Using a phone as a bike computer (a step-by-step guide)


Got a phone? Got a bike? Maybe some sensors (heart rate or other)? and wishes to ride outdoors without buying an expensive GPS bike computer? This article is for you.

GPS bike computers are often used among cyclists and triathletes to record their rides. It is very useful to give you data while riding, from basic information like speed, distance, and duration to more advanced parameters: cadence, power, or the ability to navigate with a map. These features are very useful to train and improve your fitness level on the bike, and also help you discover new places without getting lost.

But GPS bike computers can be expensive and we all have a phone with us when riding (at least to make an emergency call). So why not use your phone as a bike computer?

Can you use your phone as a bike computer?

You can use your phone as a bike computer by mounting your phone onto your handlebars and using a specific app. There are several apps available for iOS and Android; some are free but not all. The main drawback to using your phone as a bike computer is how fast it drains the battery.

I will review later in this article a selection of apps to use as bike computers. Please keep reading to know more.

How to use a phone as a bike computer

Here are simple steps you need to do to use your phone as a bike computer:

1. Get a mount

First, you need to sort out how to view your phone while cycling. And the answer is definitely not carrying it in your hand: this is not practical and not safe. If you want your phone to act as a GPS bike computer you need to mount your phone on your stem or handlebars.

But don’t buy any phone bike mount on the market. You want a safe solution for your phone. The ground is never perfectly smooth whether your ride on the road (potholes, manhole covers…) or on dirt (rocks, bumps…). Cycling generates vibrations important enough to send your phone flying off the mount. So it is very important to select a secure mount.

There is a really good brand on the market I can recommend eyes closed: Quadlock. I have used it and seen several friends using it for either road cycling, commuting, or even mountain biking without any issue.

I am sure they are other brands of handlebar mount for phones that work nicely but I have heard of bad ones also. So be careful to buy something secure for your phone: the phone needs to be grabbed correctly, the attachment point must be strong and the plastic must be strong.

Quadlock handlebar mount with phone poncho

2. Protect your phone from the rain

Many phones aren’t waterproof, and personally, I won’t risk it anyway. I recommend having a cover on top of your phone to protect it from water. It will protect it from the rain but also from projections from the road.

Quadlock proposes phones “poncho” when you buy their phone mount. That’s why I highly recommend Qualock mounts. Go check them out here.

3. Choose a GPS cycling app

Now that you have a phone mount to view your phone while cycling, you need to select an app to ride with.

There are several good riding apps for Android and iOS phones, which can act as a bike computer. The main question before choosing an app is: do you need to connect external sensors to your cycling app or not? By external sensors, I mean heart rate monitor, cadence sensor, speed sensor, or even a power meter.

Below I am only going to mention good apps that can act as a GPS bike computer on your phone. I will not mention apps to help you plan ahead your routes, check the weather, create your training plans, etc. You won’t need these apps when riding, but only at home when preparing your next rides.

Strava

Operating system: Android, iOS

Price: Free (in-app purchase available for added stats after your rides, and route planning)

Sensor compatibility: Heart rate sensors (via Bluetooth)

External display compatibility: None

Strava is a very popular app among cyclists and triathletes. It is famous for its social network of athletes and rankings over route segments. But did you know that the Strava app can record your rides like a GPS bike computer?

Strava can record your rides outdoors using the GPS of your phone. It will show a few stats along the ride: a screen with speed, distance, and time. And a screen with the map.

Currently, you can only pair hear rate sensors with Strava. But they plan to implement in the future the possibility to add cadence and power sensors over Bluetooth. Though it doesn’t look like something they will roll out in a near future.

Riding screens on Strava

Cyclemeter

Operating system: Android, iOS, Apple Watch

Price: Elite version required ($9.99/year)

Sensor compatibility: Heart rate, speed, cadence, power

External display compatibility: Wahoo RFLKT

Cyclemeter is a very customizable app that looks like a cycle computer. It provides you with plenty of data while you ride that you can organize the way you want. It can connect to all of your sensors and display the data live while you are cycling.

Cyclemeter can be a bit overwhelming at first. Importing routes is strange for instance. It can open GPX, TCX, FIT, and KML files but there is no option to import files. Instead, you have to use your phone file browser, click on your file, and then choose “open with Cyclemeter”. Not very intuitive.

Following routes prepared by another software (RideWithGPS, Komoot) is therefore possible with Cyclemeter. Unfortunately, it does not propose turn-by-turn instructions.

If you own wireless earphones, you can get audio prompts and alerts for a wide range of metrics. Everything is customizable to your need, like a GPS bike computer.

This app can upload your rides to Strava if you wish to.

You can use this app to display the metrics on your Apple watch or on an external display like the Wahoo RFLKT to save battery life from your phone.

Riding screens on Cyclemeter (you can organize the metrics as you want)

RideWithGPS

Operating system: Android, iOS, Apple Watch, Android Wear, iPad

Price:
Free version is ok to ride (gives more info than Strava free version)
Basic version for turn-by-turn directions and offline maps ($6/month or $50/year)
Premium version for additional web-based tools like advanced route editing ($10/month or $80/year)

Sensor compatibility: Heart rate, speed, cadence, power, Varia Radar

External display compatibility: Wahoo RFLKT or Echo device

RideWithGPS is a website I discovered for route planning. It is amazing for this and has a big database of rides you can search created by other cyclists.

But RideWithGPS is also an app that you can use as a bike computer. You can use it to follow a route (even without data) and get turn-by-turn directions. You can connect your sensors to this app and display them on the screen. You can get audio prompts and alerts which are customizable.

An interesting thing is that you can connect this app to an external display like the Wahoo RFKKT to turn off the screen of your phone and save battery life. It can also be displayed on smartwatches.

One really good thing is that it can be connected to Garmin Varia Radar which can help you detect incoming cars.

Of course, it can upload your activities to Strava if you wish to do so.

RideWithGPS is really a full app more orientated about touring and having a route at the end, than doing workouts on your bike. It’s not ideal for interval training but it is perfect to follow directions, tag along in a group ride, go a long ride etc. And the route mapping options (in the app and on the associated website) are very efficient. The database of routes will provide you with tons of new ideas for your next rides!

Riding screens on RideWithGPS (you can modify as you wish the metrics displayed)

Cadence

Operating system: Android, iOS, Apple Watch

Price:
Free version (annoying, limited, and with ads to watch to unlock things)
Pro version ($1.99/month or $14.99/year)

Sensor compatibility: Heart rate, speed, cadence, power, Varia Radar

External display compatibility:

Cadence is a recent app that has a lovely design. It uses Google maps. It provides you with plenty of data while you ride. You can customize the screens as you want. This app is very much like a bike computer but it does look nicer 🙂

If you connect a power meter that measures the balance between your legs like Garmin Vector 3, you will be able to see this balance in the metrics to display.

You can also follow routes. You will have to import the file from another service because you cannot create routes with Cadence.

Of course, you can upload your activities to Strava if you wish to do so.

Riding screens for Cadence (fully customizable)

Conclusion about the Apps

We have seen 4 apps that can be good for different profiles of riders. Especially since they have a different price tag associated with the things they offer.

If we focus on riding, then we can order these apps per cost:

  1. Free – Strava
  2. $9.99 per year – Cyclemeter
  3. $14.99 per year – Cadence
  4. $50 per year – RideWithGPS

So which one is best for you?

In my opinion, if you are not a heavy rider focused on getting lots of metrics, then Strava is a really good choice: free, easy to use, and you have all you need in one app.

If you are focused on training with stats, doing interval training, improving your general form, then Cadence is a really good bike computer. It’s only lacking the opportunity to create a map on the go. Something you might not need or you already have another app to do so and you could just load the .gpx file to Cadence when you need it.

In my opinion, Cadence is better than Cyclemeter: it is much more intuitive. Just compare how to load a .gpx file and you’ll understand. Cyclemeter displays graphs you don’t need while cycling. All apps will generate these graphs once you save your ride to analyze them afterward.

RideWithGPS adds one big feature compared to Cadence: the ability to create routes on your phone when you need one. RideWithGPS is a great app but its mapping features are really one of the best available. It’s the best app for people who like touring, going out in groups, discovering new routes…

In summary:

  • Best free option: Strava
  • Best value for money: Cadence
  • Best overall: RideWithGPS

There are other apps on the market that can be used as GPS bike computers. I haven’t tested them (yet) this is why I didn’t review them here.

4. Carry with you a power bank

The downside of using your phone as a bike computer is that it will drain your phone battery very fast. So be thoughtful and always carry with you a power bank and a cable to charge your phone while riding or at least during the coffee stops 😉

Is a bike computer better and necessary?

A bike computer is not necessary. A phone can do the job using dedicated apps. The main drawbacks are battery life and readability. Also in winter, the battery won’t like the cold and in summer will overheat on hot days. For these reasons, a bike computer is better than a phone.

Do I need a bike computer to connect a power meter?

You don’t necessarily need a bike computer to connect a power meter. Power meters can also be connected to many sports watches and to smartphones. For the latter, you will need to use one of the applications listed above and have a Bluetooth power meter.

Things you need with your smart tra...
Things you need with your smart trainer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

Black Friday Amazon deals

These are affiliate links to Amazon.com. They are designed to provide us a mean to earn advertising fees.