Could the best cycling computer not even be a computer at all? It’s very well possible that a cell phone has now supplanted the cycling-specific computer as the best available device for use while riding. The days of a single-function cycling GPS (global positioning satellite) computer may soon be coming to an end.
There are primarily two types of cycling computers - your basic model that displays speed, distance, time, etc, and more advanced GPS models that track your ride using satellites, and record it for upload to mapping and training software. GPS models can further be divided into two types – those that display only data and those that have a real-time map display; similar to what you would use in a car (only a lot smaller). While there are dozens of manufacturers of basic cycling computers, the market for GPS cycling computers has been dominated by Garmin. And of course, Garmin cycling computers are used by the Garmin professional cycling team.
What makes Garmin GPS products so popular is that they’re made specifically for cycling, and provide just the data that we need for riding. The specific nature of these devices is also the reason they’re not very flexible, and can’t be used for much other than riding or jogging.
Now cell phones, or more specifically smartphones, are able to provide many of the same functions as the most advance GPS cycling computers. Plus, they’re able to perform additional tasks that aren’t feasible on any cycling computer.
Smartphones are primarily known for their ability to display e-mail and browse the web. As technology’s progressed, more and more features have been merged into these devices. What was once a phone has now become an e-mail client, web browser, texting device, camera, video player, video camera, and music player as well.
Now, with the ability to download applications (apps), smartphones can perform thousands of functions in the palm of your hand. Want to play a game such as chess, solitaire or poker? Got it. Want to look up movies and buy your tickets online? Done. Want to listen to Pandora? Just login. Calculate interest on an amortization schedule; determine your body fat percentage; find a new apartment; confirm flight schedules; check prices at local gas stations. They’re all in the app stores and they’re all free.
So what can a Smartphone do for cyclists?
One of the most exciting features on Smartphones is real-time GPS mapping with navigation. Any Smartphone with internet access has the ability to launch a mapping program such as Microsoft’s Bing Maps or Google Maps. Newer smartphones are "GPS aware”; meaning that they can pinpoint your location and re-center the map based upon your GPS coordinates. So if you’ve got a GPS aware smartphone you’ll be able to see your present location represented by a flashing dot or arrow, and the map will re-center on the screen as you move.
Since most mapping programs have standardized on specific colors for different types of roads, you have the ability to plan your route by interpreting road colors on the map. For example, roads represented with thin yellow lines, are two lane highways with a yellow stripe down the center; thick yellow lines represent divided highways; and grey lines represent smaller roads or side streets. Therefore you can select the most appropriate roads for the type of riding you plan on doing that day. You can also switch to "satellite view” for overhead photographic images of where you’re riding.
There are online mapping programs such as Google Maps that let you create your own map (cycling route) on a PC, and then view it on your smartphone. That way when you’re out on the road you can view your route, represented by a line on the map.
Google is now providing "Bicycling” route mapping, in addition to the "Car”, "Walking” and "Public Transit” options that have been on their site for some time. The bicycling option is designed to select low traffic roads and cycling paths, where available. I tested their system by keying in Rockville, MD as the start and Washington, DC as the destination. Google Maps selected a route utilizing Falls Road, to MacArthur Blvd., to the Crescent Trail, to Rock Creek Park Trail; all good cycling choices. You also have the ability to modify the route by dragging markers on the screen, and you can print out the turn-by-turn directions for your cue sheet.
Some smartphone mapping programs allow you to "Share Latitude” with other GPS users. This will share your location with friends, so that if you’re on a group ride and split up, you’ll be able to see where other riders are located; represented by photos or icons on the map. This is one feature you and your friends can have, that professional cyclists will never get to use. The International Cycling Union objects to race radios for tracking riders, so you can only imagine how this technology could affect the outcome of races.
A more advanced mapping program available on certain smartphones is "Navigation”. This is similar to the navigation system you have in a car. Simply voice or type a destination and your smartphone will map your route with turn-by-turn directions. The screen will display upcoming turns and voice them such as "Turn left on Darnestown Road” or "Take the third exit at the traffic circle”. Some cell phone providers charge an additional monthly fee for the navigation feature, so be sure to check with your carrier.
So as you can see, there are endless features available with mapping and navigation, yet it’s most vital feature is simply having GPS mapping at your fingertips. Never again will you be lost because of cue sheet errors or a missed turn.
Having GPS and navigation isn’t enough? But wait, there’s more!
The proliferation of smartphones plus the huge success of the Apple iPhone store has resulted in other smartphone vendors rolling out their own app stores. Now there’s a "Windows Marketplace” for Microsoft smartphones; "BlackBerry App World” for BlackBerry smartphones; and the "Droid Marketplace” for Android smartphones, among others.
In these markets you’ll find several cycling-specific applications available for download such as "SportyPal”. You activate it when you start cycling and it will log and map your position, movement, distance, tempo and calories burned. When you finish your ride, the collected performance information will be stored on your smartphone. Later you can review it, compare it with other exercises or check your best performance achievements. SportyPal will present each exercise in a map view, draw elegant graphics charts of your performance or present summarized information.
Google has an app called "My Tracks”. When you launch My Tracks you’re taken to a map screen with your current location. Select "Record Track” and you’ve just started the computer and begun to record your ride. You’ll see a red line being drawn on the map as you go. Touch the screen to switch from the map view to a statistics screen and you’ll see a bevy of data; Speed, Total Distance, Total Time, Max Speed, Average Speed, Moving Time, Average Moving Speed, Elevation, Elevation Gain, Min Elevation, Max Elevation, Min Grade, Max Grade, Latitude and Longitude. Touch the screen again and you’ll be taken to the graphics screen which displays your cumulative speed and elevation on one of those pretty color line charts.
Other apps include "SportsTrack Live” which is a program that lets you create training logs, merge heart rate and cadence from Garmin or Polar devices, plus many other advanced features. And "MapMyRide”, which is a popular web site for cyclists, offers smartphone integration.
What’s the battery life? Smartphone batteries typically last all day for e-mail, web browsing and other normal use; but running GPS mapping, plus a cycling computer program, and leaving the screen display on, causes a lot of battery drain. You’ll only get about 1-2 hours of battery life while riding. So you’ll need to have spare batteries, or get an auxiliary battery charger that plugs into the USB port and strap it to your handlebar.
The battery solution that I use is a portable charger (I-UP 5400) which works on any smartphone with a USB connector. It will recharge my battery 3 or 4 times during the day, even while I’m using riding my bike. When my battery begins to get low, I simply turn on the charger and it recharges the smartphone on the go. Now I can ride for hours without worrying about losing power, thus eliminating the need for a 43 mile extension cord!
In any event, be sure to carry a spare battery with you. It’s no big deal to be without a cycling computer, but you definitely need your cell phone to work at all times.
How do you mount smartphones to a bike? There are a limited number of bike mount kits available for smartphones, so this may be a bit challenging depending upon which brand and model you choose. What I did was take the cradle portion of a car window mount made for my phone, and mate it (screws and nuts) with a clamp that was made for a down tube bike lock. Now the phone fits on my handlebar stem just like any other computer. Looking at my setup you would think it was factory made.
So while it does take a bit of extra effort to configure a smartphone for your bike, (installing software, mounting it, and providing extra battery power) the results are well worth it. Even if you don’t plan on using a smartphone for your primary cycling computer, just slip it in your jersey pocket for GPS mapping when needed.
Here’s a quick rundown of major features to consider when choosing a smartphone:
- Mapping – Available on any smartphone with web access
- GPS Tracking – Available on any smartphone that’s "GPS aware”
- Turn-by-turn Navigation – Available on select smartphones from select carriers. Some carriers impose a monthly fee for this service.
- Google Maps Turn-by-turn Navigation – Available Android without an additional monthly fee
- Cycling Applications – Available from app stores including Apple, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Droid, etc. Not all apps are available on all platforms. Some are free and some charge a fee.
- MapMyRide – Available on iPhone, BlackBerry and Android
The smartphone that I use is an Android and I’m partial to the Android operation system (O/S). Its seamless integration with Google Maps and voice navigation is its biggest selling point. The Droid app store is second only to Apple’s iPhone store in size and scope. So as of right now, iPhone and Android are the market leaders in smartphones offering the most apps and software flexibility.
So if you’ve been thinking about upgrading to a new cycling-specific GPS, or getting a new cell phone for web access and e-mail, do yourself a favor and check out the latest generation of smartphones. It takes cell phone functionality to a whole new level, and once you own one, you’ll never know how you got along without it. They’re simply a joy to use and I can’t recommend them highly enough.