Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Garmin Edge 500 Cycling Computer

SUMMARY: I have been using a Garmin Edge 500 cycle computer to enable my trial of Philip Maffetone's training regimen and this post describes the good and bad of that device. In short, the Garmin is adequate for my needs but is certainly not perfect. The impatient can safely skip the introduction of this article which provides some context for my judgements.

INTRODUCTION: Back in the mid 20th century during my first cycling career, cycling computers did not exist and very few people had any kind of speedometer or odometer on their bicycles. Because my kids bought them, I became aware of cycle computers well before I restarted cycling and when I did, one of my first accessories was an inexpensive Cateye Strada cycle computer:

I paid less than $40 for it back in '08 and it added a lot of fun to my riding, allowing me to track how far I had ridden and what my average speed was for each of my rides. As I gained experience and talked to other cyclists, I developed an interest upgrading to a Garmin Edge 500:

Weight control was a major goal of my cycling, so I set a weight target and promised myself I could buy the Garmin once I reached it. When I did, I went to Amazon to order one, but when I read the reviews, I was somewhat discouraged. Granted, most of the reviews were positive but there were a significant number of very negative reviews complaining of a "downgrade" of the GPS functionality relative to older models, of a screen difficult to read, but the most common and worrisome complaint was that buggy software on this model often lead to data loss. As a result, I delayed my purchase.

The Cateye has its own data loss problems. It lacks the ability to upload its data to a computer, so the opportunity for data loss is less than the Garmin which does have this capability. However, this device is controlled by "clicking" the entire computer as one giant button to switch between modes, and the normal reset mechanism is to "click and hold". Unfortunately, on bumpy roads this can be triggered accidentally, resetting the device and discarding your ride up to that point. (There appear to be other ways to trigger an accidental reset, but I have not been able to pin them down.) In particular, my Cateye reset it self on my one brevet to date, losing the data for that ride. This is particularly problematic on a brevet because the directions one follows are in terms of distances along the route. Once my Cateye reset, I no longer knew how far along I was and thus when I should turn. The complaint about the Garmin is that it loses data between the completion of a ride and uploading it to a computer. I am unaware of any cases of a Garmin Edge 500 losing data during a ride.

When I began trying the Maffetone training regimen, I needed a heart rate monitor. The Garmin is able to be connected to a heart rate monitor whereas the Cateye is not. I had not been able to find a better alternative to the Garmin Edge 500, so I swallowed my concerns and ordered it. In addition to the computer itself for $250, I needed to separately purchase a heart rate monitor for about $40. In addition, I wanted to be able to track cadence, so I purchased a cadence/speed detector as well for about $40. I also purchased a mounting bracket for about $10, but that turned out to be unnecessary because two came with the computer.

RESULTS: When I first tried the Garmin, I was most favorably impressed. It addresses a lot of minor frustrations I had with the Cateye. It has an easier to read display, the display is vastly more configurable, and there is a lot more data presented on each screen. The optional cadence/speed detector, which measures the speed at which the crank and rear wheel move, is much easier to adjust to work correctly on my Surly than the speed monitor of the Cateye. Both the optional heart rate monitor and the optional cadence/speed detector were detected by the Garmin quickly and simply. Garmin provides both web-based and local (runs on your computer) software for viewing ride data. Download and installation of the local software, "Garmin Training Center" were quick and trouble free. The web-based software also seems good, but I have had no incentive to give it more than a quick glance.

As quickly as I found so much to like about the Garmin, the major deficiency of the Garmin became apparent almost as quickly; its flakey software. It wasn't until later that I experienced data loss, but other symptoms of flakey software, from bugs to misfeatures, became apparent almost immediately:

  • When I installed the cadence/speed detector, the Garmin immediately turned over authority for distance and speed to this device rather than using its GPS. However, when I tried to set the wheel size (necessary for getting a correct distance), distance was always way off. It was only when I set the option "determine wheel size automatically" (e.g. from the GPS) did it start working. This is despite the fact that the wheel size Garmin determined was very close to what I had been inputting.
  • Having "heart rate too high" and (to a lesser extent) "heart rate too low" alarms are critical for the Maffetone workout. As best I can tell, the only way to set these on the Garmin is via heart rate zones. As is apparent to readers of this blog, I have had occasion to adjust these. As best I can tell, the only way to adjust these is via Training Zone on the connected computer. This process is misdocumented and erratic; getting the changes to "take" is a trial and error process that only sometimes works.
Both of the above issues are annoying but can be worked around. What was most discouraging is when, after a few weeks, I came back from a ride, went to upload my data, and found that the Garmin had lost it. This is the dreaded data loss problem that a number of people had commented about on Amazon. Some people experience this, some don't. People who do have tried to figure out what causes it. Hypotheses include trying to keep too many rides (more than five or six) on the Garmin (rather than uploading them to Training Center and deleting them from the Garmin) or pressing the lap button too often. It is true that I used the lap button more than usual on the day I lost data, and that I had about a dozen rides on the Garmin. Since then, I have avoided using the lap function and have been diligent about removing old data. It has only been a week or two since that first data loss, but I have yet to experience a second one. Truly, data loss is annoying but doesn't keep me from using the Garmin for Maffetone training. So long as I can monitor my heart rate while I ride, I can train properly, and if I make a mental note as to the miles completed during my 45 minute ride, that is all the data I need to record a MAF test result, even if the Garmin loses the data before I can upload it to Training Center.

I'm sure there is a lot I have left to learn about the Garmin. It has a wealth of features and it is easy to overlook or misunderstand some of them in the short time I have been using it. I expect my opinion of this device will evolve.

CONCLUSION: If I had it to do over, would I still purchase a Garmin Edge 500? Honestly, I am not sure. I certainly would diligently investigate alternatives. However, if I found nothing better, it is definitely acceptable, and in many ways, lots of fun. I think the major difference between those who love and hate it is expectation; those who love it don't expect perfection, those who hate it are annoyed at the buggy software for a rather expensive bicycle computer.

MAF Test Results

After struggling a bit as to how best to track and present the results of my MAF tests, given how much day to day variability there is, I hit upon the following:

I am using Microsoft Excel to plot all of the test results, not just one per week, and to calculate a trend line. What is shown on the above graph, is that after 22 days, 9 tests, and 13 rides (non-test rides are not shown on the graph), my average speed is decreasing by approximately 0.05 MPH per day. I am not yet concerned about this because I don't believe I have been doing the training long enough to get a clear result and because I know things that have affected the rides (weather, general health, family activities that have interfered with training) that are not shown on the graph that might explain why some rides are faster than others. If, at the end of January, I feel I have been able to execute the training program with reasonable diligence and performance is still declining, I will re-evaluate.

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