Whether you’re attempting to climb a million feet in a year
, have one heck of a long weekend
, or riding so much elevation in a day that you need to fuel with enough potatoes to give yourself radiation poisoning
, measuring your riding by total ascent seems to be a popular way to go. Whether you pronounce it dayta
a, there’s definitely an increasing appetite among mountain bikers for recording rides.
I’m something of a data fiend myself, although I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with it. I don’t interpret it in the same way as those VO2-hitting, FTP-knowing athletes in the upper echelons of our sport, but I do like to know what’s going on and, without sounding a dab pathetic, I always record my rides, with an emphasis on the total ascent. Like many of us, I both depend upon and decry all kinds of technology. For that, I am something of a walking contradiction. I know social media and apps aren't my cup of tea, but at the same time, I can’t stay away from them. However, the true extent of my technophilic tendencies is betrayed by how much I really do enjoy keeping tabs on my riding and the regularity at which I find myself poring over my accumulative ride time on Strava.
My main concern is that my device be accurate. If you’ve ever gone up for an extra lap just to roll over a certain distance or total elevation gain, then I’m sure you'll understand. I don’t want some arbitrary yardstick - I want it to be able to consistently and accurately compare my riding. I also like to be able to confirm that my heart is beating, and so, yes, I enjoy wearing a heart rate monitor. Speed and power don’t really concern me and aren't metrics I use to measure my rides. In the past, I have ridden with a power meter but I now just embrace the fact that there isn’t much difference between an “incredibly small amount of power” and merely a “very small amount of power” and so I have pushed it beyond my concern.
For this group test, I chose to review products that are all around the €200 mark ($240 US). This isn’t a small amount of cash, but in GPS terms it isn’t bouncing off the rev limiter either. The units that fit the bill are the Garmin Edge 130 Plus ($200), the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt ($230) and the Lezyne Mega XL ($200). I tested them over a period of a month and all the riding was done on the same climb. Also, to qualify my statements, when I say things ‘aren’t accurate’ this is related to OS maps and also how they correlate to one another, and whether indeed the information they provide is something of an outlier.
Essentially, I wanted a device to be consistent and easy to use. I have considered navigation, although it isn't of primary importance to me.
Garmin Edge 130 Plus
Garmin is now synonymous with GPS for many mountain bikers thanks to the long-time presence and the sheer number of units they offer. From their Edge series of cycling computers to their watches and sat-navs, they’re the only company of the three that I would say is a household name. The unit reviewed, the Edge 130 Plus, sits as a near-entry level piece. It’s similar in price to the Edge 520, but as the newer product, I decided this would be more appropriate to review.
Edge 130 Plus Details
• Weight: 33g
• Screen Size: 1.8” (46mm)
• Price: $200 USD
• Claimed Battery Life: 12 hours
The device is clean looking and almost minimalist. It's small and light and its 1.8” (45.7mm) screen displays well in a mixture of light conditions. Setting it up was relatively easy thanks to the somewhat sleek Garmin Connect App. While the walkthrough process did indeed help set up the device to near completion, it would be nice if data fields could be set via the phone, as opposed to the buttons on the unit itself. The 5 button setup is fine, and if you want to make changes without your phone you will be relying on them soon enough, but it’s not with the same ease as the Wahoo system, where you drag and drop your data fields to the place of your choosing via the app. It’s particularly annoying when you’re hunting through setup pages. It could be the small device, the software itself, or my hamfistedness, but either way it wasn’t as easy as I would have liked.
I opted to run 7 data fields on all these devices. Even though the Edge had the smallest screen on test it displayed the data clearly, even if it wasn’t as quick to jump out at you should you be glancing down at the unit. I appreciate though, that many people wouldn’t run this many fields. The device also used a breadcrumb-trail style of navigation. Using a Strava account to make routes and sync them with your device was remarkably easy. It was perfectly adequate for my purposes but if you require heavily detailed navigation it might be a little lightweight.
The unit looked clean and, it is worth noting, is the only device to come with a tether. I was sent the ‘mountain bike set’ which included a mount that could be used to place the device behind the bar and over the steerer, although this wouldn’t be included for the $200 model. The problem, in my mind, is that a 40mm stem and high rise bars don’t often play that well with GPS mounts. Of the three, Garmin does have the most aftermarket options though, should the elastic band setup not be adequate for you.
Upon running the GPS for the first time it seemed, in terms of elevation, wildly inaccurate. It’s at that point I realised the default setting was going solely off GPS, as opposed to GPS/Glonass. This second setting proved to be more accurate, although I don’t know why it wasn’t the default.
Even though it was more accurate in this setting, at least in my experience, it did seem to pluck numbers out of thin air. I would always give some time for the GPS to load before riding but it measured my home at an elevation of anywhere between 150m to 350m above sea level, where in actuality it stands at 192m. This might all seem trivial but if you buy a device to measure elevation it’s important. My ride data was probably, on average, 20% out. I know this makes me sound like a bit of an idiot, but all those aforementioned climbing challenges demand some parity between devices. If you found yourself doing 20% extra on an Everest then you'd probably find yourself caring too.
There were some rides where on the usual climb, the device would not be adding any height whatsoever, and on one occasion the current elevation was decreasing as I was going up what I was almost certain was a climb. I mean, I was in the 50T, my feet were stamping on the pedals and it felt like my legs were flailing like Micheal Flatley on a sugar high but maybe I was mistaken.... Sarcasm aside, the unit really disappointed me in this regard. I think it was more of a source of frustration than gratification on most rides. I don’t really want much of a GPS, I just want consistency, which brings me on to my next point.
The Edge 130 Plus is packed with features. I think Garmin have been very ambitious. There’s Climbpro, auto-lap, drink reminders, food reminders, grit scores, jump scores and incident detection. For me, this was just too much and I turned them all off. The jump feature was a particular frustration as it would just never be quiet. If I turned off the noise alerts, I lost the sound for my messages too. On my days off I tend to ride with my phone on aeroplane mode, but when I'm nipping out for a lunchtime lap I like to be able to be contactable. With the 130 Plus it does have the sensible feature of disabling the incident detection for off-road riding though, to save any false readings.
One of the elements of the unit I really liked was how it connected to your phone. You wouldn't have to boot up the Garmin Connect app for it to offer seamless uploads and text notifications. This was the only device on test to do this, the other devices required you to start up the app to establish a connection between the phone and device. The Garmin can also make benefit from custom fields through the Connect IQ extension. This will really be to some people's liking. Its 12 hour claimed battery life also checked out.
I think, and it may sound a little bit self-satisfied, but we’re in a world where any piece of technology becomes as much about validating its user as it does about its original purpose. Phones, for instance, are more about dopamine hits than ringing mother dearest. The drawback of having a mobile is fast becoming that you’re at risk of somebody ringing you on the bloody thing. I’m kind of loathed that the device seems to willingly go into this. Personally, I want a training tool and not a training partner. The jumping feature feels more "Napoleon Dynamite" than it does "Red Bull Rampage". To test the feature, I did a bunny hop rolling down a fire road. It congratulated me on doing a 4.5 meter jump. If anyone has seen my bow-legged bunny hops in full flight they’ll understand that this is a gross exaggeration and, without getting slightly facetious, I wonder what this will mean for the slightly over-confident beginner, the local double and a somewhat irresistible pull towards appearing in Friday Fails. Eventually, I could take no more and I turned off the noise-alert for good, if only so the beeping would abate. I don't need to be told that a computer thinks I've done a "great jump!".
It’s a nice device, it looks tidy and is very small and lightweight. I’m sure it will offer a lot to a lot of people. However, my only regret is that I should have included the older, and now price-reduced, Edge 520. It’s a far superior device, in my opinion. I imagine that over the next few years Garmin will refine and enhance their features to become something like industry standards, I just feel that it all asks too much for something that struggles to do the basics correctly. If you don’t care about elevation but do enjoy a feature-laden device then this isn’t a bad option, but I would struggle to call it the best.