Why bike computers suck

HemmelsRideGuest writer Jeff Hemmel checks in with another view on the average speed debate we’ve been kicking around here.

I love my bike computer. It keeps me informed, letting me know how fast, how far, and how long I’m riding. It even gives me the time and temp, although to be honest the latter function is far from accurate. But I have also come to realize one undisputable fact — bike computers suck.

That’s my conclusion. Now in a Quentin Tarantino-esque way of getting there, I’ll give you the supporting argument.

You see, like probably most of you who’ve made the transition into more serious cycling, I didn’t start with a computer. I just rode, guessing at how far I’d gone or how fast I got there, but never really obsessing about it. Eventually, however, curiosity got the better of me and I hooked up one of the little gizmos to my handlebars, a magnet to my wheel, and voila, suddenly I had knowledge.

And I loved it. Now, I knew exactly how far my typical route really was, just how fast I was going at any given moment, even my average speed over a two-hour ride. By the time I signed up for my first charity event, I had a good idea of what I could do, and thanks to that computer, I didn’t go crazy at the beginning, kept my pace up during the middle, and even found myself with some decent reserves at the end.

But as the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. What once were regular, enjoyable rides were suddenly taking on an air of seriousness. I started checking the computer readout like a man possessed, constantly pushing myself to better my last time, or at least equal it. God forbid I should fall, gasp, below my average. When I got my road bike, things only worsened. Now, I reasoned I had done that time on a clunky hybrid. Surely I had to beat it by a good margin on my new speedy road machine. To not would be like, well, a sign of the apocalypse or something.

On a ride the other day, it was like that little computer brain had taken on the personality of the Robot in Lost In Space. “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! If you do not increase the current pace you risk finishing with an average speed below, I repeat, below the critical threshold of 18.2 mph!”

It was then and there that I realized that in trying so hard to become a better bike rider, I was forgetting perhaps the most important thing — to enjoy the ride.

So I ripped that computer from my handlebars and threw it onto the side of the road. Just kidding. I did, however, do the next best thing. I clicked to a screen that didn’t give me any information that I could immediately process into a speed or time, things that were fast coming to signify a loss or failure. Yup, like Doctor Smith used to do to the robot on occasion, I pulled the plug. And free from the data, I just pedaled. I don’t know how fast. But I do know it was a fun ride. I wasn’t rushing to reach any imaginary checkpoint, or agonizing over whether I had slipped off my pace. Instead, I noticed that there was actually a decent breeze on what had seemed like a scorching day. I noticed the trees that lined the paved rail trail I was riding were gently swaying, and that, if I steered carefully, I could enjoy their shade.

I noticed that I was out riding my bike, rather than sitting in a cubicle somewhere, or locked in traffic.

Yes, I ride for fitness, and yes, I ride because I think cycling is a pretty cool thing to do. But I love cycling because, above all other things, it’s fun. Obsessed with the computer, I was beginning to forget that fact.

No, I don’t plan to give it up. C’mon, I’m not that crazy. But every so often, when I feel my inner competitor becoming just a little too competitive, I click away from that screen. I pull the plug. And I do what I started out to do…

Enjoy my ride.

The Bike Noob’s own ride this morning ended with an average speed of … well, as you all said, it’s just not that important. What mattered today was riding a favorite route with some new folks I hope to ride with a lot in the future. Thanks for all your lively comments to the last post.


  1. Ramon H says

    I went thru a phase of agonizing over the dreaded average speed as well. However, my latest cyclo-computer measures cadence. I was told to always try to keep that at 90rpm at all times. By keeping the computer on the cadence setting and working to meet the 90rpm (either by shifting or by upping my pedaling effort), I barely notice anything of the other read-outs until after the ride :-)

  2. Scott says

    Amen brother! I too have obsessed over all that data, and have tried to find a happy medium. It takes an intentional effort on my part each time a ride to remember to “just enjoy the ride”, but I’m getting a lot better at that. I want my rides to be fun… even the intense ones.

  3. says

    For heaven’s sake, don’t get one of those blood pressure monitor thingy’s then! My computer is used for mileage, mostly. It also helps me keep track of what lap I’m on at the local Veloway since my mind tends to wander sometimes and I forget if I’m on lap 5 or 6.

  4. Kevin says

    This post reminds me of the first odometer someone gave me when I was a kid. It mounted to the axle of the front wheel and had a four wheel readout to tenths of a mile like a car odometer. Instead of a magnet and sensor, a peg on the spokes hit a plastic splined wheel on the side of the odometer to turn the internal gears.
    click. click. click. click….
    I loved it. Especially when I was going fast on a downhill.
    My mom told me it drove her crazy. Particularly when we were going up a long hill. She could hear it behind her, taking longer and longer between clicks. A constant reminder of how slow she was going and how tired she was, inescapable.

  5. Pop Richmond says

    I don’t use a computer, but sometimes I’ll time myself in a sprint between the 1/10th mile markers at the local park. I’m still not sure how to convert seconds per tenth mile to miles per hour, but 12 seconds feels fast enough to me.

    • says

      @Ramon H. I ride with a heart rate monitor. It’s a wrist watch style and a chest strap. I remember initially thinking the chest strap would be constricting or a distraction, but after those first few days so long ago I don’t even notice it. I actually don’t even notice if I do or don’t have it on. I use the information in two ways:

      1) I use it as another post-ride evaluation tool. Average speed can be deceiving since it doesn’t take into account other factors, like a headwind or a tailwind. One day I might be taking it easy and average X mph and another day I have to work really hard to get that same X mph, all because of things like wind, temperature, slowed/stopped at more traffic lights, etc. The heart rate monitor lets me know how hard I was working, out of the 30minutes, how long was I each heart rate zone? What was my average heart rate?

      2) I use it to know when I’m recovered enough while doing full speed sprint intervals (swimming, biking and running). In order to get fast you have to ride faster, but you can’t ride as fast if you haven’t recovered fully. This is the only time I really pay attention to it during a ride though.

      Now a power tap hub would be an even better tool for (or combined with) all that, but we can’t all afford one of those. But each monitoring tool has it’s place, my computer is mainly for my cadence, distance, and ride time during my rides. The speed will be the result from maintaining my cadence and gearing, but if my heart rate jumps TOO high, then I know keeping that pace will ultimately make me slower over the rest of the ride.

  6. says

    Some of my bike have them, some don’t. I really don’t feel the need for one. I check my mileage on mapmyride.com and when I am in a pace line I maintain my speed by using a track trick of counting of my pedal strokes (1-8). You start counting before your turn to match your effort with the rider in front of you.

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