context, it appears the case for a widespread move to smartwatches and the abandonment of head units is cut and dried. Yet dedicated cycling computers possess several inherent advantages that smartwatches may never be able to surpass.

‘Watches have a limited screen size,’ says Song. ‘It may be easier to read various metrics and follow navigation from the larger display of a cycling computer than from a watch directly.’

What’s more, everyone Cyclist spoke to agrees that lifting a hand from a handlebar to view a watch screen is less than ideal.

‘You can wear the watch on the inside of your wrist but, even so, it’s safer to always focus on the road with both hands on the handlebar,’ says Song.

Given that Garmin is a market leader in both cycling computers and smartwatches, Robinson is able to give a well-informed view on a potential way forward.

‘I really don’t think it’s a case of either/or,’ he says. ‘These products can work in synergy. As a committed cyclist, an Edge head unit will always be my primary choice for cycling – it has the positional visibility, mapping and performance feature set that a smartwatch just can’t match.

‘Where smartwatches are great for general use, cycling computers are built for a purpose. Having cloud-based data management like Garmin Connect, though, allows both to work in harmony.

‘The TSS goal on my bike computer can take into account a run I did using my smartwatch, for example, so each device can complement the other.’

Polar’s Fatile agrees there is room for both cycling computers and smartwatches to exist side by side. Robinson even suggests that smartwatches could pave the way for an individual to get a cycling computer.

‘It could bring new people into cycling,’ he says. ‘Look at the coronavirus-induced cycling boom. Wearable devices, which more people are likely to use, could introduce those just starting to ride to the advantages of tracking cycling data.’

That only sounds like a good thing. After all, what gets measured gets improved.

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