Feb 19 2009
Back when I was a kid, I desperately wanted a speedometer for my bike. I knew I could go fast, but I wanted to know exactly how fast. The cost was prohibitive, however, and anyway, bike speedometers were few and far between in the small farming community where I grew up. So I did without. And in time, I forgot I’d ever wanted one.
There must be something to the idea of deferred gratification, though, because much later, when I returned to cycling after a 10-year hiatus, a bicycle computer was one of the first things I mounted on my handlebars. Most roads in my corner of the Adirondacks lead up sooner or later, and knowing how fast (or how slow) you’re going makes it easier to estimate when you’ll reach your destination. This may not be important if you’re just out for a ride, but if you’re using your bike to get to appointments or run errands — and I often am — knowning your ETA can be critical. That viewpoint isn’t shared by all cyclists, of course. A recent discussion of bike computers on the Long Haul Trucker & Cross Check Group made this perfectly clear. The original poster was in the market for a bicycle computer, and he asked for recommendations. I obliged, and so did many others, but there were a few folks who pooh-poohed the idea outright. The dissident faction suggested that having a digital speed readout on your ‘bars “detracted from the pleasure of riding,” or words to that effect. This got me thinking. Was I becoming a wonk, interested in gadgetry for its own sake, and increasingly blind to life’s simple pleasures? Or did bicycle computers really earn their keep?
Not surprisingly, I decided in favor of the latter conclusion. While it’s certainly possible to pay too much attention to answering the cyclist’s perennial questions — How Fast? and How Far? — the answers are important. For one thing, average speed is an important measure of fitness, and if you’re interested in improving the performance of your engine (that’s you, of course), it doesn’t hurt to keep track of how your average speed increases over time. A bicycle computer makes this easy. That’s why I’ve even fitted one to my my nowhere bike”
Of more practical importance, knowing your average speed makes it possible to predict when you’ll arrive at your destination. I’ve already suggested why this is necessary if you use your bike for something more than the occasional “fun” ride, and it’s particularly true for longer trips. If you’re only going a couple of miles, variations in speed are comparatively meaningless, but if the one-way distance to your destination is, say, 35 miles, the difference between 12 mph and 14 mph is significant (25 minutes, to be exact). With this in mind, and with the help of my bicycle computer, I’ve built up a mental table that gives me accurate times-to-destination for most of the places I regularly bike to, taking into account such things as wind direction and speed and even air temperature. This makes it easier for me to keep appointments, and it also ensures that I’ll get the shopping done in time for lunch.
There’s navigation to be considered, too. Now that you can mount a GPS on your ‘bars, it’s a lot easier to stay found while cycling along poorly marked rural roads than it used to be, but not everyone has a GPS. And even if you do, there are still times when you’ll need to follow someone’s directions (“Go exactly one and one-half miles down the road and then turn right…”) or retrace a route from an old cue sheet. At times like these, a bicycle computer makes a lot of sense. Here’s how well-known meanderthal Barney Ward, of the blog Old Fat Man Adventures, makes the case:
M[y bicycle computer] is used to monitor my distance away from my start point. I know my abilities well and my inabilities better. My care is to make certain that a return is well within my ability. Then a shorter loop is ridden in hopes of making my abilities grow to longer rides. Additionally out in a lot of the West the roads are not marked and the mileage is needed to navigate your chosen route. The correct dirt road 8.3 miles down this road may not be easy to tell from the one at 8.0 miles when riding without navigation assistance.
Point taken, Barney! When you’re the engine, the capacity of your tank (i.e, your overall fitness) is also part of the navigation equation, and you make this crystal clear.
So much for practical matters. There remains the fun factor to be considered. Let’s face it: It’s a hoot to know how fast you’re racing down that long hill. (My record on trips to town is 45.0 mph, if you’re asking.) It’s also interesting to know how much slower you go on the return trip, when you have to climb back up the hill that you flew down on your outbound leg. (Don’t ask.) It’s encouraging when you see this number creep up as you get fitter, too.
Lastly — and this gets to the point made by the dissenting voices on the Long Haul Trucker group — does having a bicycle computer on your ‘bars ever detract from the simple pleasures of cycling? Only if you let it. You don’t have to look at it, after all, and on the rides I take purely for the fun of it, I find I seldom do. That said, however, there are plenty of times I’m glad it’s there. So my answer to the question posed in the title is simple: “Who need’s a bicycle computer? I do.”