9 Great Smart Watches For Cyclists
Every year GPS watches become more like dedicated bike computers by adding cycling-specific features to their ever-growing list of fitness-tracking capabilities. Where once we were excited to just see a little bike symbol among a list of sports mode choices, now watches actually include features cyclists want beyond just distance and pace information, like turn-by-turn directions and power meter data. Here are some of the pros of owning a GPS watch for cycling – and what to look for when you buy one.
Watch or Computer?
A handlebar-mounted bike computer can be the best tool for measuring your rides for a few reasons: It’s got a clearer screen for displaying maps, more display space for ride data, and – okay, most of the reasons are just related to having a bigger screen. But there are certainly situations in which a GPS watch has the edge. For multi-sport athletes, a smart watch with running, swimming, and cycling modes makes it easier to track all your data in one place, and cuts down on the electronics clutter of two devices.
Having your computer on your wrist also makes it easier to move back and forth between different bikes – and even track those short little commutes automatically (hey, they add up!). If you just want to track your pace and ride distance, a watch or computer are equally useful. However, if you’d like to incorporate all your daily metrics into your training, including sleep recovery and activity throughout the day, a smart watch has the edge.
This roundup is by no means an exhaustive list of cycling-specific smart watches, but all the watches below share a few key features you should consider when shopping for your watch. First, a dedicated cycling mode is clutch if you have any interest in syncing your rides to Strava or another training program. Next off, battery life is critical – not just overall watch battery life, but specifically battery life in GPS mode.
Let’s just say you don’t want to start that gravel century not knowing if you’ll still have tracking power by the time you roll your tired carcass across the finish line. And while wrist-based heart rate might not be as accurate as a chest strap, it’s still an important data point for calculating relative effort and caloric burn. Then there are the bonus features, like turn-by-turn directions and power meter compatibility. Not all the watches here can handle those higher-level functions, but we’ve included several high-end models that can. Here are our favourites.
Garmin Forerunner 935
Best for: Replacing your bike computer with a watch
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Garmin has a stacked roster of Forerunners that make perfectly solid cycling trackers – the 230, 235, 305, 310XT, and 630, to name a few – but the 935 stands out thanks to its exhaustive capabilities and long battery life (up to 24 hours in GPS mode). The watch has all the base data you’d expect from a watch of this price and caliber, including heart rate, step counting, and caloric burn; in addition to cycling-specific features, like power meter compatibility, cadence sensor capability, and even Strava Live segments right on the watch. It’s the closest thing Garmin makes to a dedicated bike computer in watch form, which is convenient when you want to switch between bikes without shuffling your computer around or just use one piece of equipment for all your sports data.
Garmin Fenix 5
Best for: Data fiends who like to explore
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The Fenix 5 has nearly all the same cycling-specific features as the Forerunner 935, including power meter compatibility, cadence sensor capability, stellar battery life (up to 24 hours), and Strava Live segments – as well as the standard high-end smartwatch features like heart rate, step counting, waterproof swimming mode, and caloric burn. The big difference between the two is in the Fenix 5’s mapping features. You can use the watch like you would a car GPS to create a route to a destination with turn by turn directions, so you can always find your way home, even if you’re out riding or running without a phone.
Polar Vantage M
One of the lightest smart watches on our list
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At 44 grams, this is one of the lightest full-featured smart watches available. There are pages of features, but the important ones are: optical wrist heart rate sensor with continuous tracking, activity tracking, sleep tracking, Bluetooth sensor support, multisport mode and swimming metrics, and GPS. Smartphone notifications are supposed to come in a firmware update in early 2019. Of particular interest to cyclists, the Vantage M’s optical heart rate sensor incorporates a skin-contact sensor to mitigate imprecise measurements, though Polar reps say a chest strap still provides the most precise heart rate information.
The only major feature not included that data-savvy cyclists may miss: a barometric altimeter. As with other Polar devices, the Vantage M offers extensive training and recovery information and metrics, both in the watch and through Polar’s Flow service. We wish the screen looked as bright and sharp as it does in Polar’s pictures (it’s actually a bit dim), but the Vantage is reasonably easy to set up and use, something that has been a knock against previous Polar devices.
Garmin Fenix 5X Plus
Up to 13 hours of battery life when using GPS
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The Fenix 5X Plus has many of the same features as the Forerunner 945, but it packages them into a more robust case that comes in three sizes (42mm, 47mm, and 51mm). It also boasts a better battery that Garmin claims will last up to 20 days in smartwatch mode and up to 13 hours when using GPS. It’s packed to the gills with features for both elite and recreational cyclists, and anyone who loves tracking stats. You also get a pulse oximeter and sleep-tracking functions. Pair it to a smartphone and you can stream music via Spotify, get notifications, and make use of the discrete assistance alert as well as incident detection.
Samsung Galaxy Watch
Stream your music directly from the watch via Spotify
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Like the Apple Watch, this is a powerful smart watch at a reasonable price that’s worth a hard look. It comes preloaded with 45 sport profiles for recording workouts, and the activity tracking functions keep tabs of not only your workouts but also your daily movements, calories burned, and sleep patterns. Naturally, you can use Samsung Pay, and the watch features wireless connectivity for data access when untethered from your phone, including streaming music through your Spotify account. Add a data plan and take calls and texts from the convenience of your wrist.
Apple Watch Series 4
Best for: Apple fans who have been waiting for more cycling features
Price: R7799 (GPS ONLY)
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While not the best overall GPS watch for cycling, this iteration of the Apple Watch is the best of its kind for cycling to date, thanks to a few added bike features. The watch’s battery life is still a comparatively scant six hours in GPS mode, but now it has a cadence sensor for indoor and outdoor rides, pace alerts for outdoor rides, and rolling kilometre pace, which indicates your preceding kilometre pace. There’s even a new safety feature that can detect a crash and notify emergency services, if it doesn’t receive a timely response from the wearer. That comes in addition to all the features that make the Apple Watch a great smart watch in general, including general fitness and social features and the ability to receive and respond to texts and emails.
Insanely long battery life
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This feature-packed watch has an astounding battery life—up to 25 hours in Performance mode and up to 120 hours in Ultra mode. You get real-time notifications on remaining battery life, allowing you to change modes on the go so you don’t run out of juice before the end of your double century. Optical sensors read heart rate, and you can connect a heart-rate strap for greater accuracy.
Best for: Fitness riders who want all their stats in one place
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Currently the only Fitbit with on-board GPS (RIP Surge), the Ionic has a dedicated cycling setting that can sync to Strava through Fitbit’s clean, easy-to-use app; a wrist-based heart rate monitor; and a decent battery life in GPS mode of up to 10 hours. You can receive social notifications on the watch, as well as make wallet payments, and play music. As a dedicated cycling watch, it lacks many of the ride-specific features you can get from the Garmin 935 and Garmin Fenix 5; however, if you’re just looking for a solid, all around fitness watch that can track your rides, calories, sleep, steps, and every other metric the human body can conceivably produce, this is a good option. Warning: My model sometimes takes 10-15 extra seconds to get a GPS signal.
Garmin Forerunner 235
Best for: Garmin enthusiasts who can’t stomach spending R7000
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The 235 has most of the features you want: wrist-based heart rate monitoring, audio prompts, fitness and sleep tracking, smart notifications, social-media sharing, accurate GPS data, and, of course, a cycling-specific setting. However, it’s primarily a running watch, and doesn’t support all the higher-end cycling capabilities you can find on a 935 or Fenix 5. If you don’t care about those bonus features (like Live segments or power meter data), the Forerunner 235 is likely all you need for most rides – at a far reduced price. In GPS mode, it has a solid battery life of up to 16 hours.