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Embrace debate: Do computers belong on mountain bike bars?

Everyone seems to have a Garmin, Wahoo, or some other GPS head unit these days. They make sense on road and gravel bikes. Do they belong on mountain bikes? Let's debate.

Written by: The Pro's Closet

Published on:

Posted in:MTB

GPS head units are commonplace on drop bar bikes. But on mountain bikes, there's room for debate. Matthew and Spencer face off on this hot topic.
Bike computer and some sweet singletrack

You absolutely should put a computer on your MTB cockpit

By: Matthew Ankeny

The Romantic poet Robert Browning was married to an even better poet: Elizabeth Barret Browning. Mrs. Browning’s husband — as oft he was known — lived in her shadow. Elizabeth offered us a wealth of good verse, but none as well known as “Sonnet 43” with the opening verse: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” A generous soul.

I think of this verse while on the trail, counting the ways I love my beauteous shred sled. And one core component of that affair is my well-loved Wahoo Bolt mounted directly on my bike’s crown with a K-Edge fixed mount. This squat combo is locked in and a guiding light on the trail.

Caveat: I don’t love data. I don’t need a computer to tell me how slow I ride or how few watts I put out. I know. But, my computer gives me the vitals (time of day, ride time, mileage), tracks my ride, and keeps my phone where I like it — in my hip pack.

With this setup my Wahoo has never ejected in a crash, doesn’t demand my attention, and, if I do say so myself, maintains my cockpit’s good looks. I also use the Bolt for navigating new trails, loading the route pre-ride or following the terribly archaic map. It works well enough.

And so, when I count the ways that I love mine shred sled, I count that cockpit computer twice. Liz wrote it well: “I love thee to the level of every day's / Most quiet need” — like glancing down to spot the hour and seeing I have time for one more climb and descent before nightfall shrouds the blessed mountains in dark.


You could put a computer on your MTB bars, but you shouldn't

By: Spencer Powlison

The Toecutter, Bobby Zanetti, Johnny the Boy — my vibe for long, tough mountain bike rides is the motorcycle gang from “Mad Max.” (Minus the heinous criminality.) Dusty, worn bikes and gear, going hell for leather, relying on your wits and skills. No way the Toecutter worried about his speedometer.

That’s why I never put a head unit on the bars of my mountain bike. And neither should you.

Screens are for work and inane social media. How could looking at a Garmin or Wahoo possibly enhance your experience on a rad section of singletrack?

And from a practical standpoint, a head-unit is redundant. Face it, you’re going to carry your smartphone anyway. If you must use Strava (honestly, I’m addicted), set it and forget it.

But how do you check the time? What about navigation? Isn’t it a pain to pull your phone out of your pack? You’re thinking about it all wrong.

If you’re crunched for time, plan ahead and know your route. Mountain biking isn’t a treadmill workout. Shit happens on the trail. There’s probably a 24-Hour Fitness in your neighborhood if you’re crunched for time.

Also, navigating off-road with a simple head-unit is like drawing a picture based on verbal cues. The computer is a crude crutch that takes your attention away from what matters: Faint traces of trail, the shape of the terrain, the pattern of drainages. Study up and bring a real topo map.

Confession: I do occasionally wear a Polar GPS watch. Hypocrisy? Maybe. But when it’s on my wrist, I rarely look at it.

And just like the guys in that motorcycle gang, it’s only a matter of time before I lay the bike down at speed. I’d rather not worry about searching in the bushes for my $350 GPS unit that got ejected in the tumble.