For serious bikers, up until recently, a handlebar-mounted bike computer was really the only reliable option for GPS route tracking and storing accurate ride data. However, with the advances in technology, you can now find GPS watches with cycling-specific features and smartwatches that have dedicated cycling mode or compatible biking apps.
While hard-core cyclists may still prefer the robust features of a mounted bike computer, for triathletes and other active multi-sport athletes, a smartwatch takes the top spot for versatility and added body metrics. Some watches can track heart rate, sleep while some newer watch models even measure Vo2 max and optimal recovery time.
If you want access to fitness tracking both on and off the bike, a watch offers the added benefit of being able to use it for more than just biking – by simply switching modes to running or swimming. Many sports watches now include dedicated tracking modes for other sports like rowing or even skiing.
We understand that most recreational bikers don’t want to drop five hundred bucks or more on the most recent watch models just to track their weekend rides, so we’ve included everything from the more affordable Fitbit Ionic to high-end options like the Strava-compatible Garmin Fenix 5 for more competitive cyclists.
2021 Update: The Fenix 5 is still a strong contender but since, the new Garmin Fenix 6 has been released. Garmin also launched a solar version that gives you up to two full weeks of battery life. This is a real game-changer for long road trips where the challenge of keeping the battery charged has always been an issue. So, if you’re looking for the latest and greatest on the market this would be the pick for you.
- 1 Best Watches for Cycling & Mountain Biking
- 2 Buyers Guide: What to look for in a Biking Watch
Best Watches for Cycling & Mountain Biking
Having said all those, here are the watches we found that may (hopefully) suit your preference (plus, they are also well-recommended by the most cyclist in the US)
Best Beginner Pick: Fitbit Ionic
Fitbit has long been well-known and trusted by health and fitness enthusiasts. If you’ve just recently decided to track your fitness and improvements while cycling, it’s more likely that you have already stumbled upon its fitness trackers on your search for an accessory.
Good thing is, Fitbit has finally launched the Fitbit Ionic first-ever GPS smartwatch that still focuses mainly on fitness.
Unlike other smartwatches that may distract you while you’re on your bike, Fitbit Ionic is fitness-focused and doesn’t have too many third-party apps that notify your watch every minute. Anyway, since it is a smartwatch, you may still access some popular apps in the Fitbit OS.
The user interface (UI) of Fitbit Ionic is rectangular and as such, it is quite a bit bigger compared to those of Apple or Android Wear watches that are square. It is also noticeably bright so you may still what it shows even under the sunlight.
However, there are some reviews that say that the touchscreen may be a little slow to respond sometimes. To make up for this, good thing that there are hardware buttons – one on the left-hand side and two on the right – that will help you navigate around the watch.
Another feature that Fitbit Ionic boasts about is its Fitbit Coach App. As a beginner, you might find this app particularly helpful as it guides you to reach your goals.
Similar to other watches that will be mentioned below, it certainly has a built-in GPS to see your key stats such as pace, distance, and even a map of the route you took.
To provide more accurate data, the Fitbit Ionic has an integrated antenna and uses GLONASS to tap into global satellites and provide a stronger connection.
Should you get caught in the rain along your trail or decided to pursue triathlon, later on, Fitbit Ionic is still a suitable fitness companion because it is water-resistant and even has enhanced swim-tracking capabilities.
Lastly, when it comes to style, Fitbit Ionic offers leather and plastic strap options that allow you to either look classy or sporty.
To find out more about Fitbit Ionic, watch this video.
Affordable Watch Pick For Biking: Polar M430
Polar started making a name because of M400. It is, in fact, one of the best GPS watches to consider since its GPS is reliable despite not having many navigation tools. It also has a heart rate and fitness tracker, and waterproof. Above all, it is cheaper compared to other smartwatches of its line such as the more premium Polar Grit – a great looking for a more rugged watch for mountain biking.
Thankfully, the M400 just got better with the Polar M430.
It has retained all the best features of the M400 and even added more! The M430 now has an optical, wrist-based heart rate sensor, improved its GPS, and even added a sleep tracker.
The Polar M430 is particularly designed as a sports watch, unlike the sleek design of Apple or Samsung Gear. Mainly as a sports watch, it retained its monochrome style – similar to that of M400.
This design allows you to see the screen easily while on your bike. Under darker conditions, it also has the option to invert the display and tap on a backlight.
Another thing that the M430 improved is the new softer silicone strap with holes to make it more breathable and more ergonomic to better fit the wrist. This is a significant improvement especially for those who found the M400 discomforting.
Here’s a video tutorial on fitness tests using the Polar M430.
Best Garmin Watch: Garmin Forerunner 235
The Garmin Forerunner 235 has been on the market for three (3) years now yet it continues to stand out among other smartwatches or sport watches alike, especially compared to other Garmin products.
Although it was launched towards the end of 2015, its features are ‘future-proof’ that makes it still competitive even in the current market. The stats that it can analyze and show are more detailed and even provides training feedback. It also provides a more accurate heart rate analysis.
Despite its name, Forerunner 235 is not just a running watch; it is a comprehensive activity tracker and has four (4) sports modes: Run, Run Indoor, Cycle and Other.
Similar to other sports watches, you can see your distance, time, calories, heart rate, and even heart rate zone. As a comprehensive activity tracker, it can accommodate up to 200 hours of activity on the watch in case you want to dig your previous cycling data without accessing your phone.
Another ‘future-proof’ feature of the Forerunner 235 is the Recovery Advisor. It advises how long it will take for you to recover from your recent activity. This goes along with the Sleep feature that assesses the quality of your sleep (of course). However, when compared with Polar M30, most users agree that Polar recognizes sleep more accurately.
Garmin Forerunner 235 still tracks heart rate from the wrist. However, you can also pair it with ANT+ chest strap for more accuracy (like this affordable one on Amazon).
It also features 24/7 heart-rate tracking to monitor your progress and spot any possible over-training. What’s more is that with a touch of a button, the watch reads out your current heart rate, highs and lows, and your average resting heart rate.
Yet Forerunner 235 still offers a lot more. One of the key features that it boasts is the VO2 Max Reading or the maximum volume of oxygen you can use. It’s another vital indicator of the current fitness level and progress. To obtain such data, you would usually have to go through a lab test. But, Forerunner 235 has made it more accessible through your wrist.
Much has been said about this Garmin product but should you want to see more of its features, watch this video.
Best Strava-Compatible Cycling Watch: Garmin Fenix 6
At the onset, all the above-mentioned watches are Strava-compatible. However, there is still one that stands out from all those, particularly for biking – and that is the Garmin Fenix line
As mentioned in the intro, the new Garmin line includes a solar The new Fenix offers a wide variety of health and fitness metrics including Pulse Ox, Hydration monitor, abnormal Heart Rate Alerts, and biking specific apps using Garmin’s Connect IQ. This new wearable, along with an optional handlebar mount accessory comes about at close to a full-fledged bike computer like the Garmin 830.
It is worth saying that Fenix stands out from the previously mentioned watches since most features from interchangeable straps; bigger, more optimal display; more sports mode (seven) and sports options; training data and effect; even the 24/7 heart rate monitoring and VO2 Max Reading; and of course, amplified navigational features.
It also has three (3) pre-loaded cycling profiles: Bike, Indoor Biking, and MTB. It also has up to 19 pages of four (4) data fields to show more information about your ride which, most other athletes may not understand anymore.
Fenix 5 also features TrackBack that allows the rider to retrace its route back to its starting point. (Fenix 5X even contains pre-loaded street and topographical maps!)
For the benefit of its cyclist users, Fenix 5 is also compatible with Varia Bike Light and Radar series, a connection that has been limited to Edge Bike computers and very few watch models.
Not only that, but it also supports Shimano Di2 Shifting and ANT+ Gear Shifting, plus FTP Estimation and Strava Light Segment (Bike + Run).
For you to understand more of Fenix 5 cycling features or maybe guide you in setting up your Fenix 5 for cycling, watch this video
Apple Watch Series 6
If you are an avid fan of Apple products, Apple Watch 6 could be your new cycling buddy.
Next, to its screen design, the significant upgrade of this new Apple Watch is its stronger focus on health and making it more competitive for fitness enthusiasts.
Apple Watch Series 6 nudges you to be more active in the course of the day and automatically tracks your exercise.
Does Apple Watch track Biking?
With the Workout App that is accessible from your Watch’s home screen, you may be able to choose from a range of popular activities such as running, cycling, indoor cycling, swimming, and even rowing. As such, you will be able to track your activity and of course, see your stats.
Through its companion app on iPhone, you will also be able to customize the data you see in your workout – aside from the duration, speed, and heart rate, you may add average speed, active calories, and total calories.
Aside from the companion Apple Watch App, you may also use another third-party app such as Cyclemeter Cycling Running GPS to track, record, and analyze your cycling data. This app may also be linked to your Apple Health for a more comprehensive analysis of your fitness.
LTE Apple Watch for Mountain Biking. Is it Worth it?
Buyers Guide: What to look for in a Biking Watch
Similar to skiing and snowboarding watches, one of the key features that you’d look for as a cyclist is a reliable GPS that will allow you to navigate around your trail easily. Some higher-end watches offer some kind of breadcrumb style navigation – this will help you trace your route back to your starting point.
However, most recently released smartwatches also use GLONASS for a more accurate navigation system.
Easy to Read Display
The screen of your watch should be readable; otherwise, all data that it shows are worthless. Its size does not significantly matter provided that its user interface design fits well. It should also be readable under the bright sun or in the dark.
Being a cyclist, it would be better to opt for a water-resistant watch especially if you are planning to take your biking seriously or even try on the triathlon. If not, a water-resistant watch is still convenient in anticipation of getting caught in the rain while you are on the trail.
Since the screen of a smartwatch is quite small, it is also important to check this aspect (especially for those who have fat fingers). As mentioned above, its user interface must match the screen size in consideration with the size of the fingers, or else, it can be pretty frustrating.
Since you’d already been considering the water-resistance of your watch, you should also check if the touchscreen will still work well even when it’s wet.
Some cyclists also prefer to have some buttons on their watch as a backup for the touchscreen.
Heart rate monitor
It is also now common that smartwatches and fitness trackers have optical heart rate sensors. They are mainly wrist-based so some readings may be inaccurate especially if the watch is not worn tightly or when you’re riding over rough terrain.
Given all the features that a small watch must contain, one important factor that a rider must consider is the battery life. Will your watch be able to match your non-stop lifestyle or will it suddenly turn off in the middle of your ride?
Most watches claim that their battery life will last up to five (5) or seven (7) days. However, you would want to check its battery life when it is “inactivity” or when it uses its GPS and other features that heavily drain batteries.
Most bands of smartwatches are made of silicone or rubber for better comfort. However, for sleeker and classier designs, some would still come with leather and even fabric bands.
Whichever, you may want to make sure that the band fits you well and is breathable even during cycling.
Other Smartwatch features (access to apps)
Most smartwatches boast on its access to a full range of apps; while others are proud to be ‘fitness-focused, therefore, limiting their access to most apps. Whether you want more or fewer notifications to reach your watch, that certainly depends on your lifestyle.
Anyway, the basic necessity is to have access to call and text notifications and of course, fitness apps.
Whether you are into road biking or single-track mountain biking, having a watch with built-in cycling features or a smartwatch with compatible biking activity tracking apps can make your ride much more enjoyable.
Being able to access GPS or track your heart rate right on your wrist while your bike gives you added convenience that a handlebar-mounted biking computer cannot provide.
With many models now able to show route GPX data along with fitness monitoring for stats such as heart rate and VO2 Max, the current technology on the market offers a ton of useful details in a very small package.
Hopefully, our detailed review of each of these cycling watches has helped you narrow down your selection. Whether you are a weekend warrior looking for a practical and affordable watch to a serious competitive triathlon racer needing a gadget with a multitude of features, there are options above for every budget.