In this post you are going to learn 8 things you should know about GPS bike computers that will show what these devices are capable of. Even if you already have one, you may find something new.
WHAT CAN A GPS BIKE COMPUTER DO?
Today´s GPS Bike Computers are loaded with a vast number of features, from showing basic ride data such as speed, elapsed time and distance to highly sophisticated training data and information, passing through route navigation.
It’s been said they have so many features, you will never use them all. Maybe…
These are the 8 things you should know about GPS bike computers.:
- Display current ride data.
- Track and save ride information for later review.
- As a tool to follow a training program.
- As a navigation device.
- Do GPS Bike computers need sensors?
- Desktop and Mobile GPS Bike Computer Companion Apps
- What file types are used by GPS Bike computers?
Today’s GPS Bike computers are equipped with several sensors that allow to gather loads of information and show them in a series of screen data fields.
The GPS chipset is the main component from which data such as distance traveled, tracklog of a ride, altitude, direction and more can be obtained.
Depending on the model, other sensors may be part of a device such as accelerometers, light intensity and barometers.
You may also connect external sensors that either improve the native GPS chipset capabilities, such as a speed sensor which would provide more accurate speed/distance data, to power meters, heart rate monitors and cadence.
And maybe the most innovative and practical component of these devices is the connectivity. Using modern wireless connections, you can load a route you want to follow, get text messages, let others know where you are or the ability to track you, send SOS messages and more.
They have built in memory that allow to save all your ride data for further analysis.
Companion cell phone Apps are part of the device through which data can be analyzed and shared. For example, Garmin has the Garmin Connect App both for cell phone and desktop and Wahoo fitness has the Wahoo Elemnt cell phone app. Ride data is automatically downloaded to the apps so that you can see ride information.
Let’s give each aspect a more detailed look.
FIRST: DISPLAY CURRENT RIDE DATA
The traditional bike computer was a device that you attached to your bike’s handlebars and through some sensors wired/wireless sensors, allowed to track some basic information such as distance, elapsed time, speed, cadence and average speed.
Advanced models may have had barometers added to show altitude information and added wireless sensor connectivity.
Upon finishing a ride, you would look at the data and as soon as the computer was turned off, all the information was lost.
Today’s GPS Bike computers can display basic as well as advanced information with, literally, hundreds of data fields to choose from depending on the sensors you may be using and what you would like to see during a ride.
There are Time, Distance, Altitude, Heart Rate, Power, Cadence, Navigation and many more data fields to choose from.
Among the new options, you can program the device to send reminders to drink and eat during a ride so that you can have the energy and food needed to get to your destination.
As the head units have data storage capabilities (memory), your ride data is not lost when you turn it off.
SECOND: TRACK AND SAVE RIDE INFORMATION FOR LATER REVIEW.
Unlike the older devices, current GPS Bike computers save the ride data into its memory, so it will not be lost when turned off. Usually, upon saving a ride in the head unit and if the connected cell phone is within reach, the data will be transferred to the companion app for review.
Saved data may be used to analyze your ride, especially valuable if you are following a training program, as well as to eventually share it with others or upload to third party analysis tools for a deeper look.
THIRD: AS A TOOL TO FOLLOW A TRAINING PROGRAM
A scheduled training program is, without a doubt, the best way to improve cycling fitness. Whether you are a self-coached mountain biker (as I do) or use a coach to guide you through your training, your GPS Bike computer is there to guide you.
Download a detailed training plan to your head unit. Then, every day you will be able to see the scheduled session details such as time, intensity levels, intervals, warm up and cool down.
As you progress through the session, the device will show you whether you are training within the planned targets and do the required adjustments.
Finally, you will be able to assess the session results, compare them to the targets of the plan and send them to your training platform for further reviews.
If you are interested in more information, check the Training category, one of main topics in this site, where I share how I am using my GPS Bike computer for training.
FOURTH: AS A NAVIGATION DEVICE
GPS Bike computers have navigation capabilities, that is, guide you from a starting point to a destination.
There are several ways to accomplish this. Some devices have full routing capabilities built-in the head unit (like some Garmin devices) while others require the companion app to calculate routes that are transferred to the head unit so that they can be followed (such as the Wahoo Elemnt first version).
The other, widely spread navigation method is by using a GPX track (see below for an explanation of GPS Bike Computers files). They are files that contain route information, usually from someone who has done a route, saved with their device and shared it in social media or websites for other to use.
Navigation is a subject that deserves a detailed look so make sure to go to WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GPS BIKE COMPUTER NAVIGATION post for more information
With the modern connectivity technology that GPS Bike computers have when used together with their cell phone companion app, you are connected to the world, so that you can:
- Load routes shared by others so that can follow them.
- Get your daily training plan, follow it and share the session results with your coach for immediate feedback.
- Connect your Smart Trainer to the head unit to have full control for indoor training. You may even reproduce outdoor routes in your Smart Trainer or follow your training plan.
- Get and send (with some limitations) text messages.
- Live tracking. You may share a live track to family or friends so that they know exactly where you are on a ride. A very handy feature for safety and peace of mind.
- Group tracking. If you ride in a group with the same type of head units, it is possible to know where each other is. Another great feature for safety.
- Crash alarm. With the built-in accelerometers, the device can identify a crash and send a message to someone you have previously programmed.
- Bike alarm. Some Garmin devices have a built-in alarm that can be activated if you leave the bike out of sight. If someone moves the bike, you will receive an alarm in your cell phone (I would not leave my bike out of sight any way, but it is nice to know this feature is available).
SIXTH: DO GPS BIKE COMPUTERS NEED SENSORS?
You may use your GPS Bike computer right out of the box without external sensors. But eventually you may end up getting some. The most common external sensors are:
Cadence Sensor. Allows you to know how fast you are pedaling. In my experience, a cadence sensor is a great training tool. Power meters measure cadence as well.
Speed Sensor. Though distance and speed can be calculated from the GPS signals received by the head unit, they are subject to errors and inaccuracies, especially in mountain biking where we often ride in tree covered areas. When you add a speed sensor, both speed and distance related data is gathered from the sensor and not the GPS, increasing the accuracy.
Power Meter. Measure the power you are applying in your rides. Adding a power meter changes your training to another level. Check our posts in the Training Category for more on Power Meters.
Heart Rate Monitors. Gauge your heart rate performance during a ride. A valuable tool for training.
Sensors can be connected using two types of signals: Blue Tooth and/or ANT+. Most of the GPS Bike computers and sensors available nowadays can handle both of them but always check for compatibility before purchasing one.
SEVENTH: DESKTOP AND MOBILE GPS BIKE COMPUTERS COMPANION APPS
Most GPS bike computers relay on a companion app to get the most out of it, being it setting up the unit, getting firmware and mapping updates as well as downloading rides data.
Depending on the brand, the features that a companion app offers vary widely. The Garmin Connect app offers a large number of features not available in other platforms such as creating routes, creating training plans, performance statistics, summaries, gear tracking, social media sharing and so forth.
Gamin also has the IQ app store where you can find extensions that will further increase the device’s capabilities.
The Wahoo Elemnt has a very nice interface to set up the device but lacks features such as creating training plans or performance statistics.
When looking at a GPS Bike computer, make sure to also learn about their companion apps and confirm whether they satisfy your needs. For example, if navigation is important to you, you may want a device with built-in navigation in the head unit and not depend on the cell phone app.
EIGTH: WHAT FILE TYPES ARE USED BY GPS BIKE COMPUTERS?
There are 3 data file types used by GPS Bike computers which you should know about.
GPX file: Was developed and adopted as a universally recognized format to share GPS data among different brands. It contains data needed for navigation such as waypoints, tracks and routes based on geographical coordinates. It is an XML based text file.
TCX/FIT file: add fitness data on top of the geographical data of a GPX file. So, for each recorded point, information about heart rate, power, cadence and other fitness parameters are stored.
TCX is also an XML based text file and FIT is a binary file which is more efficient storing data.
Be aware that TCX/FIT files store information that may be considered as personal data that may be protected by privacy policies.
SUMMARY: SO, IS A GPS BIKE COMPUTER WORTH IT?
Definitively. These 8 things you should know about GPS bike computers have shown you the features and capabilities tthat make them an outstanding tool for your riding. Do you need them to enjoy Mountain Biking? No
Will they help you to expand your mountain biking enjoyment? I think so.
What do you think? Did you learn anything about your device you were not aware of?