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.

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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
BikeRadar

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  — Garmin, the owners of the ANT+ protocol, is now allowing some of its devices to play nice with Bluetooth.

The prevalence of Bluetooth in GPS watches creates some difficulty when connecting to power meters because 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 the majority of 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 home WiFi network, so they can sync your rides without a smartphone connection.

Battery life

A watch is no good to you if it’s dead, so claimed battery life is something to look into before spending your hard earned cash on a GPS timepiece.

While it’s quite common for watches to claim their battery will last weeks on end, be sure to check the ‘in activity’ or GPS battery life, because the internal GPS chip draws quite heavily on the battery.

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 such as 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.