First ride with the new Garmin Varia range of ‘smart’ cycling devices

Garmin is recognised as being at the forefront of GPS technology. However, as revealed recently, it is now actively seeking to improve rider safety.

As detailed in our recent article, the main aim of Garmin’s Varia devices is to improve a rider’s safety by warning the rider when a vehicle is approaching from behind and at the same time alerting the driver that they are coming up to a cyclist. The full Varia set up consists of a radar tail light transmitter which also acts as the tail light, the radar display unit (or an overlay on the Garmin Edge 520 display) and the front light.

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Garmin Varia unit and sensor

The Garmin Varia display unit and rear sensor/tail light

First Ride

We recently got to test ride Garmin’s new Varia system. Granted this was done in the daylight so the true benefits of the Garmin Varia devices could not be tested, in particular we did not test the new front light. However, we were able to get a good feel of whether the system works and if it is really going to make a practical difference to a rider’s awareness.

Garmin kindly clarified two misunderstandings we had from the initial launch. First, the rear sensor picks up cars within 140 metres (150 yards) rather than 150 metres, and secondly the sensor will also pick up cyclists (as well as vehicles) if they are approaching you at a speed much greater than that which you are travelling.


The rear radar duals as the tail light

As with many Garmin products, the rear sensor and display were easy to install. The rear light felt didn’t feel heavy, unlike some rear lights that can be rather weighty. As can be seen in the picture above the rear light was bright even in daylight.

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Garmin Varia

The display unit fits easily on the bars, but could be dispensed with by using a compatible Garmin Edge

The display unit was a sensible size, but if you are concerned about your bars getting too cluttered upgrading to the Edge 520 is advisable. Even in the daylight the display was clear and you could see when a car was approaching at speed- albeit with the caveat that at times in busy traffic it was not possible to always tell which dot related to each of the multiple cars that were overtaking you.

Initial thoughts

Having ridden with the rear sensor and the radar display unit, there are a few questions that we will need to answer when we get to ride the full Varia set up in the dark winter evenings.

Our initial thoughts are that the system could be very useful if your commute involves riding along country lanes where a car may not expect to see you or there has not been any traffic on the road for a while, whereby the tail light increasing in intensity could make the difference between you being seen or not. To be clear, irrespective of the above, the rear light looks like a really good idea on busy roads in built up areas and/or on quiet country roads- a good quality light which reacts to your speed and that of approaching cars can only be a good thing.

However, for several reasons, we are not sure of the practicality of looking at a display screen. Firstly, if the road is quiet you are likely to hear an approaching car, and secondly, if on a busy road you will probably be concentrating on the traffic and road ahead rather than looking down at the display unit.

In summary, we’re looking forward to testing the full Varia system in the environment it is designed for (namely the dark winter months), in particular the headlamp which Garmin says automatically adjusts the front light-beam’s projection dependent on your speed.

For more information please visit Garmin.