GPS technology has found its way into many things over the past few years and is now commonplace in cars, phones, cameras and, yes, bike computers. Where GPS computers of the past were overly expensive and offered poor battery life, the current generation are far more affordable, reliable and offer a host of features previously only dreamed of in traditional cycle computers.
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This article was last updated 23rd May 2017
In the past, cycling GPS devices were primarily for riders who wanted ‘pure’ navigation and trail guidance.
However, their usage has changed greatly and these devices now combine navigation, regular bike computer functions, heart rate monitors and lots else into one unit. The GPS is now just as much a dedicated training tool and ride tracker as it once was a navigation unit.
The cycling GPS market is dominated by similar brands to the automotive GPS industry – Garmin is the key player, but brands such as Wahoo, Polar, Bryton, Suunto, Leyzyne and CatEye also offer GPS options.
While this buyer’s guide is for dedicated GPS units, the use of smartphones is also also a viable alternative. There are many speed, cadence, heart rate and power accessories available to work with popular smartphones and purpose-designed apps.And while there are numerous high quality and secure handlebar mounts and cases available, most smartphones are prohibitively large and expensive, so the use of a dedicated GPS device is still the preferred method for most cyclists.
That said, if you’re not seeking live data such as speed, heart rate or your cadence, then keeping the phone in your pocket or pack remains an option for data collection.
What to consider when buying a GPS device for cycling
Looking forwards or backwards?
Perhaps the biggest question when choosing a GPS unit is deciding whether you want it to ‘look forwards’ and guide you on a ride, or if you want it to track your ride and give you the data to ‘look back’ upon after your ride.
Generally speaking, forward-seeking GPS units will cost more as they feature built-in maps, additional storage, navigation software and often a much larger screen to make use of all of this information.
Far more backward-looking GPS units are sold these days, as they give all the live data that many cyclists want, along with the option of a detailed analysis after a ride. However, they don’t offer nearly as detailed navigational information.
Devices that offer mapping and directional guidance have come a long way. GPS accuracy has greatly improved, guiding you to within one or two metres of a desired location.
Mobile phone connectivity is desirable for a number of reasons. The likes of the Garmin Edge 1000 and Wahoo Elemnt Bolt offer Bluetooth connectivity and share information with compatible phones and include features such as music control, spoken directional mapping, in-coming call and text alerts and even the ability to upload ride data to the cloud.
A key factor, but one that’s easily overlooked, is how the device attaches (or doesn’t) to the bike.
Most GPS units attach to either the handlebar or the stem of the bike. Others, such as those designed for multisport, may be worn as a wrist watch, but this isn’t an ideal viewing position for cycling.
Screen size and display type
What features do I need?
GPS for performance riders
In the past, performance riders would have had to use a separate heart rate monitor (watch or chest strap), a cycle computer and if really serious, a power measuring device to get this vital training information. Now, GPS units offer a receiver and display for all of this information and more in a compact device.
Heart rate, cadence, distance, speed and power meter compatibility is quite common, with many devices using the ANT+ protocol. Most popular GPS units will be offered as the device alone, or in a value bundle with the heart rate strap and cadence/speed sensor.
Once at a computer — or synced to your phone on certain models — these devices enable detailed analysis of your route and ride, including drilling down to specific climbs and other ride sections. Brand-specific applications such as Garmin Connect are popular options for uploading rides and logging ride information.
That said, Strava still reigns supreme and has by-far the most unique users of any application, allowing you to easily compare yourself against other riders in your area.
GPS for everyday riders
Just like performance riders, everyday riders likely don’t need navigation but can benefit from much of the other information offered.
Where performance riders will use features such as auto-lapping, segment racing and detailed power output analysis, everyday riders will need simpler features such as speed, distance, cadence and perhaps heart-rate.
GPS for mountain bikers
GPS units have great potential where there is either no obvious path or many possible paths, especially in conditions of poor visibility when you are unable to pick out many landmarks.
You can download route data from online networks, and some popular riding destinations offer downloadable ride data (in the form of a GPX or TCX file) of the trails available and important waypoints. Some devices even offer information on nearby cafes, bike stores, hospitals and other destinations if you’re riding somewhere new.
For this kind of riding, even simple units without detailed maps often offer digital compasses and better units will have detailed topographic maps.
Another positive use for navigational units is in case of an emergency. Being able to tell emergency services the exact co-ordinates of an injured friend (or yourself) will greatly speed up the rescue.
GPS for long-distance tourers
Touring GPS units have recently popped onto the market, from both Garmin and Magellan. These offer greater mapping and direction capability along with increased battery capacity.
Some units will also have replaceable batteries, however internal rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are more common because of their lower weight.
Serious touring cyclists may which to use use dynamo hub generators or solar technology to keep the batteries of these units topped up. External battery expanders are another option if you’re seeking directions for an overnight journey.
While digital map coverage is often still limited to developed countries, or at most the large urban areas of developing countries, the vast majority of cyclists will find no flaw in the function of these units.
In any event, in more obscure parts of the world, you may well struggle to get hold of good quality GPS maps just as you would struggle to get hold of good quality paper maps.
GPS for town riders
Touring-based computers offer a range of features that town riders will also find useful, however, a smartphone may prove just as useful for casual riding.
If you’re after basic speed, distance or even navigation, there are endless mobile phone mount options to put your phone on top of your handlebars.
Additional ‘plug-in’ displays such as the BeeLine are also an interesting option that are beginning to pop up.
GPS for multi-sport
Like performance riders, multi-sport riders will likely be after the heart-rate, cadence and even power data. However, if you do more than cycling, you may want to be able to use the device for running or perhaps even swimming, too.
These watch-based devices can usually be unclipped from the wrist strap and clipped straight into a bike mount making for a quick transition.
A major downside to these devices is the smaller screen size, so if you’re planning to keep the device on your bike, you’re better off with a cycling-specific unit.
GPS device glossary
- ANT+: The most common wireless protocol in cycling GPS and electronics. This is used for communication between sensors such as power meters, cadence, speed and heart rate monitors and the head unit device.
- Barometric altimeter (barometer): Where some devices will use maps to give an estimate of elevation, the better options use a barometer to accurately measure elevation. In some devices, this is also used to provide more accurate co-ordinate tracking.
- Bearing/heading: Bearing is the compass direction to the next waypoint, heading is the actual direction of travel (which is usually expressed in degrees)
- Bluetooth: A form of separate wireless receiver/transmitter that is the standard in smart phone technology. Now becoming more popular in GPS units to sync with phones.
- Geocaching: The GPS equivalent of a treasure hunt, using given co-ordinates to find the location. Arguably this feature has had its day, but is still given in some devices.
- GPRS Information: Downloadable and up-to-date information on such things as accidents, congestion, road closures and so on.
- GPX: Also known as GPS Exchange format, this open data format is free to use and is widely accepted as the standard way to share ride, track, waypoint and other GPS based data.
- GLONASS: Stands for Global Navigation Satellite System, it provides alternative satellites to GPS (Global Positioning System). Units that offer GLONASS often have more reliable map coverage and recording along with faster start-up.
- IPX7: This refers to the water resistance rating. IPX7 is a standard benchmark of many electronic devices and means the item will withstand incidental exposure to water of up to one meter for up to 30 minutes. This means that use in the rain will be of no concern
- Odometer: Measures the distance you’ve travelled since it was last reset
- Route: Predetermined points, which are known as waypoints (see below), linked together in the order you intend to travel to them
- Segments: A term made popular by Strava (see below). Strava uses ‘segments’ of tracks and roads to offer virtual racing on popular climbs, descents and time-trials.
- Strava: Website and mobile app used to track fitness activities via GPS. It offers a ‘cloud’ to upload your ride data and compare your fitness with riders in the same area.
- Track: The record the GPS unit makes of your actual course over the ground on any journey that you undertake
- Waypoints: Specific locations that are stored in the GPS – usually used to navigate to or linked together to form a route. May also be known as Points of Interest (POI), or by the more traditional term, Landmarks.