Box Of Tricks

For years, the world of GPS bike com­put­ers has been ruled by one brand, but now its ri­vals are find­ing ways to chal­lenge its dom­i­nance

Cyclist - - Contents - Words SAM CHAL­LIS Pho­tog­ra­phy TAPESTRY

Garmin has dom­i­nated the GPS market for so long that, like Hoover and Sel­lotape, its name has be­come a generic term. But a host of new chal­lengers could be set to change that

It’s safe to say bike com­put­ers have come a long way since Cur­tis Veeder in­vented the Cy­clome­ter in 1895. A sim­ple me­chan­i­cal de­vice, it counted wheel ro­ta­tions and sent this info to an ana­logue odome­ter on the han­dle­bars that then cal­cu­lated dis­tance us­ing a for­mula based on the cir­cum­fer­ence of the front wheel.

Fast for­ward 122 years and the bike com­puter has evolved into a truly so­phis­ti­cated piece of hard­ware. Just as Veeder re­alised, few sports are as eas­ily mea­sured or quan­ti­fied as cy­cling, and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies have sought to ex­ploit this ever since. To­day’s prod­ucts can col­lect, plot and an­a­lyse just about any per­for­mance met­ric you can imag­ine while track­ing you any­where in the world. It’s hardly a sur­prise that the bike com­puter has be­come as es­sen­tial to a road rider as their favourite bib­shorts.

Lie of the land

‘The devel­op­ment of new tech­nolo­gies and a cy­clist’s un­der­stand­ing of how met­rics can help them im­prove their per­for­mance means bike com­put­ers have in­creas­ingly be­come a ba­sic re­quire­ment,’ says Maria Towns­ley, prod­uct man­ager at Garmin UK. ‘When paired with a power me­ter, GPS com­put­ers al­low rid­ers to know their own bod­ies and quan­tify the im­pact that train­ing has on their fit­ness lev­els. I’d also ar­gue that it’s just fun to record and share what you’ve been do­ing with your friends.’

Draw­ing on con­sid­er­able fi­nan­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal re­sources, as well as ex­pe­ri­ence in other areas such as car sat-navs, Garmin was the first com­pany to re­ally es­tab­lish it­self in the bike com­puter market, to the ex­tent that, like Hoover and Sel­lotape, the brand’s name has be­come a generic term for the cat­e­gory it­self.

Yet for all the ever-ex­pand­ing ar­ray of fea­tures each new gen­er­a­tion of de­vice of­fers, Towns­ley ar­gues that the key to Garmin’s suc­cess has been its fo­cus on get­ting the ba­sics right.

‘En­sur­ing qual­ity base fea­tures is ex­tremely im­por­tant. Be­fore ad­ding more com­plex­ity, we thought sim­ple us­abil­ity and data ac­cu­racy was es­sen­tial. Once the ba­sics were down, pri­or­ity came in the form of safety, per­for­mance and nav­i­ga­tion, but we let the user de­cide in what or­der.’

Re­cently, how­ever, Garmin has been fac­ing in­creas­ingly stiff com­pe­ti­tion, with com­peti­tors re­leas­ing prod­ucts aimed squarely at steal­ing some of the market leader’s sales. Ac­cord­ing to Terry Cooke, ad­vanced devel­op­ment man­ager at Lezyne, there is one main rea­son why the market is liven­ing up.

‘A few years ago I no­ticed a big change in the way smart­phones were be­ing used,’ he says. ‘There was this new wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­to­col called Blue­tooth Low En­ergy (BLE), and this set the stage for not hav­ing to use Garmin sen­sors, which are based on its pro­pri­etary ANT+ stan­dard. BLE of­fered sim­i­lar lev­els of power re­quire­ment and ro­bust­ness to in­ter­fer­ence, but un­like ANT+ it was ubiq­ui­tous across all smart­phones. This piqued our in­ter­est as we thought

Garmin ar­gues that the key to its suc­cess has been its fo­cus on get­ting the ba­sics right

it could change the dy­namic of the market – you could have a bike com­puter, link it to your phone and us­ing BLE get the best of both worlds.’

In other words, rather than hav­ing to cram all the nec­es­sary fea­tures into a head unit, the com­puter could be used as a por­tal to your phone.

‘BLE al­lows you to use your phone for what it’s good for: tex­ting, call­ing, look­ing at pretty maps, and so on. But it also al­lows your head unit to be used for what it’s good for: long bat­tery life or be­ing easy to read in the sun. You can put it on your han­dle­bars and not worry about break­ing a £500 piece of glass. Your phone is pow­er­ful enough now – mine is bet­ter than my first desktop com­puter – so why take two bits of hard­ware out with you that do the same thing?’

This ap­proach isn’t with­out its down­sides, for ex­am­ple the in­abil­ity to play with a map with­out hav­ing to stop and pull out your phone (since the head unit will only dis­play a pared­down ver­sion of the map), but Dil­lon

says it’s more cost-ef­fec­tive, safer and will al­ways be eas­ier to do this on a phone com­pared to a bike com­puter.

‘Bike com­puter touch­screens have to be re­sis­tive [force-based] or they’d go hay­wire in the rain, so they will al­ways be more clumsy to use than ca­pac­i­tive phone screens. They use an elec­tric cur­rent that al­lows finer con­trol and much more beau­ti­ful graph­ics. You just can’t get them wet.’

.‘ Hav­ing just one . brand dom­i­nat­ing an . en­vi­ron­ment doesn’t . fos­ter in­no­va­tion’

Join­ing the fray

If Garmin fo­cuses on a com­plete pack­age and Lezyne tar­gets price and fea­tures, Wa­hoo’s ef­forts to carve its own niche in the market are cen­tred on sim­pli­fy­ing the user ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘I’d say 75% of us ride bikes and use bike com­put­ers, which makes it eas­ier for us to iden­tify flaws in our ri­vals’ prod­ucts,’ says Jose Men­dez, the com­pany’s di­rec­tor of prod­uct man­age­ment.

It’s an ap­proach that seems to be bear­ing fruit. Last year Wa­hoo re­leased the well-re­ceived Elemnt and re­cently brought out an up­dated de­sign, the Elemnt Bolt (see is­sue 61).

‘Hav­ing just one brand dom­i­nat­ing

an en­vi­ron­ment doesn’t fos­ter in­no­va­tion. When you own the space it’s nat­u­ral to get a bit com­pla­cent, and peo­ple put up with it be­cause it’s the only op­tion. That’s why the market leader is be­ing chal­lenged and why I think up un­til this point devel­op­ment in the market had plateaued.’

Like Lezyne, Wa­hoo felt that one do-it-all de­vice wasn’t the way to go in terms of er­gonomics. ‘We em­pha­sise the use of a phone app to con­trol our com­put­ers. Ev­ery­one knows how to use an app, so why clum­sily al­ter set­tings on a bike com­puter when it can be done more eas­ily and ef­fi­ciently from your phone?’ Men­dez asks.

So a co­op­er­a­tive set-up be­tween phone and com­puter has been a vi­able route to market – and it’s a trend that’s likely to con­tinue – but don’t ex­pect Garmin to fol­low suit any time soon. While Towns­ley ac­knowl­edges that smart­phones and bike com­put­ers are com­ple­men­tary tech­nolo­gies, she says Garmin’s re­search sug­gests ath­letes are mov­ing away from us­ing phones.

‘Us­ing cy­cling-spe­cific GPS kit means a cy­clist’s needs are at the fore­front of de­sign, rather than be­ing just an added fea­ture. As­pects such as bat­tery life, wa­ter re­sis­tance and con­nec­tiv­ity have been specif­i­cally de­signed and tested to fit into the life­style of cy­clists,’ she says.

Look­ing ahead

Just as brands dif­fer in their ap­proach to the in­ter­nals of the bike com­puter, a bat­tle is brew­ing over the ex­ter­nals too. Aero­dy­nam­ics has be­come a hot topic for head units, with Wa­hoo claim­ing the Bolt can save 12.6 sec­onds over 40km com­pared to ri­val de­vices. Ac­cord­ing to Men­dez, the size and shape of the bike com­puter are where we’ll see de­vel­op­ments.

‘We cap­ture pretty much all the met­rics you could ever need, and I hate to say it but cy­cling is so much about how things look,’ Men­dez says. ‘Ev­ery­one sees how much at­ten­tion peo­ple pay to the way they look on the bike, even down to their socks. Yet for a long time the com­puter was seen as just this lit­tle box that we stick on the front of our bikes. My point when we started this project was that we should be de­sign­ing prod­ucts that suit the bike. They should look part of it – the bike is aero­dy­nam­i­cally shaped, so why shouldn’t the com­puter be too?’

It is a sur­prise that the in­ter­face be­tween bike and com­puter has re­mained so ba­sic. Jim Stem­per, me­chan­i­cal engi­neer at pow­er­spe­cial­ist firm Stages, knows why.

‘We en­coun­tered this prob­lem in the early stages of de­vel­op­ing the Dash,’ he says, speak­ing of Stages’ met­rics-fo­cused new com­puter. ‘As long as com­po­nent brands are

‘Ev­ery­one knows how to use . an app, so why clum­sily al­ter . set­tings on a bike com­puter?’

in­no­vat­ing on bar shape, shift­ing con­trols and other ac­ces­sories, it will al­ways be a game of catch-up for us to work with all the new stuff. Un­til com­pa­nies start to work to­gether, we will be chas­ing in­te­gra­tion in­stead of in­no­vat­ing on a com­mon sys­tem.’

Es­tab­lish­ing some com­mon stan­dards, he ar­gues, would make it eas­ier to de­sign com­put­ers that run

‘GPS is hard to get clean data out of. There’s plenty . of scope for devel­op­ment’

off a big­ger, out­board power source – a Di2 bat­tery, for ex­am­ple.

‘The com­puter could then get both re­ally tiny and re­ally smart, as the bat­tery is such a lim­it­ing fac­tor. The com­puter would es­sen­tially be­come a dis­play that has all the con­nec­tiv­ity you’ll need, cedes no aero­dy­namic dis­ad­van­tage, has lit­tle weight penalty and would never have to leave the bike.’

With­out a trace

An in­vig­o­rated market and more ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy is all well and good, but what about the bike com­puter’s of­ten in­fu­ri­at­ingly flaky core func­tion: satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion?

Cooke says, ‘Lezyne founder Micki Kozuschek has al­ways said, “James Bond ru­ined GPS.” When 007 uses his GPS, it in­stantly knows ex­actly where he is and where he needs to go, but GPS tech­nol­ogy is ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to get clean data out of and it takes a lot of soft­ware to smooth it out. There’s plenty of scope for devel­op­ment in sig­nal ac­cu­racy.’

A big prob­lem is that chang­ing weather pat­terns of­ten skew data, but ter­res­trial so­lu­tions are in devel­op­ment, strate­gi­cally placed to cover the globe. ‘This would side­step the weather is­sue to a de­gree and greatly im­prove ac­cu­racy,’ says Cooke. ‘Plus, where most com­put­ers use GPS [the USA’S con­stel­la­tion of satel­lites] and GLONASS [Rus­sia’s], by 2020 they’ll also be able to use Bei­dou, China’s sys­tem, and the UN’S Galileo.’

The up­shot is that in a few years your de­vice should spend far less time on that in­fer­nal ‘ac­quir­ing satel­lites’ start-up page. And that’s good news for ev­ery­one. Sam Chal­lis works well in all weather con­di­tions

Wa­hoo be­lieves the fact that most of its em­ploy­ees ride reg­u­larly helped it iden­tify flaws in ri­val prod­ucts when de­vel­op­ing the Elemnt

Stages is keen for bike com­puter mak­ers to work with com­po­nent man­u­fac­tur­ers to im­prove in­te­gra­tion be­tween bike and head unit

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