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Why I won't ride without the Garmin Varia

By Bruce Lin

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Garmin Varia
For months after getting hit by a car, my rides were tainted by paranoia and nerves. Getting buzzed by a driver is frightening, even if you’ve never been hit. Fortunately, I’m recovering and having fun road riding again. 

One of the best ways I’ve found to restore my confidence is a Gamin Varia. It may sound like a gadget, but this radar device watches out for cars, so you can stay aware while focusing on the road ahead. And it really works. After only one ride, I realized that I can’t live without it. Here’s why. 

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What is the Garmin Varia?

The Varia attaches to your seatpost and uses radar to tell you when cars are approaching from behind. 

Garmin Varia RTL515It connects to a compatible head unit (Garmin, Wahoo, Hammerhead, and Stages) or smartphone app using ANT+ or Bluetooth. When the Varia detects an incoming car, your head unit gives you an audible alert along with a graphic that indicates the car’s distance and speed. Cars are presented as individual dots moving up the side of your head unit’s screen and the Varia detects cars up to eight cars from as far away as 140 meters. 

The edges of the screen also change color to indicate overtake speed (i.e. the difference in speed between you and the car). Yellow-to-orange indicates a “normal” passing speed. If a car is going fast enough it will trigger a more noticeable alert tone and the screen will show red to warn you so you can react appropriately. Once there’s no more traffic behind you, the screen turns green. 

Garmin Varia RTL515 vs. RVR315

Garmin Varia RTL515 vs RVR315

The Varia comes in a few versions, but the two models most riders will be interested in are the RTL515 and RVR315.

Garmin Varia RTL515 - $199.99
Garmin Varia RVR315 - $149.99

The two main differences are an integrated tail light and battery life. In both cases, the RTL515 is superior. Its light is ANT+ connected, so settings like brightness and blinking can be controlled from your head unit. The RTL515 battery lasts up to 16 hours in day flash mode, while the RVR315 provides 7 hours of battery life, despite being radar-only. However, it is a good option for riders who already have a tail light or don’t want to use one in situations like group rides.

Both Varia models come with mounts for round, aero, and D-shaped seatposts and are easy to install and remove with Garmin’s standard quarter-turn mount. 

Do you need a Garmin Varia?

You don’t necessarily need a Varia to ride safely. You can turn your head and look behind. You can hear cars approaching. And if you want to be extra safe, you can attach a mirror to your helmet or handlebars. But you can’t look behind you for an entire ride. Once you’re riding above 15mph, wind noise makes hearing cars harder. And a mirror is only effective if you’re paying attention to it. 

Garmin Varia car radarEven if your mind wanders during a ride, there are never gaps in the Varia’s attention. It detects cars long before they can be heard, so they will never catch you by surprise. 

The Varia is not a substitute for common sense and situational awareness, but it gives you extra information so you can be prepared and ride defensively.

For me, after being struck by a car, the added confidence alone makes the Varia worth the price. Once you’re accustomed to the increased awareness the Varia provides, you’ll realize how vulnerable you feel when you ride without it. Because we can’t control the cars around us, I think all riders can benefit from a tool that lets them keep tabs on their surroundings.  

Best of all, the Varia is simple and unobtrusive. It easily connects to different head units and turns on automatically when I start a ride. I can swap it between bikes in seconds, and using it has become second nature. To me, it’s now the most important piece of safety equipment I use after my helmet. 

Pro tip: If you have a Garmin head unit and a friend with a Varia, you can actually try it out before buying. The Varia can connect to multiple Garmin Edge head units at once. This is actually how I discovered the Varia and became convinced! 

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Images courtesy of Garmin

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