The number of health-tracking gadgets and apps is officially out of control. Fitbit just announced its Force activity-tracking watch. Apple integrated Nike+ and activity sensors into its latest smartphone. Jawbone, while initially a Bluetooth headset maker, is now pushing the Up. Nike FuelBand. BodyMedia Link. Pebble. Pear Pro. I can keep going.
Heck, Garmin, which has been making fitness-related GPS devices for years, is on a roll, and I should know because I spent hundreds on a Garmin 810 a couple months ago.
And I love it. I can track my rides, view my progress and get wrapped up in Strava rankings. I truly believe it enhances my fun time on the bike. My Garmin grabs the data right from a magnetic cadence sensor attached to my chain stay; the redundant GPS satellite links track the course; Garmin connect crunches the data; and I transfer the ride to Strava to see how I did compared to others (and to myself). It's all a fun, digital dance that marries my love of technology with that of cycling. Bliss.
But there's a dark -- maybe not dark, but let's call it shady -- side to all of this. The other evening when I was clamoring in the garage to get a ride in before the early fall sunset, I realized I had left my water bottles upstairs in the house. I clacked up the stairs in my biking shoes, grabbed the water bottles and headed back down. I then realized that I left my Garmin charging in the house. Back up the stairs. Back downstairs, I booted up the Garmin only to find that it couldn't connect to my iPhone via Bluetooth. I reset them both and the connection was good. I then flicked on the rear flasher light only to realize that I hadn't charged it in two weeks. Fine, I'd have to make it home before dark.
All of this took about 30 minutes. "At a decent riding pace," I thought to myself, "those 30 minutes equal 10 miles."
Finally on the saddle, I spent the first few minutes bemoaning those lost 10 miles.
The next day, I decided to simply hop on my bike (with helmet, of course) and take a ride. I have no idea how far I went, how fast or at what cadence. And you know what? I had a great time. I was just riding; there were no numbers -- it was just me and the bike.
But I'm not about to give up the Garmin, and I'm also eager to try the Jawbone Up. I love mixing gadgets and exercise in a motivational cocktail consisting of my two favorite hobbies.
In fact, there's part of me that wants to add even more gadgets to my riding. I'd love to try a power meter crankset -- a pedaling system that measures exactly how much power you are exerting into the bike's drivetrain in order to train for efficiency and pedal stroke. They cost around $3,000, so this won't be happening any time soon, but I want one.
I'd also love to try Shimano's Ultegra Di2 electronic-shifting component system. This $2,390 system uses wireless signals and robot-accurate derailleurs in place of cables that can stretch and require more maintenance.
That's almost $6,000 worth of gadgets that don't necessarily make the rider any faster or stronger. You might think that all of this makes riding un-fun, and you might be right. But I'm willing to take that risk to gain more ways to enjoy riding.
Almost every time I go to ride, I'm strapping on a heart-rate monitor, syncing my smartphone with a GPS device, downloading routes to said device, looking up top times on segments, calculating elevation gain, sweating my average speed and immersing myself in the numbers. To some that might seem like a lot of effort just to ride a bike. But it's a ritual I love, a quiet meditation before that moment when nothing can help me but my legs and lungs.
Just last week, a friend built a single-speed bike with no gears. He plans to take it on some of the tougher trails in the area. To me, this sounds like torture: I like dropping to a granny gear so I can eat up the climb and then clicking up to a high gear to shred through the flats. But he likes the simplicity, the lack of technology; just him and the trail.
And I get that. But I'll be over here with my thingamabobs and what's its.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.