What are the best smartwatches for cycling and why are they more useful than a dedicated cycling computer? Here's what you need to know
When it comes to training, a lot of cyclists wouldn’t think to look beyond a cycling computer mounted on their bars. However, smartwatch technology improvements have made these wrist-based power houses so much more than just mirrors for your mobile phone.
Whether it’s Garmin or Sunto, FitBit or Samsung there are an enormous amount of smartwatch options available, and many of them are able to help you track your overall fitness, via metrics like resting heart rate, as well as what you do on the bike. But it’s important that cyclists get what’s right for them.
For many people, cycling is just one of an array of sporting hobbies they have, and dropping a couple hundred quid on a computer that does one purpose doesn’t make a great deal of sense when you can do the same on a watch that covers all bases. So, with that in mind, here’s our guide to the best smartwatches for cycling.
Best smartwatches for cycling
The best options are those watches that are “multi-sport”, meaning they can track running, swimming, cycling and a boat load of other sports, too. This obviously becomes particularly important if you race triathlons.
While you can record a cycling activity with a standard running smartwatch, when you save the activity it’ll save it as a run and probably in running metrics too (for example pace per mile/kilometre). This means you’ll have to manually edit all your data post activities.
Garmin Forerunner 935 £469
Garmin’s range topping Forerunner watch comes with stacks of performance pushing features, but, at £469, with a price tag to match.
In terms of its sensors, it comes with a barometer, altimeter, thermometer and built in compass and heart rate monitor. Garmin claim its battery life is two weeks in watch mode, 24 hours in GPS mode or 40 hours in UltraTrac – Garmin’s battery saving GPS mode. It uses both Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ to connect to external speed, cadence and power sensors.
See more at Garmin.com
Suunto Spartan HR £399
The Suunto Spartan HR weighs in at £399, a touch cheaper than the Garmin Forerunner 935. Unlike the Garmin model it sports a big touchscreen as well as buttons on the side.
Suunto claims a battery life of 10 hour in training mode or 40 hours power saving mode which is, on paper at least, a significant drop compared to the Forerunner 935. It’s pre-loaded with 80 sports, and is compatible with some Bluetooth power meters and Suunto’s bike sensors.
See more at Suunto
Garmin Fenix 5 £499
The Garmin Fenix 5 is a watch built to last, coming with a Steel Grip design and a stainless steel bezel, making it determined to survive whatever you throw at it. As you might expect, it comes equipped with all the same sensors as the Garmin Forerunner 935.
On paper, the watch’s battery life is also similar, although it will last for 72 hours in UltraTrac mode, opposed to the 40 hours of the Forerunner. It’s capable of running performance tests, including Vo2 Max and FTP as well as Strava Live segments for when you’re out on the road.
See more at Garmin.com
Fitbit Blaze £159.99
Fitbit and its fitness trackers took the world of daily activity tracking by storm. It followed this with the release of the Fitbit Blaze, a watch that has both multi-sport capability and style in spades.
Unlike the other watches included here, the Blaze needs to piggy-back your phone’s GPS to display any real time stats.
See more at Fitbit
Lezyne Micro C GPS watch £125
With this industrial looking watch, Lezyne has really put one of its cycling computers on you wrist. It’s capable of giving you all of the same performance data as Lezyne’s high end cycling computers can.
It doesn’t have as many pre-loaded sports as the other watches, featuring just cycling, running and hiking. However it does also have basic lifestyle data tracking as well as the ability to partner with power meters and other sensors.
See more at Lezyne
What to look for in a smartwatch
The basics and fitness tracking
Nearly all smartwatches track the same metrics as basic fitness trackers do. Whether that’s step count, calorie intake or sleeping habits, it’s easy to see how having this information stored away is handy for cyclists.
If you’re more active, or hoping that your watch will make your more active, then setting targets or goals will be a must. There are more advanced features available which can automatically tell what sport your doing and start tracking immediately.
Those that are able to record heart rate can track your daily resting heart rate, too. This can provide an early indication if you’re becoming fatigued, over trained, ill – and if you’re about to hit your peak fitness.
Aside from these, many newer models are now able to act almost autonomously from your smartphone. Like the Apple Watch Series 3 that can send or receive messages, other smartwatches can now play music, order an Uber, and pay via contactless for products.
ANT+ and Bluetooth compatibility
If you’re in training then you’re going to want to make sure that your watch can connect to the tools you use. Fortunately, smartwatches use the same ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart protocols as cycling computers do.
Although, before you buy it’ll definitely be worth checking the compatibility of your power meter or cadence sensors with your watch as not all broadcast on the same protocols. Today, most power meters communicate on both ANT+ and Bluetooth but it’s still worth checking with the brand of your watch.
Again, this is the same with cadence and speed sensors, and most brand’s have their own proprietary models that they’re compatible with.
Bluetooth meanwhile has the added benefit of connecting your watch to your phone, which is important in wireless syncing your data with the watches’ app. It also allows you to receive notifications from the device as well as play music and much more.
Built in sensors
Depending on the watch you buy, you might not need an additional heart rate monitor as many have optical (wrist-based) heart rate sensors built in. Admittedly, the general consensus is that wrist based readings aren’t as accurate as those from a chest strap, although they are more convenient and could save you a bit of money.
They basically work by lighting up your capillaries with an LED and then using a sensor to track how quickly your blood pumps past – effectively your heart rate. It then translates this into a beat per minute reading.
In built GPS tracking will also be vital, unless you want your watch to piggy-back from your phone for the duration of your rides which will have a detrimental effect on the battery life of both devices. A lot of watches will have varying levels of GPS accuracy on tap, allowing you to configure exactly how much battery you want the watch to be using up and how accurately you’re tracked.
Many multi-sport watches also come with barometers and altimeters, useful if your other hobbies are climbing mountains or activities at sea. The watch will often also use these to help track you more accurately, especially in areas of poor GPS coverage.
It’s worth bearing in mind that more sensors means a greater drain on battery life and necessitates a bigger battery, leading to larger watches.
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Hardware: Touchscreen, buttons and waterproofing
Even if you only use it for cycling, it goes without saying that your smartwatch needs be water resistant, as a base we’d recommend an IP67 rating (note: there’s a significant difference between being waterproof and water resistant, with the latter a rating of its ingress protection, usually seen as an IP rating – the higher the number, the better the protection).
The decision between touchscreen and buttons is more personal preference than anything else. Buttons can have a more tactile feel and guarantee impressions, whereas the quality of touchscreens, and their performance in wet weather, can vary from brand to brand.
On the other hand, touchscreen displays are often more aesthetically pleasing with less bezel and sometimes with smaller screens.