Best GPS and smartwatches for cycling: how to choose the right one for you

What to look for in a GPS enabled watch for cycling

Nowadays unless it’s on Strava it didn’t happen, and with so many great GPS enabled units to chase KOMs/QOMs there's no reason not to join in the fun.

While cycling specific computers are super popular and a great way to keep track of your riding, the current crop of GPS-enabled watches are giving them a run for their money when it comes to feature functionality. Even better, many of the best performers don’t scream ‘I’m a cyclist' when worn with street clothes.

Not everyone likes to stare at their live stats while riding and there is something to be said for learning to ride by feel. With a GPS watch, all of that data can be recorded and checked occasionally and then analysed post activity.

Like with GPS cycling computers, Garmin dominates the watch market as well, but there are some other top performers.

What to look for

ANT+/Bluetooth

When looking into GPS watches for cycling it's important to take into account whether or not it will work with the sensors you already have
When looking into GPS watches for cycling it's important to take into account whether or not it will work with the sensors you already have

If you’re using a heart rate strap, speed and cadence sensor or power meter, you’re also going to want a watch that will connect to it. For the most part, it seems Bluetooth is the medium of choice for all brands sans Garmin — which makes sense since Garmin owns the ANT+ protocol. This creates some difficulty with connecting to power meters as units from SRM and Quarq only broadcast an ANT+ signal while units from Stages and Powertap can do both.

Bluetooth connectivity also allows for the watch to connect to your phone. What this allows varies from watch to watch but most allow rides to be synced wirelessly, activities modes to be created and edited, and apps, watch faces and metrics to be downloaded.

The Bluetooth connection also allows the watch to display notifications for your phone. There’s some inconsistency as to what application notifications each watch shows, but they can all be limited to just calls and texts during an activity or turned off completely.

While Garmin’s watches use the ANT+ protocol to connect to sensors, they do have built in Bluetooth to allow a connection to a smartphone.

Many of these watches also feature the ability to connect to your WiFi network so they can sync your rides without a smartphone connection.

Built-in sensors

Most of the watches in this category feature built in GPS and don’t need to piggyback a smartphone connection to track your ride. For ultimate accuracy, many of these watches can also connect to the GLONASS network. Some fitness trackers with cycling capabilities do require a connection to your smartphone to track metrics like speed and distance.

It’s worth noting that all of these wireless connections weigh heavily on battery life. To combat this many of the units allow the frequency of GPS position to be turned down slightly, which in our experience greatly extends battery life without sacrificing too much accuracy.

Some of the latest crop of watches have built-in optical heart rate
Some of the latest crop of watches have built-in optical heart rate

As quite a lot of these watches are designed for activities ranging from other endurance sports like running and swimming, to SUPing and mountaineering, they feature built-in altimeters, barometers, and compasses as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. With these, the watch can both check metrics like speed and distance against what the GPS is reading for a more accurate reading as well as lean on the built-in sensors when GPS coverage is spotty.

There are quite a few watches and fitness trackers that are now introducing wrist based optical heart rate monitors. All the wrist-based systems rely on an optical reading, meaning they shine light from a number of LEDs through your skin and read heart rate based on the blood pulsing through your capillaries — heart rate straps work like an EKG machine reading the electrical activity in your heart.

To get a reading they need to be in direct contact with your body and cannot be worn on top of arm warmers or jackets, and there’s also been reports of wonky results read through tattoos. They also need to be worn tightly on the wrist, and riding over rough terrain may cause inaccurate readings.

Navigation

A few of the higher-end GPS watches offer some definition of breadcrumb style navigation. Routes must be preloaded into the device but with most of them points of interest can be placed at junctions so the watch will buzz as you approach them.

Power meter support

If you’re riding with a power meter you’ll want to check that your watch of choice will support your meter of choice. Some of the more stylish ‘activity tracker’ watches lack this feature, while others may be limited to certain units.

Multisport adaptable

Lots of these watches are attractive to multi-sports athletes because of the plethora of activity modes and the ability to swap between them
Lots of these watches are attractive to multi-sports athletes because of the plethora of activity modes and the ability to swap between them

GPS watches are also a big hit with the triathletes and adventure racers among us. Most of these units come with more activity modes than you can shake a stick at but some also allow the ability to add or create custom ones.

For this same crowd, the ability to change sports mid-activity or create activities like ‘Swim/Bike’ and ‘Triathlon’ are paramount for their training.

Strap and screen material

For comfort sake most of these watches come with flexible silicon bands, but to class them up some are available with metal bands. Even further, others offer aftermarket leather and fabric bands. Some watches offer a 'tool free' strap change system, while others require a few Torx or Allen bolts to be removed to swap.

A scratched watch screen is no good to anybody, and long gone are the plastic screens of the old Timex Ironman watches. Most of the current crop of GPS watches will come with a mineral or Gorilla Glass screen, while the premium units get a sapphire or crystal screen.

Buttons or touchscreen

 Buttons or touchscreen? Touchscreens are cool, but watch faces are pretty small
Buttons or touchscreen? Touchscreens are cool, but watch faces are pretty small

Just like with phones and GPS headunits, quite a lot of cycling and multisport watches are getting touchscreens. It’s a cool feature to have, but remember watch screens are quite small and for those with fat fingers (like this writer) they’re quite frustrating.

Not all touchscreens work particularly well when they’re wet either, and others require gloves to be removed.

Button lock is also a feature to look out for, there’s nothing worse than getting home from a ride only to find out your watch was paused 15 minutes in. It’s amazing how easily buttons are pushed accidentally in the hand positions you experience on your ride, so button lock is a good one to have.

Best for those who are notorious for breaking watches: Garmin Fenix 3

Garmin's Fenix 3
Garmin's Fenix 3

The Garmin Fenix 3 is damn near bullet proof. It’s survived the rigors of riding, skiing, surfing, rock climbing and canyoning without so much as a scratch on the screen.

On the bike it has all the hallmarks we look for in a GPS headunit, but in a compact and lighter weight unit. With a feature set similar to that of the Edge 520, the Fenix 3 offers support for power meters, external ANT+ sensors, features a built in altimeter, barometer and compass, and access to GLONASS.

It’s also got Bluetooth, and when connected to a smartphone can upload activities directly to Garmin Connect, Strava, and Training Peaks, display notifications and receive firmware updates over the air. Unfortunately, Bluetooth support has not been extended to sensors.

  • Training data: Speed, altitude, power, heart rate, cadence, calories, distance, time, temperature, sunset time, workout counters and more
  • Connectivity: USB, Bluetooth, WiFi
  • Compatibility: ANT+
  • Size: 2.0in (51.0mm) x 2.0in (51.0mm) x 0.6in (16.0mm)
  • Screen: 218 x 218 pixels; transflective MIP color
  • Battery life: Up to 50 hours in UltraTrac mode; up to 20 hours in GPS training mode; up to 6 weeks in watch mode

Best watch for the performance or multisport athlete: Garmin Forerunner 920XT

 Garmin's Forerunner 920XT
Garmin's Forerunner 920XT

There are multiple layers of customisable screens for each of seven activities (bike, indoor bike, run, indoor run, outdoor swim, indoor swim, triathlon), a slew of connectivity options (Bluetooth, ANT+, GPS, Glonass, WiFi, USB) and a host of accurate real-time measurements, plus a few educated guesstimates on fitness metrics such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and recovery time.

You can also program all manner of workouts for different sports into the watch. And yes, you can connect your smartphone to deliver incoming texts on your wrist or provide friends and family with live position and data tracking online, and even control a Garmin VIRB video camera too.

  • Training data: Speed, altitude, power, heart rate, cadence, calories, distance, time, temperature, sunset time, workout counters and more
  • Connectivity: USB, Bluetooth
  • Compatibility: ANT+
  • Size: 1.9in (48.0mm) x 2.2in (55.0mm) x 0.5in (12.7 mm)
  • Screen: 205 x 148 pixels
  • Battery life: Up to 40 hours in UltraTrac mode; up to 24 hours in training mode; up to 4 months in watch mode

Best watch for those concerned with style: Garmin VivoActive

Garmin's Vivoactive
Garmin's Vivoactive

Sitting gently on the scales at 38g, the VivoActive is a minimalist wristwatch to wear all day.  

The VivoActive features its own GPS/GLONASS chip, accelerometer, Bluetooth 4.0 for phone connectivity, and ANT+ for use with compatible accessories; to measure heart rate, cadence and speed, for instance.

For cycling, the VivoActive becomes a well-featured heart-rate monitor and bike computer, but on your wrist. It’s quite comfortable in use and we never suffered from pinching or rubbing while gripping the bar (either mountain or road).

  • Training data: Speed, altitude, heart rate (with strap), cadence, calories, distance, and time
  • Connectivity: USB, Bluetooth
  • Compatibility: ANT+
  • Size: 1.72in (43.8mm) x 1.52in (38.5mm) x 0.32in (8.0 mm)
  • Screen: 205 x 148 pixels
  • Battery life: Up to 3 weeks (10 hours in GPS mode)

Best full-feature Garmin alternative: Suunto Ambit3 Vertical

Suunto's Ambit3 Vertical
Suunto's Ambit3 Vertical

The latest edition to Suunto’s Ambit3 family is the Vertical. This stylish GPS-enabled watch is built tough to follow your adventures whether they be by bike, run or hike. Sitting in the middle of Suunto’s sport watch range, the Ambit3 Vertical is designed to guide those who love climbing and who are truly into the pain cave.

During a ride, the watch shows a real-time elevation profile of where you’ve been. For pre-loaded routes, the Vertical actually displays an elevation profile of the entire route and tracks your progress with a progressive slider.

The watch is Bluetooth enabled and can be connected to heart rate straps, speed and cadence sensors, and power meters in addition to your smartphone.

  • Training data: Speed, altitude, heart rate (with strap), cadence, calories, distance and time
  • Connectivity: USB, Bluetooth
  • Compatibility: Bluetooth
  • Size: 1.72in (43.8mm) x 1.52in (38.5mm) x 0.32in (8.0 mm)
  • Screen: 205 x 148 pixels
  • Battery life: Up to 3 weeks (10 hours in GPS mode)

Best fitness tracker you can ride with: Apple Watch Series 2

Apple Watch Series 2
Apple Watch Series 2

When it first came out people were losing it over the Apple Watch because it had a wrist-based heart rate monitor and could be used to monitor your fitness. The trouble was, it needed to piggyback your phone to use GPS and it wasn't waterproof.

For the Series 2 Watch, Apple has integrated GPS and GLONASS and the brand is quick to point out you can leave your phone behind and still record an activity. The new watch also gets a built in accelerometer and gyroscope.

When it comes to recording an activity you can use Apple's native Workout app or the plethora of iPhone apps that offer Apple Watch support like Strava, Map My Ride and Cyclemeter GPS.

The Workout app records your basic metrics like speed, distance, elevation gained and heart rate as well as your route and the weather, but won't let you export the data to a third party app nor will it let you pick apart the data it records. When you use one of the third-party apps like Strava it automatically syncs the data to the app where you can view the information in depth.

  • Training data: Speed, altitude, calories, distance, and time
  • Connectivity: USB, Bluetooth, WiFi
  • Compatibility: Bluetooth
  • Size: 1.64in (42.5 mm) x 1.04in (26.4 mm) x 0.39in (10.5 mm)
  • Screen: 312 x 390 pixels.
  • Battery life: Up to 18hours

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