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banner Monday, 25 February, 2002, 12:05 GMT
Handlebars get the hi-tech treatment
Handlebars with on-board computers (BBC)
Mission control: The bike of the future?
The bicycle's enduring appeal has always been its simplicity. But no longer. "On-board" computers are helping cyclists get from A to B more quickly and efficiently, writes Paul Rubens.

A plastic speedometer mounted on the handlebars used to be the last word in bicycle "high technology".

Connected to one wheel by a rotating cable, a juddering orange needle would display the bike's speed on a large plastic dial and the rider could pretend they were on a motorbike.

Cyclist EyeWire
Say goodbye to juddery speedometers
But the latest generation of digital instrumentation upgrades the handlebars of the humble pushbike to something more like an aircraft cockpit.

These wireless devices are designed to keep the person in the saddle up to speed not just with their miles per hour, but with every conceivable piece of data about their machine and surrounding environment.

It all comes courtesy of a panel of liquid crystal display screens.

At the most basic level, the analogue speedometer has been replaced by the cycle computer: a watch-sized device which uses radio signals transmitted from the wheels and pedals to display information digitally, including speed, cadence (the rate of pedal rotation), distance travelled and average speed.

The eTrexBig has built-in navigation BBC
Show me the way to go home
But the cycle computer only keeps track of what the bike is doing. More sophisticated devices tell the rider about their immediate environment.

How likely are ice patches on the road? Which of the two-dozen-odd gears that most modern bikes now have should be selected?

To make instant and accurate assessments possible, systems such as the CicloSport HAC4 bike computer include a digital thermometer, a barometric altimeter (which uses atmospheric pressure to calculate altitude) and gradiometer (which measures gradients) and can also display the bicycle's rate of ascent or descent.

Thanks to twin digital readouts on the handlebar-mounted display, any two of these can be consulted simultaneously by the rider before deciding whether to slow down, change gear, or perhaps, put on a jumper.

Slow at your peril

The HAC4 and similar devices also provide data about the physical state of the person in the saddle by monitoring and displaying the rider's heart rate and the power their legs are generating.

Graph reading BBC
More than your average "speedo"
After programming in a target heartbeat range, the HAC4 can be used as a formidable training partner, bleeping loudly from the handlebars whenever the rider is taking it too easy or warning less healthy riders when they are endangering themselves by over-exertion.

On-bike satellite based navigation systems could see an end to riders getting lost.

A handlebar mounted receiver such as the Garmin eTrex, no larger than a mobile phone, can pinpoint the rider's position to within 10 metres using the global positioning system (GPS).

The unit marks the route travelled on a small screen and displays the direction, time and distance to a pre-programmed destination.

Up-load itineraries

In built-up or heavily wooded areas, a GPS system may well be unable to receive satellite signals. But this can be overcome using a device such as the CicloNavic bike navigation system, into which routes can be pre-programmed

Penny Farthing AP
Altitude: About 4ft 6ins
Ready-made itineraries can be downloaded from the internet or bought on CD-Roms.

Most of these systems store the data they display during the ride so it can be downloaded and analysed later on a desktop or palmtop computer.

Of course, all this instrumentation does not come cheap. A satellite receiver, advanced bike computer and navigation unit together will cost about 600 - itself more than the cost of a high quality light-weight Italian racing bike.

And as well as creating a highly cluttered set of handlebars, there is the risk that using a mobile phone while riding may interfere with the navigation systems.

And then, of course, there is the threat of the seemingly irrepressible bike thief.

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