Over the Edge
I have recently invested in a bit of hi-tech frippery for my bike known as the Garmin Edge 500. Ostensibly this is a cycle computer, but it has an added ingredient, this being GPS enablement. In other words, as well as being able to do all the speed, heart rate and so on recording, it can also plot your ride both geographically, using satellites, and also in terms of elevation, using a barometric altimeter. You can also hook it up via a web service to Garmin Connect, which is an online application that enables you to view your rides and the data that the Edge has accumulated therefrom.
What you get depends on which ‘bundle’ you buy. I got the speed and heart rate bundle, and this seems to be the most popular combination because it lets you train with heart rate data. The actual ‘head unit’ itself is tiny – maybe 3 x 2 inches. Not much bigger than a standard cycle computer in fact. It has a monochrome LCD screen which is capable of displaying user defined data – which I assume is done using an XML-type method. From a list of all the possible data displays, you can select which ones appear on up to three ‘pages’ on screen, and then you can tab through the pages while the machine is running. On the side are four multi purpose buttons, start/ stop, lap/reset, page/menu and power/light. These are designed to be sealed against the weather, but are not that easy to use with winter gloves on. On the back, you get a mini USB port, sealed by a rubber plug, and the mounting bit.
You also get a handlebar/stem mount, which is a neat little device with a rubber pad to allow either lateral mounting (on the bars) or vertical mounting (on the stem). The mount is held on by two rubber bands, which come in a set so that you can use smaller ones for smaller diameter bars, and larger ones for oversize. The actual mounting process is quite neat – there is a 90 degree twist mechanism to allow the device to be securely fixed to the mount, which also acts as a mini shock absorber while on the move.
Finally, in my pack anyway, you get the Garmin standard heart rate strap, which needs some fettling to get it the right size, and a rear chainstay – mounted speed/cadence sensor. Both these devices connect wirelessly to the head unit using a technology known as ANT+, so no wiring is required. And your bike gets a wireless network of sorts!!!
The documentation is good – a printed ‘quick start’ guide, plus a CD-based manual which contains all the information you are likely to need. I also omitted to mention that the device has a LI-Ion battery which is recharged using the USB port. Battery charge life has been the subject of some discussion on the web, but it’s too early for me to comment yet. I imagine this would actually be an issue only on a multi-day tour when you could not be certain of getting a USB power source.
Obviously, as with all ‘puter equipment, you have to get the machine set up to your requirements. One word describes this process – intuitive. It really is easy. You are prompted for all the vital profile details for both you and your bike, and from there all the variables such as the heart rate zones are calculated for you. You can have multiple bike profiles to cater for switching between machines. Once done, you can access the settings at any time. You have to charge the unit for three hours out of the box, at which point it is ready to use. Tip – use these hours to set up a Garmin Connect account on the web.
I’ve done two short-ish rides thus far, having only had the unit a week. What strikes me is the simplicity that has been built into the device. You click it into the mount, turn it on, it finds the satellites, (which can take up to a minute) and off you go. If you forget to press ‘Start’, it asks you if you want to start timing. Audible warnings are also available. The ‘Auto Pause’ feature is useful, because the problem with most bike computers is that stops for traffic lights, level crossings etc will skew your average data as the timer remains on. By auto pausing, the Edge 500 introduces the concept of ‘Time’ versus ‘Moving Time’ to solve this problem.
If using the heart rate monitor, you can set alarms on any of the zones to warn you that you are below or above the chosen tolerances. The calorie counter, being heart-rate based, is more accurate than the ‘wild guesses’ of my old Cateye which used speed and took no account of gradients. The figure is interesting to me because it is considerably lower than some of the rather wild guesses of the Cateye – yesterday for example it registered about 430 calories burned in an hour, whereas the Cateye would have estimated about 6-700.
Playing with the Data
So far, so good. But while riding, apart from being presented with vast amounts of data on screen, you are really unaware of just how awesome this little machine is. That realisation only comes to you when you get home and plug it in to your computer, go to the Garmin Connect web site, log in and press ‘upload’. What Connect then gives you is a complete analysis of the ride data in the most incredible detail. Look at my example for details. But that’s not all. When you go to the linked ride, you’ll see a button top right marked ‘Player’ – click it and then, when you press Play, watch the ride unfold with data shown below the map as it happens.
This is where the scientific bit comes in – you could go out (as I am sure many people do) and buy one of these devices and pop it on your £2000 carbon fibre road bike, so that you’ll look like everybody else in your gang. Then you can sit in the pub in your Rapha shorts and your white carbon shoes and boast about how you hit 180 bpm and stayed there for an hour and didn’t even feel tired……or, you can sit down and, by reading information from other sources, actually try to interpret the data into something meaningful. I will save the full details of this for future articles, but as a bit of kit for making genuine improvements to your riding style, the Edge 500 is an unbeatable accessory. Nothing comes close. However as a posing aid, it will be an expensive waste of money, although such people will probably not be put off by such a worry.