Bike computers have come a long way, to say the least.
More than a decade ago, the introduction of stand-alone GPS running and cycling computers represented a quantum leap forward when compared to models that calculated speed and distance via a magnet affixed to a rotating wheel.
Not only were they more accurate than their predecessors, they allowed you to download your ride data into your PC or Mac.
Factoring in the incorporation of cadence sensors, heart rate monitors, and power meters, data-hungry cyclists essentially were given a sports science lab attached to their handlebars.
All this progress was (and is) not without drawbacks, however. Stand-alone GPS bike computers are, by most standards, on the expensive side. And, just like many other rapidly-evolving technologies, a bigger/better/faster/more powerful/more feature-packed model comes out every few years.
So, when app-based smart phones hit the scene and systematically started replacing stand-alone devices faster than Bradley Wiggins crushes a time trial, consumers were presented with a viable alternative to a stand-alone, GPS-enabled bike computer.
I mean, if you’ve got a cutting edge, GPS-enabled computer in your jersey pocket, why do you need a second one attached to your stem?
Well, there are a variety of reasons, actually. For one, your smart phone isn’t designed to be exposed to extreme weather conditions. It’s probably not designed to absorb the constant shock and vibrations a bike computer is subjected to, or survive a crash. A smart phone battery will generally not last 100 miles with the display on and the GPS running.
Granted, there are a multitude of products available to mount a smart phone to your handlebars, while keeping it protected and even providing extended battery life. But, at least in my opinion, these contraptions can be bulky, heavy, and not aesthetically pleasing...let alone aero.
You’ll rarely if ever spot a pro with an iPhone bolted to their bike. And lots of amateur roadies...being the judgy lot that they are...frown upon the practice entirely (see Rule #74).
Thinking firmly outside the (small, black, stem-mounted) box, Wahoo Fitness devised the RFLKT, a product that strikes a nice compromise by letting you tap into the power of your iPhone or Android while keeping it safely hidden away from the disapproving eyes of the Velominati.
As its name suggests, the RFLKT “reflects” what is going on in your phone via a compact, attractive digital display that discreetly mounts to your bars. Four buttons allow you to control basic functions and scroll through screens that provide all the ride data that you’d expect. The RFLKT ride data comes via a free Wahoo fitness app that you download to your phone. Processing power and GPS information comes from the phone itself.
The standard RFLKT retails for $99.99. For a $129.99 retail, you can get the RFLKT+. This is a real bargain compared to stand-alone units. And when your phone gets upgraded, your bike computer automatically gets an upgrade too.
Wahoo is known for making premium-level products aimed at competitive cyclists, runners, and fitness enthusiast. These include the KICKR connected indoor bike trainer and the Balance bluetooth smart scale. Since the RFLKT was so unique to the industry, Wahoo tested the concept on Kickstarter before committing to making it.
I first became curious about the RFLKT while browsing an Apple store one time, and stopped by the Wahoo booth at CES to learn more about it. The company was nice enough to send me a model to test.
Since I own a variety of sensors that use the “ANT+” protocol (such as a heart rate monitor and cadence/speed sensors), Wahoo sent me the RFLKT+. The “+” model adds a barometric altimeter, a thermometer and most importantly an “ANT+ bridge,” enabling your phone to receive data from ANT+ devices. Without the ANT+ feature, you’d need Bluetooth-based sensors (thankfully which Wahoo offers).
Wahoo won’t be very happy to hear this, but the unit sat in the box for several weeks. This wasn’t because I wasn’t excited to try it, it was because I’m a bit of a luddite, very impatient, and therefore HATE setting up new devices. It’s always a frustrating struggle for me to get things paired, configured and otherwise dialed in. Since the RFLKT was completely foreign to me, I was really dreading the setup.
To my (pleasant) surprise, setup actually turned out to be a breeze. I visited Wahoo’s instructions page, watched a couple of short videos, downloaded the app, paired it, mounted it to my bike, and ten minutes later I was out on a short test ride. I initially ran into some difficulty pairing my ANT+ sensors, but I’ve learned from years of experience using an iPhone that glitches in the phone’s operating system can often be the root of a problem. Based on these experiences, I tried rebooting my phone. Once I did that, everything paired up as intended.
The RFLKT comes with three plastic plates that the main head unit can snap into. Combined, these plates offer the user four different mounting options. A “forward mount” clamps onto the handlebars, extending the unit nicely into your field of vision. A “stem mount” attaches to the stem using rubber O-rings. On the underside of the stem mount, there’s a curved rubber piece. If you turn the rubber piece 90 degrees, you can mount it on the handlebar. Lastly there’s a plate that lets you affix the RFLKT on popular “quarter turn” mounts like K-Edge. If you’re concerned about having a clean, “pro” look, this is a really nice option in my opinion.
And unlike your iPhone, the RFLKT is IPX7-certified weatherproof and shockproof, and weighs a very roadie-approved 57 grams.
When you power up the RFLKT head unit, there’s a logically laid-out array of default screens. The four buttons have a solid feel. Using the Wahoo app, you can create custom screen and button configurations if you like. You can also modify settings like backlighting, auto-scroll, pop-ups and so forth. I played with the custom settings a little bit, but in my opinion, everything was configured fine out of the box.
Using the RFLKT proved straightforward as well. Once outside, I simply powered up the RFLKT unit, opened the app (so the unit and my phone could connect), pressed “start workout” (either in the app or the top right button of the RFLKT unit), hit the “sleep” button on my phone (to turn off the phone’s screen), and started pedaling.
The RFLKT’s display was easy to read and the screens proved simple to navigate using the buttons. The GPS data seemed to flow with no more “hiccups” than I typically experience with my Garmin units (I generally ride in a GPS-unfriendly urban environment with taller buildings, underpasses, etc.). In short, it worked like a quality bike computer would be expected to.
While riding, the RFLKT significantly saves phone battery life since the phone display is off. Phone power is still needed since the GPS is still operating and it’s communicating to the RFLKT using Bluetooth 4.0, but especially with recently-released models like the iPhone 6, you should have plenty of ride time. The coin-style watch battery in the RFLKT is said to last about a year.
Once finished with my test ride, I opened the app, saved the “workout,” and uploaded it to Garmin Connect. Couldn’t be easier. It’s equally easy to upload your ride to TrainingPeaks, Strava and several other popular fitness programs.
My initial complaints were few, and only of the nitpicky variety. For example, the RFLKT can’t operate without first opening the app on your phone and connecting to it. Second, if you have your RFLKT connected but you’re not in the middle of a workout, and you happen to close the app, the RFLKT unit will power off. While this will presumably lengthen the RFLKT's battery life, it’s really annoying since you have to stop what you’re doing, power up the unit and pair it with the app before you can start riding. And obviously, if you are in a situation where you don’t want your phone on you (such as a race), you won’t be able to use the RFLKT at all.
On the other hand, what I like about the RFLKT is that it appears to be an open platform, with seemingly limitless potential to add features and functions as new apps are written for it.
For example, Wahoo just announced integration with the Ride With GPS app. In addition to having another option (beside the Wahoo app) to track your ride data, it adds turn-by-turn direction capability. Here is a video you can watch to see how it works.
A practical application for this feature could be, for example, your friend wants to show you a really cool training ride route. While riding with your friend, you could record and save the route using Ride with GPS. Then the next time you go out, the app will show turn by turn directions on the RFLKT, enabling you to follow your friend’s route.
Or, lets say you want to plan a ride to a brewery (the most practical application of navigation technology there is). Simply log into the Ride With GPS website, click on “Plan,” type in the starting address and ending address(es), click on your requirements (eg. add points of interest, avoid highways, etc.), and save the route. The route will be transferred to the app, where you can access turn by turn directions on the RFKLT.
Ride with GPS can also upload routes from rides you’ve saved in, for example, Garmin Connect. Other features include the ability to print cue sheets, track bike maintenance, as well as share ride photos and stories.
I downloaded the Ride with GPS app and gave all this a try and it works as advertized. For the type of person who wants to lead a fun group ride, plan a weekend bike camping trip, or even organize an unofficial gravel race, this is actually a neat tool.
RFLKT owners get a free 1-month trial, then they have to subscribe to the app to use it. Plans include a $6/month basic plan, a $10/month premium plan, and then a “pay what you want” option.
As good as the RFLKT is, it has one fatal flaw...and the flaw isn’t really the RFLKT’s fault; it's limited by the capabilities of your smart phone's GPS.
I have my fair share of issues with the Garmin equipment I own, but the one thing I can’t complain about is the accuracy and consistency of the GPS. I mean, I’ve done century rides where the Garmin flipped from “99.99” to “100.00” as I crossed the finish line. I’ve checked the distance of my routes (recorded in Garmin Connect) against Google Maps. I’ve done gravel rides where each turn was within 1/100th of a mile of where the cue sheet said it would be.
So, out of curiosity, I did several commutes with both the RFLKT (paired to an iPhone 6) and a Garmin Forerunner 310XT running simultaneously. For the first few miles, the two devices were yielding the same distance data...but it was apparent that the real-time speed data on the RFLKT was not quite right. It was slow to react to accelerations and braking, and seemed to be off by 1.5mph at any given time. Then, about halfway through the ride, the distance data started to seriously deviate from the Garmin’s.
Since it's dependent on your phone, GPS accuracy and consistency is the only significant weakness of the RFLKT (notice different distance readings even after a short ride). Fortunately, the use of a wheel sensor significantly improves accuracy.
The next day, I did the same experiment. The Garmin yielded the exact distance data that it did the previous day. The RFLKT, however, gave me completely different numbers, resembling neither the Garmin nor the numbers it gave me the day before. It was all over the map, to be honest...with deviations approaching a quarter mile.
This really bummed me out. I love the concept behind the RFLKT. I think it’s thoughtfully-designed and truly offers a good alternative, especially for the budget-minded. But without accurate and consistent GPS, it’s not useful for anyone but the most casual of riders.
Fortunately, there’s a fix.
For the following day’s commute, I hooked up my ANT+ wheel sensor. Once it paired, I selected the proper tire size in the Wahoo app (extremely easy to do) and started pedaling. Immediately the speed data was reading correctly. Better yet, when I completed my commute, the distance and average speed data was IDENTICAL to what showed on the Garmin. To me, this was a game changer, and really made the RFLKT, in my mind, a worthy purchase.
The wheel sensor I paired up happened to be a Garmin unit, and it worked fine. For best results (especially with regard to pairing with the RFLKT), purchasing the $59.99 Wahoo Blue SC Speed and Cadence Sensor is presumably the wisest choice.
I don't have first-hand experience using an Android phone with a RFLKT (the GPS may be better than an iPhone, depending on make and model), but hopefully, as smartphones in general continue to evolve, GPS accuracy will one day become a non-issue.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.