A couple months ago, I picked up a new bike, and it has turned out to be an excuse to pick up a bunch of other related gadgets as well. Score! I thought it would be fun to write down what all these gadgets were and share my successes and challenges with them.

Warning: This post turned out to be very long. To help you decide if it is worth slogging through this post, here are a list of the things I am going to touch on:

  • Prodeco Genesis 500 electric bike
  • Strava iPhone cycling app
  • Quad Lock iPhone bike mount
  • Garmin Edge 810 bike computer
  • CycleOps PowerCal heart rate meter/power meter
  • Wahoo Fitness Key ANT+ adapter
  • Garmin ANT+ Speed/Cadence sensor

Before I share the details, let me clarify that I am not an athlete, not by a long shot. I am not even a serious fitness fanatic. Serious cyclists will probably scoff at my choices. I'm cool with that, but wanted to put that out there as fair warning in case you happen to be a serious cyclist.

The Bike: Prodeco Genesis 500

The bike, itself, is a Prodeco Genesis 500 electric bike. What the heck is an electric bike (aka an e-bike), you ask? It's essentially a normal bike (although pretty heavy compared to a typical bike), but one of the wheels has a battery-powered electric motor that can provide propulsion. See this Wikipedia article for more details.

I chose a model of e-bike that has a throttle control for on-demand electric propulsion. That means the more I twist the throttle control, the faster the bike goes. There are also "pedal-assist" electric bikes that provide power to the motor based on how hard you are pressing on the pedals. The harder you pedal, the more the electric motor helps.

With a throttle-style bike, I could in theory just sit on the bike and hold the throttle all the way down while doing no work at all. In practice, I am pedal as I would on a normal bike and use partial throttle to augment my manual propulsion.

I wanted an electric bike for two main reasons:

  • I go faster on my electric bike than I would on a normal bike. Faster = more fun.
  • Hills are less painful. This is huge. Less painful = more fun.

On my electric bike, I average 18-20 miles per hour on a generally flat stretch of road. On a normal bike, I would probably average closer to 10-12 miles per hour (remember, I am not really an athlete). That means in an hour long ride, I get travel a lot further. Let me assure you that the extra 6-8 miles I can go in an hour make a huge difference in being able to ride on interesting bike trails since there's nothing interesting within 3-4 miles or so of my house.

Along the same lines, with an electric bike, I don't have to limit myself to routes without hills. With my new bike, if I come to a steep grade, I just use the throttle a little more and the motor does more of the work to climb the hill. This translates to more interesting / scenic routes that if I was on a normal bike and didn't want to have to climb any painful hills.

I did get one customization with my bike vs. the stock Genesis 500. I opted for the larger 12Ah battery. This gives me extra range (which means more interesting routes).

I bought my bike at Len's Electric Bikes in Madison, WI. This is a local shop run by Len Mattioli, and he is great to work with. If you are in the Madison area and are at all interested in electric bikes, I highly recommend stopping in at Len's.

The Gadgets

No one who knows me will be surprised to hear that getting this bike has turned into an excuse to play with a whole bunch of other gadgets as well. My first task was finding the best way to track my rides. I tried many, many iPhone apps and one physical GPS device. In the end, I use a combination...

Strava iPhone App (Tracking Rides)

Of all the iPhone apps I tested, I eventually settled on Strava as my favorite. I can tell that Strava has a bunch of functionality aimed at the hardcore cyclist (most of which I don't actually understand), but that doesn't prevent it from providing core, useful functionality to casual users like me.

What's good?

  • They have a very polished web site. User interface design quality matters. The iPhone app is also nicely polished. You can tell the work of great software developers who take pride in their work when you see it.
  • It has decent social integration. In addition to things you'd expect like Twitter and Facebook support, it also integrates with Instagram and will find any photos you take during your ride and display them on your ride detail page.
  • It integrates with a variety of sensors, both Bluetooth and ANT+
  • It has excellent privacy options. You probably don't want to post all the maps for your rides on the Internet and then have, essentially, giant flashing arrows pointing directly to your house so that thieves know which house has the expensive bike in the garage. Strava's solution is slick. You give it a street address, and when Strava shows your ride details to others, it automatically crops the start and end of your ride at a random radius around that address. The map doesn't appear cropped when you view your own rides, though. People will get the gist of your ride and know probably what neighborhood you live in, but won't be able to tell which exact house is yours. There is a screenshot of this below from one of my rides.
  • It's one of the few iPhone apps I found that correctly use the iPhone GPS API for tracking rides. In iOS 6, Apple added a new "feature" to the GPS API where it would essentially lie to apps about the current position by choosing a nearby street instead of the actual position. For a driving GPS app, that probably makes sense. But for a cycling app, where you are often riding on a bike path near a road, it's a mess. Apple did add a parameter to the GPS API where an app could tell Apple that it didn't want to be lied to. Strava is one of the few apps that does this correctly in their current version.

What's not good or missing?

  • The app doesn't do routing at all. You can't plan out a route for your ride in advance and then see your planned route on the app's map as you're riding. They is key for me because I like to explore unfamiliar locations. And because my battery has a finite range, I plan my rides out in advance so that I know where to turn in order to see interesting sights while staying under a certain total distance.
  • The app doesn't make a very good bike computer. I mean this isn't going to be the app you glance at to see your current speed or how far you have gone so far. First, the recording screen is not configurable. You can't decide what gets shown. Second, and probably more importantly, the app doesn't prevent the auto-lock on your iPhone, so the display will turn off within a few minutes and you won't be able to see anything without unlocking your phone.

Even with these limitations, this was the app that I chose to record my rides. It does that task very well and makes it easy to share the details with my friends and family on Twitter and Facebook. I use something else as a bike computer and for routing that I'll tell you about below...

Here is an example of a ride I went on last weekend: http://app.strava.com/activities/60798183/.

Here are some screenshots of the iPhone app and the web site. Notice in the last screenshot that you can tell I must live somewhere near the YMCA, but you can't tell exactly where my house is:



The Quad Lock (Mounting my iPhone)

So, I'm using an iPhone app while riding, how do I mount that iPhone to the bike so that it doesn't fall off at the first significant bump in the road? I use the Quad Lock from Annex.

This thing is awesome. It comes in two parts. First is a mounting post that attaches to your bike. I attached mine with both the rubber bands and with zip ties for extra security. The second part is a case for your iPhone that has the Quad Lock connector on the back. The connector lets you quickly attach and detach the phone either as portrait or landscape mode. And the case is a decent case. It's not going to win any style competitions, but it's not bulky either. I leave mine on my iPhone even when I'm not riding.

Because it comes with an iPhone case, make sure you get the one that matches your phone. There versions for both iPhone 4/4S and for iPhone 5.

Garmin Edge 810 (Routing & General Bike Computer)

In addition to Strava on my iPhone, I also use a Garmin Edge 810 GPS Bike Computer. I admit that this is an expensive gadget, but I really like what it does for me.

First, it's a really good bike computer. This is what I glance at regularly to see how fast I am riding, how far I have gone, what time it is, etc. The screens are customizable. You can choose what stats you want to see on which pages. You can create different activity profiles that have different screen layouts. For example, I have one profile I choose when I am wearing my heart rate monitor which shows my heart rate on the screen while my normal profile doesn't. Switching profiles is a simple tap on the screen.

Second, it is my route planning tool. The Garmin Connect website has a route planning tool (they call them "Courses") that is pretty decent. You lay out your route on your desktop browser and then you can download it to your Garmin Edge 810. Once it's on the Edge, you can use that course for turn-by-turn navigation as you ride.

Finally, it connects to ANT+ sensors and acts as a backup recording of my ride details in case something goes wrong with the Strava iPhone app. For example, one time, I didn't plan ahead and my iPhone's battery died in the middle of the ride, but I was able take the recorded ride details from the Garmin and manually upload them to the Strava website.

The navigation experience is similar to what you get on a Garmin car GPS. The map view rotates as you ride to show your current direction of travel as "up". As you can imagine, this makes a huge difference and is one of the main reasons I use the Garmin instead of an iPhone cycling app (most of them only ever show North as "up" on their maps).

As you get near a turn, the Edge 810 beeps and displays your upcoming turn. Sometimes when I am in really unfamiliar territory, I leave the GPS on the map view full time so that I can glance down and see where I am and the upcoming route. Other times, I leave the device on the stats display. In that case, the Edge will automatically switch to the map display and back only when reminding you about a turn.

Maps...

In order for the map to be at all useful, you have to get detailed maps for the device. Out of the box, it only comes with useless basic maps that have things like highways on them. Garmin offers their own detailed maps. They are expensive and you can only ever put them on a single device. A better alternative is to use the OpenStreetMap maps (which are free).

The OpenStreetMaps guys have a set of routable bicycle-appropriate maps that include bike trails. My experience is that these maps are actually better than the maps Garmin sells. I used these instructions to get them on my device painlessly. In a nutshell:

  1. Go to http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/
  2. Choose "Routable Bicycle" as your map type
  3. Select the areas you want to download
  4. Download and install on your Edge 810's micro SD card

Edge 810 vs Edge 800...

The main difference between the Edge 810 and the Edge 800 is that the Edge 810 can connect to your iPhone using Bluetooth. Cool? Yes. Necessary? Debatable.

I actually used to have an Edge 800 with my previous bike, but I sold it on eBay for 75% of what I paid for it and bought an Edge 810 instead. For the simple coolness factor, I don't regret my choice. It's nice to be able to create courses on the website and wirelessly transfer them to my Edge 810 via my iPhone while I am standing in the garage. It's nice that all my rides get automatically uploaded to Garmin Connect via my iPhone. A couple times I have used the Live Tracking feature so that my wife could follow my progress from her laptop/phone. I thought it was cool, but she wasn't impressed.

Sensors (Heart Rate, Power, Speed, Cadence)

The sensor that I mostly care about is a heart rate monitor. I ride for fun, but I also care about fitness at least a little, and a heart rate monitor gives me a better sense of how much of a workout I actually get.

The Strava app supports both Bluetooth sensors and ANT+ sensors (with a dongle). I use ANT+ for two reasons:

  1. The Garmin also supports ANT+, so one set of sensors can feed both the Strava app and the Garmin.
  2. The only chest strap that I found to be reliable (for me) happened to be ANT+

For heart rate, I use the CycleOps PowerCal. This is the only heart rate monitor that I tried that consistently worked for me. Other monitors were intermittent at best and would often not transmit my heart rate for long stretches of a ride.

The PowerCal is actually an ANT+ power meter and heart rate monitor combined. It estimates power by monitoring how your heart rate changes during your ride. Now, this is not even remotely as good as a real power meter (which would cost several thousand dollars), but remember, I am not a hardcore cyclist, and I don't really even know how to interpret power meter data, anyway. To me, this is just a highly reliable hear rate monitor.

One nice side effect of the PowerCal being a power meter is that it give the Strava app the information it needs to more accurately estimate the number of calories I burn on a ride. On its own Strava estimates this, but with an electric bike, it always way over estimates because it assumes I am doing all the work. With the PowerCal on, Strava can see how much work I am actually doing and the calories calculation becomes accurate (I verified the Strava estimate independently with a non-iPhone-integrated heart rate monitor from Polar). The Garmin Edge also has a similar problem (overestimating calories by default), but its estimates become accurate by using any supported heart rate monitor (doesn't have to be a power meter).

To enable ANT+ sensors on my iPhone, I use the Wahoo Fitness Key attached to my iPhone 5 with a Lightning to 30-Pin Cable. It's kind of hacky, but it works ok.

My Garmin Edge 810 also came with an ANT+ speed/cadence meter. Not being a hardcore cyclist, I'm not sure why cadence matters, but I installed in anyway because it's a gadget :) The benefit of the speed meter is a more accurate speed measurement than you get by estimating speed from GPS location data, I guess.

Final Thoughts...

I got my bike in mid April of this year, so I have had it just about two months. In that time I have ridden over 500 miles, and it has been a blast. I ride almost every day that it isn't raining. Shorter rides in the evenings after work, and longer rides on the weekends. I have a few favorite routes around Sun Prairie and Madison. I'm lucky that there are lots of beautiful bike paths in this community.

This is also a much more fun way to get my daily exercise. Yes, it's not as intense of a workout as I might get on a regular bike, or with "real exercise," but it still is a workout. I work up a healthy sweat, and I feel it in my legs when I finish a ride. For example, my 54 minute ride last night burned 229 calories. Sure, I could probably have burned 229 calories in only 20 minutes on the elliptical machine in my basement, but my bike ride was a lot more fun. And on a regular bike, my route last night would have been tool long to be practical due to reduced speed.