Best GPS and smartwatches for cycling: how to choose the right one for you

What to look for in a GPS enabled watch for cycling

Nowadays unless it’s on Strava it didn’t happen, and with so many great GPS enabled units to chase KOMs/QOMs there's no reason not to join in the fun.

While cycling specific computers are super popular and a great way to keep track of your riding, the current crop of GPS-enabled watches are giving them a run for their money when it comes to feature functionality. Even better, many of the best performers don’t scream ‘I’m a cyclist' when worn with street clothes.

Not everyone likes to stare at their live stats while riding and there is something to be said for learning to ride by feel. With a GPS watch, all of that data can be recorded and checked occasionally and then analysed post activity.

Like with GPS cycling computers, Garmin dominates the watch market as well, but there are some other top performers.

What to look for

ANT+/Bluetooth

When looking into GPS watches for cycling it's important to take into account whether or not it will work with the sensors you already have
When looking into GPS watches for cycling it's important to take into account whether or not it will work with the sensors you already have

If you’re using a heart rate strap, speed and cadence sensor or power meter, you’re also going to want a watch that will connect to it. For the most part, it seems Bluetooth is the medium of choice for all brands  — Garmin the owners of the ANT+ protocol are now allowing some of its devices to play nice with Bluetooth.

The prevalence of Bluetooth in GPS watches creates some difficulty when connecting to power meters because units from SRM and Quarq only broadcast an ANT+ signal while units from Stages and Powertap can do both.

Bluetooth connectivity also allows for the watch to connect to your phone. What this allows varies from watch to watch, but most allow rides to be synced wirelessly, activities modes to be created and edited, and apps, watch faces and metrics to be downloaded.

The Bluetooth connection also allows the watch to display notifications for your phone. There’s some inconsistency as to what application notifications each watch shows, but they can all be limited to just calls and texts during an activity or turned off completely.

While the majority of Garmin’s watches use the ANT+ protocol to connect to sensors, they do have built in Bluetooth to allow a connection to a smartphone.

Many of these watches also feature the ability to connect to your home WiFi network, so they can sync your rides without a smartphone connection.

Battery life

A watch is no good to you if it's dead, so claimed battery life is something to look into before spending your hard earned cash on a GPS timepiece.

While it's quite common for watches to claim their battery will last weeks on end, be sure to check the 'in activity' or GPS battery life, because the internal GPS chip draws quite heavy on the battery.

Built-in sensors

Most of the watches in this category feature built-in GPS and don’t need to piggyback a smartphone connection to track your ride. For ultimate accuracy, many of these watches can also connect to the GLONASS network. Some fitness trackers with cycling capabilities do require a connection to your smartphone to track metrics such as speed and distance.

It’s worth noting that all of these wireless connections weigh heavily on battery life. To combat this, many of the units allow the frequency of GPS position to be turned down slightly, which in our experience greatly extends battery life without sacrificing too much accuracy.

Some of the latest crop of watches have built-in optical heart rate
Some of the latest crop of watches have built-in optical heart rate

As quite a lot of these watches are designed for activities ranging from other endurance sports such as running and swimming, to SUPing and mountaineering, they feature built-in altimeters, barometers, and compasses as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes. With these, the watch can both check metrics such as speed and distance against what the GPS is reading for a more accurate reading, as well as lean on the built-in sensors when GPS coverage is spotty.

There are quite a few watches and fitness trackers that are now introducing wrist based optical heart rate monitors. All the wrist-based systems rely on an optical reading, meaning they shine light from a number of LEDs through your skin and read heart rate based on the blood pulsing through your capillaries — heart rate straps work like an EKG machine reading the electrical activity in your heart.

To get a reading they need to be in direct contact with your body and cannot be worn on top of arm warmers or jackets, and there have also been reports of wonky results read through tattoos. They also need to be worn tightly on the wrist, and riding over rough terrain may cause inaccurate readings.

Navigation

A few of the higher-end GPS watches offer some definition of breadcrumb style navigation. Routes must be preloaded into the device but with most of them points of interest can be placed at junctions so the watch will buzz as you approach them.

Power meter support

If you’re riding with a power meter you’ll want to check that your watch of choice will support your meter of choice. Some of the more stylish ‘activity tracker’ watches lack this feature, while others may be limited to certain units.

Multisport adaptable

Lots of these watches are attractive to multi-sports athletes because of the plethora of activity modes and the ability to swap between them
Lots of these watches are attractive to multi-sports athletes because of the plethora of activity modes and the ability to swap between them

GPS watches are also a big hit with the triathletes and adventure racers among us. Most of these units come with more activity modes than you can shake a stick at but some also allow the ability to add or create custom ones.

For this same crowd, the ability to change sports mid-activity or create activities such as ‘Swim/Bike’ and ‘Triathlon’ are paramount for their training.

Strap and screen material

For comfort sake most of these watches come with flexible silicone bands, but to class them up some are available with metal bands. Even further, others offer aftermarket leather and fabric bands. Some watches offer a 'tool free' strap change system, while others require a few Torx or Allen bolts to be removed to swap.

A scratched watch screen is no good to anybody, and long gone are the plastic screens of the old Timex Ironman watches. Most of the current crop of GPS watches will come with a mineral or Gorilla Glass screen, while the premium units get a sapphire or crystal screen.

Buttons or touchscreen

Buttons or touchscreen? Touchscreens are cool, but watch faces are pretty small
Buttons or touchscreen? Touchscreens are cool, but watch faces are pretty small

Just like with phones and GPS headunits, quite a lot of cycling and multisport watches are getting touchscreens. It’s a cool feature to have, but remember watch screens are quite small and for those with fat fingers (like this writer) they’re quite frustrating.

Not all touchscreens work particularly well when they’re wet either, and others require gloves to be removed to operate.

Button lock is also a feature to look out for, there’s nothing worse than getting home from a ride only to find out your watch was paused 15 minutes in. It’s amazing how easily buttons are pushed accidentally in the hand positions you experience on your ride, so button lock is a good one to have.

Colin Levitch

Staff Writer, Australia
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Colin now resides in Sydney, Australia. Holding a media degree, Colin is focused on the adventure sport media world. Coming from a ski background, his former European pro father convinced him to try collegiate crit racing. Although his bright socks say full roadie, he enjoys the occasional mountain bike ride, too.
  • Discipline: Road, mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Tarmac mountain climbs into snow-covered hills
  • Current Bikes: BMC TeamMachine SLR01, Trek Top Fuel 9
  • Dream Bike: Mosaic Cycles RT-1
  • Beer of Choice: New Belgium La Folie
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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