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Christmas Gift Guide
Sport and Outdoors

Cycling tech to make you fast and save your ass

Many cyclists only care about getting faster. But speed is nothing without safety. Let's take a look at some of the latest products to help you with both.

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The Winter issue of CNET Magazine is out!

Josh Miller

I love cycling. It's the only form of exercise strenuous enough to be worthwhile yet fun enough to keep me motivated. I burn a lot of calories while riding -- a lot of calories, enough to erase the most egregious of Chipotle indiscretions in less than an hour when I'm really cranking.

But cycling isn't just about staying fit. For many riders, myself included, it's about speed. Since cycling is an endurance sport, being faster usually means getting stronger. Thankfully, there's a lot of tech out there that can help, and that can help you speed up safely. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 50,000 cyclists were struck and injured by cars in 2014. If you're like me and ride mostly in areas without marked bicycle lanes, the risks are surely on your mind every time your ass hits the saddle.

Let's take a look at some of the latest gadgets designed to keep you safe and make you fast while on the bike.

Tech to make you safer

Garmin Varia Rearview Radar -- $200
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Intended for: Everyday cyclists

Let's start with my favorite new piece of safety tech. If you'd told me just a year ago that I'd have a radar-based proximity detector on my bicycle, I'd have called you crazy. Yet here it is. Garmin has somehow managed to pack a scanning sensor plus a brilliantly bright LED array into a package barely any bigger than a standard blinky bike light.

The little thing clamps beneath your seat and shines rearward, scanning the road behind for traffic. It connects wirelessly to Garmin's ride-tracking and performance-monitoring computers, which emit a warbling beep when an approaching car or motorcycle is detected. (Don't have a Garmin computer? There's a separate display available, too.)

Each approaching car is shown as a dot. Multiple cars? Multiple dots, which are animated to move up the side of the display to show you just how far away they are. Your computer will even flash red if they're moving particularly quickly or coming too close. And, perhaps most importantly, the rearward-facing LEDs get brighter and flash more vibrantly as the car approaches, hopefully alerting the driver to your presence.

The Rearview Radar does give the odd false positive, flashing at garbage bins and the like. However, in my many months of testing, it's never missed an approaching car or motorcycle. Not a single one. If you ride in areas with a lot of traffic, it's going to be beeping and blinking a lot, but for my rides, I feel far, far safer with this on my bike.

Garmin Varia Headlight -- $200
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Intended for: Serious cyclists

Garmin

A light on the back of your bike is always necessary, but if you're out at night or in the wee hours of the morning, as I often am, you'll need a headlight, and Garmin's injected some brains into those, too. The Varia Headlight is not only ridiculously bright, illuminating the road ahead better than any other bicycling light I've ever used, but it also brings some smarts to the table.

When connected to a compatible Garmin computer, the Varia Headlight will automatically adjust its beam based on your speed. Going fast? It'll shine farther down the road. Hit the brakes? It angles downward. Neat.

The Varia Headlight is relatively big and heavy, so I don't take it on every ride. But when it's getting dim, I wouldn't leave home without it.

Tech to make you faster

Mio Link Heart Rate Monitor - $79
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Intended for: Everyday cyclists

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Watching your heart rate is one of the most basic, yet most valuable, things you can do to monitor your performance and go faster. Heart rate gives you a solid idea of just how hard you're working, so you'll know when it's time to step it up -- or when to dial it back.

Mio Link is my pick out the hundreds of monitors on the market. Traditional monitors never work reliably for me, and strapping a freezing cold lump of plastic to my chest on a chilly morning can't compare with comfortably slipping the Link on my wrist. It also uses an optical sensor, which starts reading your pulse immediately.

It has both Bluetooth 4.0 and ANT+ connectivity, meaning it can connect to your phone and your cycling computer. As a bonus, it has an integrated LED that changes color depending on what heart-rate zone you're in. This means it blinks red when you're pushing yourself to the redline of your performance, and sometimes that's all you need to know.

Garmin Vector Power Meter $600 -- $1,000
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Intended for: Serious cyclists

Garmin

A heart-rate monitor will give you a pretty good idea of how hard you're working, but a power meter will tell you exactly how hard you're mashing those pedals. This is vital, because sometimes your heart rate during a given workout doesn't actually correspond to your performance, particularly when you've been suffering through too many difficult workouts without giving your body time to recover.

A power meter tells you exactly how hard you're pushing on the pedals, letting you pace yourself reliably and immediately showing if you're not working as hard as you think you are. No more blaming phantom headwinds for your sluggish times.

There are plenty of power meters on sale, but the Garmin Vector pedals have the added benefit of being able to monitor how smooth your cadence is. They can even detect if your foot's in the wrong position on the pedal! They aren't cheap, but this kind of information can help save long-term joint injuries while also making you a more-efficient, and therefore faster, cyclist.

BSXinsight lactate threshold sensor -- $370
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Intended for: Hardcore cyclists

BSX Insight

OK, now we're stepping into serious territory. For decades, professional endurance athletes (and amateurs with deep pockets) have gone to the lab to get poked and prodded to have their lactate threshold determined.

Lactate threshold is basically a measurement of your body's ability to channel oxygen to your muscles. The BSXinsight sensor is one of the first commercially available sensors that can do that calculation at home without the needles.

Only about the size of my thumb, it must be worn in a custom compression sleeve on one or the other calf. It then gives a real-time numeric value to correspond with that "I can't take this anymore" feeling you get during hard training, and details how long it takes your body to recover back to normal.

All of that data tells you exactly how much power you can deliver and for how long. Once you know that, your training sessions can get far more effective. Net result? You get faster, faster.

Tech that does both

Garmin Edge 820 cycling computer - $400
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Intended for: Everyday cyclists

Garmin

An average cycling computer will time your ride and tell you how fast you're going, how rapidly you're pedaling, and how quickly your heart is beating. The Edge 820 performs the basics but adds much more, including turn-by-turn navigation through custom courses that you can create either on the device or (far more easily) through the Garmin Connect website. And, should you decide that hilly course you laid out is a bit too much, it's always able to tell you the quickest way back home.

The 820 also reads all the data from all of the sensors mentioned above, including power and your data from the BSXinsight sensor, making it a great training tool. It also integrates nicely with Garmin's Rearview Radar and Varia light, keeping you visible and informed.

Finally, should you have a little oopsie and crash your bike, an 820 paired with your smartphone can automatically send a message to a contact of your choosing, letting them know where you are. With the LiveTrack function, your friends and family can follow along for the entire ride.

Recon Jet smart glasses -- $499
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Intended for: Serious cyclists

Intel

Having all that information on your cycling computer is great, but when you're screaming down a mountain at 53 mph, or pedaling your heart out inches away from a couple-dozen other racers, you don't want to be staring at your handlebars.

Enter the Recon Jet. These smart sunglasses pair with all of those sensors you've scattered over your body. The Jet then feeds you that information through a small display that looks like it's hovering in front of your face. There's even a camera you can use to take pictures of the pack of riders that's slowly but surely pulling away from you.

The experience isn't perfect, though: Battery life is too limited for anything but a short training ride, and when I got sweaty, the heavy glasses started slipping down my face.

Cool as it is, what good is cycling tech if it isn't useful when you start getting sweaty?

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.