Like someone trying to find the perfect running watch, cyclists face the same dilemma when it comes to finding a watch that's truly built for cycling.
We know any true sports watch comes equipped with GPS. Gone are the days of this location-knowing feature being a luxury addition, it's now a necessity whether your activity of choice is running, skiing or hiking up mountains.
It's a necessity for cyclists too. If you favour settling into the saddle over pounding the pavement, the more comprehensive cycle tracking offered by integrated GPS is invaluable. As well as being able to tell you everything from how far you've cycled to how quickly you pedalled to get there, it can help put your rides into context with data on elevation changes and handy route mapping.
With more GPS sports watches than there's ever been, it's becoming more difficult to know which one is best and crucially, which is best for you. Fret not though friendly pedal cranker, we've been serving ourselves up a hearty dollop of saddle ass putting the best GPS cycling watches to the test.
These are our favourite five, ranked in order of their on-bike abilities.
TomTom Spark 3 Cardio + Music - 5th place
The TomTom Spark 3 is a device that's designed for general purpose activity tracking. It's more than a jack of all trades, master of none though, and it just so happens that one of its mastered metrics is cycle tracking.
Wareable verdict: TomTom Spark 3 in-depth review
Although its ability to monitor each metre rolled with pleasing accuracy is impressive, the TomTom's inbuilt GPS skills are not without fault. The Spark 3's GPS can initially be sluggish to secure a connection - we're talking minutes rather than seconds.
Once you've waited for a connection, the signal is secure but real-time ride data is lacking slightly. Although you can cherry pick the metrics you want displayed, pace over calories and heart rate over distance, you're heavily restricted by the amount of data you can see at once.
This means a lot of mid-ride screen scrolling is required, especially on longer rides when you're going to want more than mere top-line recordings. The Spark 3's four-way navigation button is handy for directing to desired screens while static, but not necessarily while trying to hold on to your bars and keep your break leaver within reach.
Post-ride on watch metrics aren't much better either. Data is kept to a minimum, hidden away behind multiple button presses and a somewhat uninspiring design. Fortunately, things do get better when partnering up with the TomTom app, although only slightly.
Mapping data compared to the competition is pretty basic, and every feels quite top line. It's an app that will show you how you've performed but not make it clean on areas you need to improve or how to get to your goal. Thankfully, you can import data to third party apps like Strava.
More general tracker than cycle specialist, power meters might be off limits, but you can sync up cadence meters to get a better grip on your cycling efforts while an inbuilt music player and the ability to pair with Bluetooth headphones ensures you're entertained on your longer rides.
Apple Watch Series 2 - 4th place
Cycle-friendly smartwatches don't have to be oversized efforts that are all plastic, rubber and generally garish designs. The Apple Watch Series 2 might be considered a more general day wear device, but it more than holds its own as a serious sports tracker.
Wareable verdict: Apple Watch Series 2 in-depth review
Crucially, its GPS abilities help give it the edge. The Apple Watch Series 2 isn't just quick to secure a connection, it's rapid. Within three seconds of triggering a new cycle session, your GPS connection is locked in an remains solid throughout your ride.
It's impressively accurate too, offering measurements precise down to 10 metres and suffering no blips or missteps during our test rides. It's not just distances that are accurately relayed to your wrist either.
Whether you're wearing gloves or suffering with wind-chill frozen fingers, navigating using the watch's Digital Crown and touchscreen display isn't the easiest while gripping on to your bars. Yes, the lack of unsightly protrusions give the watch a cleaner, sleeker look, but the missing physical controls also make the watch tricker to use.
Fortunately, there's enough data displayed at once to keep the button bashing to a minimum, with time active joined by speed, heart rate and distance. To help make it easier to glance at the metric you're most interest in, using the crown you can scroll to highlight your preferred data.
While on-wrist metrics are on-point if reasonably basic, unfortunately things don't get much deeper when you crack open the iPhone-hosted Activity app. Although elevation gain details join the usual distance, calorie and heart rate data, there's a lack of depth and key cycle-centric details such as cadence and top speed are missing.
The Apple Watch's pre-programmed Workout app might not be the deepest, especially for cyclist, but that's not the death sentence it would be on other devices. Given the device's extensive app support, the Apple Watch is a wearable that can attune itself to all cyclists.
Overall this might not be the most evolved cycle tracker, but its more than accomplished enough to appease all but the hardiest of cycle fanatics. Of the group, it's also the device you'd be most keen to wear out of the saddle too.
Polar V800 - Bronze
Big, boxy and bland, the Polar V800 might not be the best looking sports watch out there, but its cycling-friendly credentials far outstrip its stereotypically sporty design. With GPS letting you better track your ride, the watch is capable of recording everything from your ride distance and time on the bike to max speed and elevation change.
Wareable verdict: Polar V800 in-depth review
There is one glaring omission, there's no integrated heart rate sensor. Yes, chest-mounted heart rate monitors are more accurate and consistent than optical wrist-based offerings, but they're also more restrictive, uncomfortable and mean there's a whole second device you've got to worry about every time you want to go for a cycle. Pair it with a heart rate monitoring chest strap though and your bpm readings can be relayed directly to your wrist, precisely too.
That's not all the information that's available on your wrist. Mid-ride, there's plenty of real-time information to absorb, with taps on the up and down buttons letting you cycle through a mass of data windows letting you see everything from your current altitude and real time speed to split time and overall calorie burn.
It's a lot of information to take in, and not always the easiest to absorb. Despite the face of the watch having a seriously sizeable surface area, the screen itself is on the small side. Low quality too, with just a 128 x 128 pixel resolution. That means glances turn into prolonged looks, not ideal on potholed streets.
Also, despite keeping a solid connection, we found the V800's GPS to be painfully sluggish to secure a signal. Load up a cycling session, check your tyres, faster your helmet, secure your drinks bottle and you'll still be waiting. We consistently clocked a signal lock at over 2 minutes, and not even in an overly built up area.
Unfortunately, that's not where the on-device data grumbles end. Post ride, although there's lots of information to take in, its bland, listed presentation fails to inspire, at least on the watch. While the on-watch data is a little on the uninspired side, the Polar app is brilliant, letting you deep dive into your ever minute metric from elevation changes.
It's a well laid out application that will appease all levels of user. Top line data is clear and easy to understand, perfect for those just tipping a toe in the cycling waters. Want more though and the app delivers, letting you re-live every aspect of your ride in performance analysing, training plan reassessing detail. On the map you can even slide your finger across the map to see second-by-second data.
The Polar V800 is a great all round device, but one that's too heavily reliant on its synced smartphone. The lack of an optical heart rate sensor is frustrating, but is boosted by the watch's ability to be synced up with a range of power meters and cadence sensors. From enthusiastic amateurs to wannabe pros, this watch will serve your needs.
Suunto Spartan Wrist HR - Silver
This accomplished all-rounder ticks all the right boxes from the off, with the watch's GPS abilities securing a signal in a matter of seconds and holding firm throughout rides through cities and across countryside.
Wareable verdict: Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR in-depth review
For those after more than solid GPS, accurate heart rate tracking and all manner of detailed data points, it can also be bundled with a range of power meters, turbos and cadence sensors, ideal for those looking to take their cycle sessions to the next level.
As well as boosting your data capture, if your cycle gets a bit ambitious and your bearings less than clear, these GPS abilities can be used to offer up real-time maps that will help you navigate your way home. Handy when venturing out into new territories.
During your ride, there's plenty of data to keep you in the know on how your cycle is going, and how your body is responding. The built-in heart rate sensor is pleasingly on point, with your BPM joined by fun and functional metrics from top speed to lap pace.
Moving between screens, jumping from distance data to active heart rate zone is a little fiddly on the move though as you've got to push the middle button without nudging its ride-ending bookends.
While mid-ride metrics might be hard to come across, once your session is over there's plenty of data just waiting to be explored. This mountain of information isn't just limited to generic metrics and confusing data dumps. On watch graphs help show your progress and reactions to hills and traffic. There's plenty of data skewed solely towards the cycling enthusiast, and those for all levels of user from cycling newcomer to body oxygen monitoring fitness fiend.
Disappointingly, this detailed data breakdown doesn't run as deep on the app as you'd hope. While the watch promises a lot with handy graphs and data breakdowns, the smartphone companion fails to kick things on. You'll need to head to the web app to get your true fix of cycling data.
Data can be synced in with a number of leading third party applications and cycling services though, letting you maintain your competitive community presence. These include the likes of Strava, TrainingPeaks, and MapMyFitness. For those wanting more, all manner of power meters can be hooked up too.
A watch for all types of two wheel activity, this isn't just about standard road cycles, with power cycle, mountain biking and even triathlon rides getting their own, admittedly pretty similar, workout modes.
Garmin Forerunner 935 - Gold
To be a decent GPS cycling watch, a device doesn't have to be designed solely for cyclists. That's certainly the case with the Garmin Forerunner 935, a watch that, more than the competition, will help improve your fitness levels no matter what your sport of choice. Look beyond its run-tracking, swim-monitoring, cross-fit analysing ways, however, and what you're left with is a brilliant cycling watch that's hard to beat.
Wareable verdict: Garmin Forerunner 935 review
From the off, the Forerunner 935 impresses. No, the Garmin's GPS isn't the quickest to secure a connection, but neither is it painfully slow, and once it's locked on that signal is unwavering and the data captured accurate to the metre.
It's not just the watch's GPS that makes the Forerunner 935 a cycling success either. The wearable's inbuilt heart rate sensor is also reassuringly accurate. It's what the watch does with this data that's key to helping aid your rides and improving fitness though.
As well as seeing your heart rate in real-time, you can see the activity zone your body is working in. Like a speedometer for your heart, if you're cycling as part of a broader fitness kick, you see how hard you're working your body in real time and the recovery time you need to put in post-cycle.
Heart rate is just one detailed element relayed to your wrist. From the box, the Forerunner 935's real time wrist-based metrics are everything you'd expect and nothing more. If, however, you want to build on these basic data points, you can, with a fully customisable interface that lets you choose not only what data points go where, but how many pieces of information you're presented with at once.
It's not just while you're riding that the Forerunner 935's extensive data capture impresses either. Park up and you're able to re-live your ride in intimate detail. Like the Suunto you're offered plenty on on-wrist information from heart rate levels and workout zones to elevation differentials and speed achievements.
On your bike
The core ride details are extensive, but blandly presented, and although you can relive your route on your wrist, zooming in on your map data you're missing the wrist-based graphs. Don't worry though, what the Forerunner 935 lacks in wrist abilities, it more than makes up for on its app.
Stylishly designed, it offers a mass of metrics and data details in a pleasingly minimalist, easy to absorb manner. You can graph everything form heart rate, speed and elevation throughout the duration of your ride and even overlay the information to get more accurate analysis.
With the ability to hook up all manner of additional sensor and power metres for enhanced wrist-relayed ride details, this is a device for serious cyclists, those that are looking to save seconds off their 50km time trial efforts more than beat their morning commute PB.
If it's just core GPS tracking that you're after, any of these five trackers will nail what you're after, albeit at different rates of reaction. Although the TomTom Spark 3 and Polar V800 might be slow to secure ride-tracking signals, when you're on your bike they're faultless and offer plenty of intimate data capture designed to help you better understand your cycles.
The Apple Watch follows in a similar fashion, dropping a hearty helping of Apple's design cool and app-enhanced versatility into the mix.
If you're a die hard cyclist though, it's the Suunto Spartan Sport Wrist HR and the Garmin Forerunner 935 you're going to want to pick between. While the Suunto strolls ahead of the competition in terms of wrist-based data, the Garmin offers improved post-ride, app-based analysis. Which is more important to you is a uniquely personal thing. Either device, however, will comfortably take you from keen rider to time trial specialist in no time.
Thanks to Ribble for providing us with the bike for this test.
Got any questions about our big cycling watches test? Let us know in the comments section below.
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