How to Choose a Bike Computer

Getting the most out of your workout often entails sticking to a strict program and setting measurable goals for yourself. While heart rate monitors, pedometers, and fitness watches are a great way to keep track of running workouts, if you're focusing on cycling, you'll need a bike computer that can record all the data you need to measure your progress.

Whether you're an avid mountain biker who needs a bike computer to know distance, time, and altitude, or a road cyclist who rides long distances or trains for triathlons, these devices are great pieces of bike equipment. And though they may seem like gear only tech-savvy people can understand, a few simple considerations should make the selection process easier.

Bike Computer

The Technical Part

First, it may be beneficial to understand exactly what a bike computer does and how it accomplishes the task. Bike computers, or cyclometers, as they're often referred to, can be used to measure current, average, and maximum speeds; total miles traveled; pedal cadence per minute; and more.

At the core of the technology is a setup in which a magnet is mounted onto the bike's spokes, while a sensor is affixed to the fork. Every time the magnet passes the sensor, it sends a signal to the computer (typically mounted on your handlebars) and processes the data. This receiver also uses the wheel’s circumference to calculate your speed and distance you've traveled. Speed is calculated by the time it took the wheel to make a full rotation, which is converted to miles or kilometers per hour; distance is determined by multiplying the total number of rotations by the wheel circumference.

Mounting Bike Computers

Because of the many different types of bike computers, you'll want to be sure you know exactly how to install the one you choose. Otherwise, you'll run the risk of hitting a few common setbacks that will leave you biking in the stone ages once again.

After you've read the instructions that come with the computer, start by mounting the receiver onto your handlebars. Attach the fork sensor next, and if it’s a wired computer, i.e., it needs a wire to transmit data to the receiver, be sure to wind it so that it doesn't rub on the wheels or frame. If it’s wireless, do your best to install the receiver directly over the fork sensor, making sure to keep the devices within two feet of each other. Screw in the spoke magnet so that it’s as close as possible to the fork sensor, and once you calibrate it to the manufacturer's specifications, you'll be ready to roll.

Features Galore

When it comes to choosing a computer, you'll need to decide on the features you want. If you’ll be mountain biking, you'll want to focus on durability first and features second. Most mountain bikers need to know only their current and average speed and distance information to get by. There are, however, computers such as the Garmin Edge 800 that offer durability and plenty of features, including GPS.

If you're training for a race though, you'll want to choose a model that maximizes your training. These models come with a stopwatch and ways to measure your cadence (how many times you pedal per minute), your geographic location, and even your heart rate. These devices, such as the Sigma BC series, offer plenty of conveniences—multiple settings for various bikes, several time functions, and battery indicators.

As with other workout training computers, you can load data from some bike computers onto your home PC to set up training plans, share with your friends, or keep accurate logs of your progress.

Consider This

Now that you're armed with some basic knowledge of bike computers, here are a few extra factors to consider that will help you choose the system that's right for you. Look at the display and determine if the characters are easy and large enough to read while you're riding. Since you'll be able to glance down only sporadically, you'll want a display that is extremely easy to read.

Mountain bikers often choose wireless setups to decrease their chances of snagging a root or branch, whereas road bikes are typically wired to avoid transmission interference with nearby racers. If you know you'll be switching the computer between multiple bikes on a regular basis, be sure to choose one that’s easily compatible with multiple setups.

Some devices can even link up with smartphones and tablets through apps, giving you more power to develop training programs wherever you are.

A good bike computer will either help you meet your training goals, or just give you an accurate snapshot of how you're doing on your ride. Either way, make sure to take time to choose the right one so that you get the most out of it.

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