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Garmin Varia Radar Review – True biking innovation

The Garmin Varia is a radar device for bikes…I’ll just let that sink in. So we’ve GPS, dynamic lights, hundreds of cycling camera’s and now radar! Whats next “frickin’ laser beams”?? Talking to people about the device some gone “Wow”, some not so. So let’s have a look at the Garmin Varia Radar Review

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Garmin Varia Radar Review

The Garmin Varia started life as the “BackTracker” Kickstarter project, which regrettably didn’t hit its campaign goal, getting only 65% of the way to their target.

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However, Garmin was very interested in the device in the latter half of 2014 and bought the whole lot. Frankly, a lot of people thought that was likely to be the end. Something for Garmin to kick around their R&D offices, and possibly stick on a boat or something like that.

Then in July 2015, Garmin released the Backtracker device under the Garmin Varia brand, looking like a refined, smaller version of the original device.

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Device

There are two Garmin Varia Radar bundles, one with just the radar device (looked at here), and one that also bundles a separate Varia display. The additional display adds another £60 to the price, but it’s cheaper than a Garmin head unit and means you can use the Varia without being in the Garmin ecosystem – unlike the Garmin Varia front light

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The box comes with the unit, a quarter turn mount for round seat posts, and the mount and attachments for an aero seat post. The thing I can’t quite get to come over in the images is how small the Varia is. In press shots, I’d been expecting something about the size of an iPhone 4. It’s really surprising when you actually hold it in your hand

ON the back of the unit is the ubiquitous Garmin quarter turn and the sealed  micro USB port

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A single power button on the top of the unit

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On the front is the LED array and the large black area underneath which houses the radar transmitter

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The LED array can display different patterns depending on the proximity of cars, which we’ll look at later

On either side of the device is another LED, covered with a diffuser to give visibility from the side

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The Varia has two mounts in the box; a clamp mount to go round a circular seat post

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Or the skinnier aero mount

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There are a series of rubber inserts for the aero mount to get it to sit flush with your post.

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From there it’s held in place with rubber bands – I’ll be honest, I’d have preferred holes in the mount to allow for a zip tie perhaps. I never like having expensive kit merely rubber banded to my bike. But then I have a bit of belt and braces approach to most things

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The actual LED array on the Varia has a rating of 16 lumens, putting the unit firmly in the safety light category rather than anything brighter. So you are certainly going to need an additional light to be seen with.

The unit should be mounted as high as possible, to get a better range on the radar

I always ride with my Fly6 as a rear light which covers me from the point of view of a more substantial rear facing light.

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I don’t think the low lumen output matters as I actually view its lights as a bonus feature. I’m using the Varia, so I can see what’s coming up behind me. This device is for my benefit, not really that of the other road users.

A bit like my cycle clothing. It’s for me. If it happens to be visible, all the better – but this may be a very personal take

Specification

Dimensions: 7.3 cm x 4.4 cm x 2.3 cm
Weight: 63.5 g
Modes: Solid, flashing
Lumens: 16
Battery life: 5 hours
Charge time: 2 hours
ANT+: Yes
Water rating: IPX7

Using the Varia

You need to have a Garmin Edge head unit (1000 or 520 currently) to use the Varia or buy the package with the small display. As I mentioned above, I think the inclusion of a separate screen option is excellent, as it means someone with a different cycling computer can still use the device. I’ll write the rest of the Garmin Varia Radar Review from the point of view of a Garmin Edge owner

The Varia radar communicates over ANT+, so to start you need to pair the unit with your Edge – with the Varia radar coming under Varia light network

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From there it is very simple. Going out for a ride? Switch on the Varia radar, and then your Edge unit. The signal symbol in the top right of the unit screen means you are connected and ready to go

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As you ride along, the signal symbol stays in the top right of your display to tell you that everything on the system it working

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Crucially the system is entirely unfazed by parked cars or people. You can cycle down busy streets, and its only triggered cars and larger objects moving towards you. Which is essentially how the radar system should work.

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The radar works by a speed differentiation, so here the software is set only to pick up objects moving towards you.

That includes riding with friends, so far it hasn’t been phased when I was caught by a group of 20 or so riders.

When a car is approaching you and gets to within 150meters, the unit gives a beep. A dot appears, and the edges of the screen turn red. At which point, I generally move in towards the side of the road

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As the car gets closer, so does the red dot. So you are not getting a static notification “there is a car”, but more of a changing proximity warning that is much more useful.

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If there is more than one car, you get more than one dot. However, when the cars behind you have passed, the screen flashes green to confirm there is no vehicle within range behind now, at which point I move back away from the side of the road again

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What USE is the Varia though?

I’ve had several people ask me that while testing.

I think it depends on where you are riding. In the middle of town, if I cycle to the hospital, honestly its a pain in the neck – *beep* car, *beep* car – constantly.

I’m in town; there are cars everywhere, I get it!!

Where I found it REALLY useful is cycling down the main roads into town. Pushing along at 35-40KPH I can’t hear anything until it gets close to me, and the car is speeding, it can sometimes appear very suddenly.

Using the Varia, I’m alerted to cars well before I would normally be aware of them, and that helps me to choose my line slightly better on the road.

Now some people might just say that’s me being a nervous cyclist on the main road. Sure, fair point. BUT using the Varia gives me more information, and helps me enjoy a good ride.

Even when going for a blast on the quiet country lanes with a friend, itis good to know that the single car has passed and there is nothing else. Or conversely, there are still two other vehicles, and we need to keep close to the edge.

Conclusion

The Varia is a left field device, which frankly, I wasn’t impressed with when I first heard about it.

BUT the device integrates VERY well; it’s amazingly simple and very effective.

It would be foolish to rely entirely on technology such as this, but the aid it provides can’t be understated. Certainly for out in the countryside/main roads. In town, not so sure. But that is for someone who is able-bodied, for someone who has a slight form of hearing impairment the Varia is going to be amazing

In either case, my Fly6 has now been joined by a Garmin Varia radar unit on all of my outside rides. So not only would I recommend it, I bought one, but also it might be my gadget of the year!

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James Gill

Author of TitaniumGeek, which started after smashing off my RIGHT elbow. Feel free to drop me a line about sports tech, medicine, or frankly anything that you want to chat about!!

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  • TI_Bikes_Do_It

    Thank you for your review. After nearly getting swiped yesterday by an angry kid in poor imitation of a Fast and Furious car, feeling the door handle brush by me, I’m going out and getting this today.

    • Hi Ti_Bikes

      The Varia is in my mind the best bit of kit for years. Just got in from a VERY windy ride with a friend.

      Can’t hear a car coming with the wind, but the visual feed back let is ride side by side chatting (shouting) and then move back into single line when cars coming.

      I’d be interested to know what you think when you’ve had a go

  • Whitesahara

    I’m the kinda guy who likes gadgets… but there is true benefits to this device. It definitely makes you aware of vehicles approaching well before you would otherwise be aware. Being aware there is a vehicle, or multiple vehicles approaching makes you more cautious and in my case, gets me a lot closer to the right of the road. The only flaw with the device so far is timid drivers that ride in your blind spot at the same speed as you… the Varia radar does not catch them… normally when a vehicle is that close your aware anyways, but I point it out as you can’t 100% rely on it to make you aware of ALL vehicles.

  • Jeff Lofgren

    Great review and I am going to buy one for the added security of knowing what is lurking behind me. I have the Garmin Edge 1000 and look forward to the piece of mind knowing when I am going at a hard effort (20 minute FTP) on back roads that I will be alerted by a beep as well as a screen alert showing me where the cars are so I can move over to the white line and keep my guard up until they pass (and as I try desperately to sprint in their draft)! 🙂

    • Good stuff Jeff. No exaggeration, best innovation of 2015 in my mind, on country roads anyway

  • I am glad someone got the Backtracker! Too bad it doesn’t work with the Edge 810 yet. As soon as it does, I will be investing in it.

    Thanks for the review and hopefully you can mod it for when you are in different areas. Areas where you know cars will happen turn it on silent but other areas back to beep beep car/truck/moto/cow!