Understanding Cycling Computers

January 26, 2014

Cycling computers are a great accessory for any cyclist, regardless of skill level. Amateur cyclists can track their basic distance and ride time while advanced cyclists can record countless measurements to help them set future goals. In this guide, you'll learn the basic fundamentals of a cycling computer.

What is a Cycling Computer?

In general, a cycling computer is a small device that mounts onto the handlebars of a bike and records anywhere from simple information such as distance to advanced aspects like cadence (pedal rate) and power output (heart rate). Cycling computers come in many different styles and can record as many statistics as you want, although with increased features comes increased prices.

How does it Work?

A traditional cycling computer can work either wirelessly or wired. The choice depends on how advanced you need your computer to be. Most advanced computers come in a wireless form to accommodate all of the add-on features. For wired computers, a small screen that will display your measurements is zip-tied or mounted with an included bracket onto the handlebar. A wire connected to the screen is tightly wrapped around the brake cable down to a sensor that is zip-tied to the front fork of the bike. Finally, a magnet is attached to a spoke on the front wheel. The sensor will track each time the magnet makes a full rotation and will send the information to the handlebar screen for display.

Similarly, a wireless computer is attached the same way except there's no wire. This provides a cleaner, simplified look that many cyclists prefer. Wireless computers are also favored due to the ability to add on extra magnets without having a jumble of wires on the bike. For example, another magnet is necessary to measure cadence (pedal rate). With a wireless computer, simply add a magnet to the crankarm by the pedal and install a small sensor on the chainstay. The sensor will wirelessly receive the information and forward your cadence to the handlebar screen. In contrast, a wired computer would require additional wiring from the chainstay sensor to the handlebar screen.

It must be noted that installation varies from each brand and model. Other cycling computers may have different specifications for magnet and sensor placement or may require no magnets at all.

Technological Advancements

There are now applications on smartphones that can easily be downloaded for use as a cycling computer. Strava is a popular application that uses the GPS on a smartphone to track a cyclist's route, elevation, timing, and speed. Strava is great for both recreational and advanced cyclists. However, it's an easy way to rapidly use your smartphone's battery. It's important to fully charge your phone, especially before a long ride. In addition, you'll have to buy either a handlebar mount for your smartphone or some form of clothing that can comfortably hold it while riding.

Some GPS watches also have cycling modes and will record your measurements like a traditional cycling computer. Your watch will sense your activity and record distance, time, and heart rate, depending on the watch. GPS watches are especially handy because they can easily transition from each physical activity and can also be mounted onto your handlebars.

Additional Features

Although it may be tempting to purchase a cycling computer with all the bells and whistles, you should keep in mind your level of activity. If you only ride recreationally, a basic cycling computer that records your distance and time might be sufficient. On the other hand, an avid cyclist or competition cyclist in training may opt for a more advanced computer that measures cadence, power output and can upload data to a personal computer. Cycling computers can be costly and you'll want one that's appropriate for your needs. Here are available features that may be suitable for your rides:

  • Speed
  • Riding time
  • Power output via a chest strap that transmits heart rate to your handlebar screen.
  • Backlight for night riding.
  • Stopwatch
  • Downloading capabilities.
  • Cadence
  • Elevation changes.
  • GPS with the ability to download a route.
  • Compatibility with a power meter. Power meters measure how many watts a cyclist generates while pedaling and shows how hard the cyclist is working.

Learn from your Data

With so many features, you can customize your cycling computer to be the perfect accessory for your next ride. Regardless of skill level, using a cycling computer is a great way to monitor your ride time and personal progress. By analyzing your progress, you can empower yourself to fulfill your goals and push yourself to the next level.

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