There was a time you had to commit a crime to find yourself fitted with a wearable GPS tracker. Now people pay good money to have their movements monitored. But why might such devices pique the interest of the average cyclist?
Generally incorporating GPS capability, along with an optical heart rate sensor, smartwatches can provide many of the functions associated with a cycling computer. Indeed, most will also combine with any additional sensors you might already own to collect and display cycling-specific information such as your power output.
Obviously required to be small enough to fit on your wrist, their diminutive screens might not be quite as readily reviewable as a standard bike computer. At the same time, although they do have the benefit of recording almost anything else you might get up to, from running and swimming to climbing or hiking. Helping you stick to your zones or guide you through pre-set training programmes, many also provide fitness-tracking metrics like sleep quality or daily steps.
Plus they’ll tell you the time without you having to get your phone out, which is always useful. They’re also very popular with triathletes and cyclocross riders. The first because they regularly switch between sports, and the second because they regularly switch between bikes.
Whatever your reason for wanting one, here are five of the best…
Wahoo Elemnt Rival
£350, Shop Wahoo
Having proved itself a capable rival to Garmin in the GPS computer market, Wahoo clearly fancies taking a bite out of the wearables market too. Is this the watch to do it? Maybe. Significantly more stripped back in functionality than some equivalents, the Wahoo Elemnt Rival is aimed heavily at ‘real’ athletes, and in particular tri-athletes.
In fact, use it during the aforementioned discipline and it’ll detect which leg you’re currently engaged in automatically and adjust accordingly. If you’ve got a matching Wahoo bike computer, it’ll send your overall time its way without you having to press a single button. However, clever as this is, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Rival really does focus on swimming, cycling, and running.
So while it’ll count steps and calories, don’t expect much in the way of passive fitness tracking or guided workouts. Instead, the Wahoo excels in displaying clearly those metrics most useful to athletes in any given situation. Navigable via reliable buttons rather than a touch screen, even when hosting the maximum six data fields its face remains easily readable.
Customisable via your phone, it’s currently a slightly Spartan option. However, we wouldn’t be surprised if updates make it less so. Either way, it’s well worth considering.
Polar Grit X
£379, Shop Polar
The appropriately rugged Polar Grit X is likely to be a hit with those that favour referring to their holidays as ‘expeditions’. Not only does it have a 40 hours lifespan when using GPS and heart rate, but it also has several other back-of-beyond features.
For one thing, if you’ve got a Komoot subscription it can provide turn-by-turn directions along with a breadcrumb trail to follow. Ensuring you don’t get caught out, it’ll also warn you of incoming weather fronts before they arrive. Equally clever is its ability to tell whether you’re heading uphill or down. Automatically dividing your splits via its HillSplitter function, this makes it perfect for both climb bagging and hill reps.
Managing pretty much all of the things you’d expect from a watch of this price, including reminding you to eat, given Polar’s history there’s also plenty of cycling-specific functions. These are backed by a cycling bundle that includes the watch, a more accurate chest-strap heart-rate monitor, and an out-front mount. At the same time, there’s no ANT+ functionality which might annoy some people. You’ll also miss out on the ability to make contactless payments or shuffle tracks on Spotify. However, for sporting or adventure use it’s a very solid first effort.
Garmin Fenix 6S Pro
£600, Shop Garmin
The top watch from the best-known smartwatch maker. If you’ve got the money and want insurance against missing out when it comes to functions, there’s very little reason not to plump for the Garmin Fenix 6S Pro. With a spec list several pages long, there’s likely something that’ll leap out to each athlete.
For me, it’s that the Fenix allows you to take a tiny map with you on your wrist, meaning you need never get lost again. Or maybe the ClimbPro feature that provides real-time information on your current ascent and upcoming ones including gradient, distance and elevation gain. The fact you can use it for contactless payments is also very handy, as is the ability to skip tracks on your playlists or see if the incoming call you're receiving is worth interrupting your ride for.
Basically, it’s all-around very smart. Styled to be fairly unobtrusive looking, you get a choice between three diameters, 42, 47, and 51mm. Of course, the more ostentatious you go, the more legible it’ll be once attached to the handlebar. For maximum neatness, Garmin even produces a quarter-turn adaptor allowing you to attach the Fenix to your bike sans straps. Making it potentially the best alternative to a dedicated cycling computer listed here, it’s also one of the priciest options, but then you get what you pay for.
£539, Shop Coros
You can’t just jump into the high-end smartwatch market. So while readers in Europe might be encountering the Coros name for the first time, Americans are less likely to find it a novelty. Targeting the nation’s many self-identifying rugged individualists, it’s built a reputation among climbers, trail runners, and general outdoorsy types, with the Vertix being its premium offering.
Managing a substantial 60 hours in full GPS mode, and 150 hours in its endurance-focused UltraMax GPS mode, it offers breadcrumb navigation so you can venture safely into the back of beyond. With guided workouts, plentiful tracking features, and a plethora of activities to choose from, it’s by no means a cycling focused offering, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be happy to work with your existing ANT+ and Bluetooth accessories.
Very nice to look at, its medium-sized touchscreen is surrounded by a carbon fibre and titanium housing. Resulting in a watch that’s both light and slim, it’s easily the sort of thing you could wear every day, which given its maximum 45-day battery life is something many will likely do. Ideal for pottering around town, we’re also very taken with its 24/7 blood oxygen monitoring function which can help you gauge your acclimatisation evaluation and suggests when it is safe to climb higher. All very macho.
Suunto 9 Baro
£539, Shop Suunto
One of the early movers in the smartwatch market, Suunto’s top-flight 9 Baro offers plentiful features in a minimalist looking watch. With four battery modes, these deliver between 25 and 170 hours of recording time with GPS tracking on. Another smartwatch maker that’s partnered with Komoot, it’s a collaboration that’s allowed Suunto to include a breadcrumb navigation feature on the 9 Baro.
Useful for hikers or more adventurous off-road cyclists, this also includes the ability to immediately create points of interest and use them to navigate with later. You might have guessed that Baro stands for barometric, a facility that allows the watch to tell you how high you’ve climbed and which is useful when cycling in the mountains. Useful, especially in remote spots, it's not quite as smart as Garmin’s ClimbPro feature which will tell you exactly how far is left until the top.
Letting you decide whether to push on or head for home, cleverly the watch will also tell you how tired you are, along with what the weather is about to do. With 80 different sport modes, the 9 Baro is happy to accompany you whatever you get up to. It’ll pair with existing Bluetooth cycling sensors, although not those running via ANT+. Should you need such a thing, Suunto also sells a combined speed and cadence unit for a reasonable price.