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The gadget I never wanted but can no longer live without

March 6, 2024

Last year I received a Garmin Varia RTL 515 rear radar/ bike light as a gift. And until actually using it, I would have never considered buying one. After 20 years of riding without one, not only did I assume I never needed such a device, but I was frankly annoyed even by the idea. Why?

To be honest, I’m pissed-off that recent legislation seems to be pointing blame towards cyclists for not being “visible enough” to distracted drivers. Rather that create infra-structure that improves cycling safety, we are being blamed for not having lights on in the daylight, or not wearing a helmet when a cyclist is getting hit by a driver…

I pretty much always have lights on my bike, for the occasional tunnel and inevitable ride that accidentally goes into the night. But I don’t put my lights on in the day. What’s the point? And a rear radar? OMG, just another noisy distraction to manage on the bike. Besides, do I really want to hear the beep of the car that’s coming behind me? That’s what my ears have been telling me for 20 years. I don’t need a bike radar!

I was wrong!

In English, we say to ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and ME! Yes, my preconceptions of the overall riding experience using a bike radar were flat out wrong. And I learned that quickly over the course of a 12-hour test ride last summer.

 

What does not kill you makes you stronger

From annoyance to pleasure

I left my home in Villars-sur-Ollon to tackle the Col de la Croix early on a Sunday morning in July. At this hour there was very little traffic. The only car that I can remember overtaking me up the climb was a super-fast sports car that I could hear long before the radar triggered. How annoying, this loud beep that broke the morning silence (other than the car) was telling me something that I already knew. So unimpressed.

The descent of the col was equally quiet, and I forgot the radar existed until I tackled the col du Pillon. Again, here there was little traffic and the beeping was a good way to startle me out of my climbing rhythm. Still not impressed but getting used to it.

Then something happened on the other side of the hill. The descent from the top into Gsteig can be rather pleasant when there is little traffic, and I know this road with my eyes closed. My ex-car racing habits come out and I tackle my corners making the best/fastest line possible. But because of the speed and wind, I can’t hear if a car is coming from behind. And as this descent is not always steep, it’s easy for a car to sneak up. So I’ve gotten into a habit of looking back, particularly on this descent. And then it hit me…I don’t have to look back. The radar does the work for me!

It was one of the most pleasant descents that I ever had down the Pillon.

And as the long false flat sets in on my way to Gstaad, traffic also began to increase. A strong head wind made it difficult to hear approaching cars, and many times the radar told me of their presence long before I could hear them. It was comforting as it gave me ample time to reserve my space on the road without having to look back.

And then I realized another super cool feature…the Garmin screen not only indicates that a car is behind me, but also HOW MANY cars are behind me, something that is impossible to hear correctly without looking back. Now I can count and keep pedaling forward knowing how long before I’m free again. Wow, this is cool.

Chaos in Gstaad

The perfect companion in high-traffic zones

I entered Gstaad into a weekend of chaos. It was the Swiss Open. I’ve never seen so many people and cars in this region in my life. And as I was leaving Gstaad on my way towards the Mittelberg, there was a continuous line of cars heading against me. And a super amazing airshow overhead. It was impossible to hear if anything was behind, and with the traffic it would have been impossible for anyone to overtake me.

In such a situation I would have been on high-alert. I learned to ride in car-clogged southern California where riding a bike can be a blood sport. And instinctively I start checking behind me every 30 seconds or so to make sure some car behind me isn’t frustrated and trying to overtake when he can’t.

And then it hit me (no, not a car, but an idea). There is no car behind me! I keep looking for a car that doesn’t exist. The radar never beeps. I start to calm down and have faith in my new device. I can stop frantically looking behind me.

Laughing at my own preconceptions and fears

My new bike radar and some self-reflection allowed me to identify a serious problem: I am an anxious rider and I never even realized it. I’m worrying about nothing. How much of my riding time is spent worrying about nothing? How much of my quality of life has been lost to anxiety over nothing?

My ride up and down the Mittleberg sealed the deal. Now, 4-5 hours into my ride, I get it. This device is an anxiety killer. All of my nervous worry about the “what if” from behind disappeared.

It was a very windy day, and as I climbed up the Mittleberg, the first few times a gust of wind blew my immediate instinct was, is it a car, omg is it a car? Panic, red alert, warning. As the radar never sounded, I realized I no longer needed to panic as the wind blew. I could just enjoy the sounds of nature and rustling leaves without the panic of death. I started to laugh at my own absurdity. This was the most relaxing and enjoyable climb up Mittleberg that I ever had because I stopped worrying about imaginary cars.

The descent, especially once I hit the main road from Jaun into the Gruyere was equally one of my best experiences. There were heavy cross winds and riding was challenging enough without throwing cars into the mix. But on a busy weekend there was of course a lot of traffic. And the feature to know how many cars were lined up to pass was an anxiety saver. It took the guess work out of riding. Just counting them pass, 1,2…17. The amount of traffic was impressive and  the Garmin response was equally impressive.

After my long day out and I start to head up my last climb to Villars, I realize how calm I am. I just spent all day on the bike, a big day, but I wasn’t wrecked with muscle tension and neck soreness from my habitual checking backward. This little device vastly improved my riding experience and seriously made me question my anxiety and its impact on my riding performance.

Sure this isn’t a must for everyone. But if you are a nervous or anxious rider, this little device could make a noticeable improvement in your riding experience. It’s certainly improved mine and I no longer ride without it!

Pros

  • alerts you to cars before you can hear them in traffic or wind
  • indicates how many cars are behind
  • indicates distance behind
  • indicates relative speed (vehicle dots move faster or slower on screen)
  • light can have multiple flashing or static positions, even off while radar still functions.

Cons

  • beep can be annoying and startling (but can be turned off)
  • battery may not last an epic 12-hour outing, and its longevity depends on whether the light is on, off or flashing
  • can’t mount with a saddle bag
  • doesn’t detect vehicles until much closer in some very specific road configurations (long bends – ears are still necessary)
  • the mount could be more secure for the level of technology and price of the device.

Lillie

Head over to the blog to read more cycling stories. Looking for inspiration on where to ride? Check out our favorite loops.

Comments 4

  1. Thanks, Lillie!
    Saw this gadget advertised and wondered what difference it made. You have answered those questions in a clear way.

    1. Post
      Author

      For Lillie, it made a huge difference. I was a little bit more skeptical at first but now I enjoy using it every day.

      1. I have one and really like using it. It works fine with my WAHOO devices except I don’t have the red display like you with your Garmin head units. With newer WAHOO units the side will be red or green depending on the traffic situation which is good enough. On monochrome screens you see icons and hear sounds which suffices as well.
        Note: there are different versions out there with regards to how the device lights up/blinks. The traffic law situation is different from country to country. What’s allowed in France is not allowed in Germany, so ýou might want to check how “legal” the use is when crossing borders.
        How long does your battery last? Mine won’t last a more than 8 hours and Garmin says: that’s enough. Now that’s a bummer!

        1. Post
          Author

          Thanks for the feedback! As mentioned by Lillie in the article, the battery won’t last a very long day in the mountains but it’s enough for most of our training rides. There may also be some settings to spare the battery but we are not tech people and have not really looked for them 😉

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