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by James Huang
September 20, 2017
Photography by James Huang
TECH NEWS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BIKEEXCHANGE
Garmin is the undisputed juggernaut of the GPS cycling computer world. Based in Olathe, Kansas, Garmin was the first company to widely popularize the use of GPS in cycling, it offers the most diverse range in the segment, and its products are so ubiquitous that the brand name itself isn’t even a pronoun anymore. It’s not a “GPS bike computer,” it’s a “Garmin,” almost regardless of manufacturer.
With such a dominating market position, it’s fair to assume other manufacturers might not even bother trying to compete with Garmin. Yet Atlanta-based Wahoo Fitness believes it can not only compete, but eventually surpass Garmin at its own game.
With roots in automotive, aviation, and marine GPS technology, Garmin first entered the cycling market in 2007 via the Edge 205 and 305 models. And like a small ripple that starts in the middle of the ocean, the popularity of GPS cycling computers slowly built into a giant wave. Aided by the growth of Strava, the activity-tracking “social network for athletes,” it didn’t take long before riders across the globe adopted the edict of, “Strava or it didn’t happen.”
Garmin is the undisputed king of the GPS cycling computer world, with the deepest history in the segment as well as the most diverse product range. But is that position untouchable?
Ten years later, Garmin’s GPS product line has ballooned to nine different cycling-specific choices that cover a broad price spectrum from US$130 to US$700, along with other non-GPS cycling products that include power meters, lights, and rear-facing radar. Although representatives at Strava declined to confirm this, the widely accepted assumption is that the vast majority of Strava users who upload data from a head unit, rather than Strava’s mobile app, are using a Garmin-branded device — with the minority spread between secondary players such as Magellan, Bryton, Polar, Lezyne, O-Synce, and others.
Garmin isn’t just a bike-computer company, but rather a multinational consumer electronics giant in the automotive, marine, aviation, golf, canine (yes, canine), fitness, and general outdoor markets. It reported US$3 billion in total revenue for the 2016 fiscal year (US$818 million in the fitness category alone, which includes cycling), and sold a total of 16.8 million devices. Garmin employs 11,600 people, and operates 23 research and development facilities worldwide.
Last year, Garmin spent more than US$500m in research and development alone.
By comparison, Wahoo Fitness started very modestly in 2010 with a single product called the Key — a tiny hardware dongle that allowed Apple iPhones to collect a variety of data from ANT+ wireless cycling devices (such as speed and cadence sensors, power meters, and heart rate monitors). An accompanying Wahoo app then put all of that data together for easy viewing.
The company launched its first standalone bike computer, the RFLKT, in 2012. The RFLKT (“reflect”) still relied on an iPhone to process incoming wireless data, but now information that was once viewable only on the phone itself was mirrored to a small bar-mounted LCD screen. In essence, the phone did all of the heavy lifting; the RFLKT was just a remote display. And since it was Bluetooth-based, it didn’t require users to plug a separate dongle into their phones.
Both of those devices were modestly successful from a commercial standpoint, but while Wahoo Fitness was focusing on simplicity at the time, the concurrent rise of Garmin’s GPS cycling computers quickly taught the company that what riders wanted wasn’t less; they wanted more.
So in September 2015, Wahoo Fitness dove headfirst into the category with ELEMNT, its first GPS-based cycling computer.
“[ELEMNT] incorporated a lot of the findings and insights from launching this little RFLKT,” said Wahoo Fitness cycling category manager Jose Mendez. “We decided we should just do a GPS computer and give that full functionality.”
That there was yet another player in the GPS cycling computer market wasn’t enough, on its own, to shake things up. There were already offerings from other companies that were trying to bite into Garmin’s substantial piece of the pie. But where the ELEMNT differed was in its interface, which was decidedly more user-friendly than what Garmin was offering at the time.
The original Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT didn’t break any major ground in terms of the device itself, but it marked a significant change in terms of how GPS cycling computers were programmed and customized. Instead of doing everything on the device itself, Wahoo Fitness leaned on the power of a paired smartphone and a very easy-to-use app.
Up until then, common actions such as pairing sensors and customizing screens were all done directly on the device itself — tiny buttons, squinty screen, and all.
But with ELEMNT, Wahoo Fitness drew on its experience with RFLKT and again leaned on the more user-friendly interface and touchscreen of a smartphone. With ELEMNT, new sensors could be intuitively paired (and easily renamed) using the same smartphone riders already used everyday, and tweaking display screens used the same press-drag-drop sequence with which users were already well familiar.
The system also automatically uploaded rides to third-party apps such as Strava and MapMyRide (something Garmin already offered), and synced the ELEMNT with those accounts for easy route sharing and navigation (which Garmin added later) — all behind the scenes with no regular input required. Worldwide maps came preloaded, too, and while the phone was an integral part of the complete ELEMNT system, you didn’t have to bring it with you on a ride if you preferred to leave it at home.
In short, ELEMNT may have lacked some of the more advanced features that the competing Garmin unit offered, but in terms of its core functionality, it worked the way most users thought it was supposed to. In many ways, Wahoo Fitness was to Garmin what Apple was to Windows — simpler, more intuitive, and more elegant.
“Ben [Johnston, Wahoo Fitness’ ‘user experience guy’] and Chip [Hawkins, Wahoo Fitness founder] were just looking at existing product and decided they could make the user experience a lot better; we can make it a lot simpler,” said Mendez. “The less you have to think about a product, especially during a ride, the better the product is. That really drove the idea that we could be in the GPS market, that we could do something better.”
As impressive as the ELEMNT was, though, many deemed it a little too big, and its rectangular casing a little too industrial on the aesthetic front. And a few firmware hiccups early on tempered the initial splash it could have made. Nevertheless, Wahoo Fitness truly broke new ground with the ELEMNT in terms of how people interacted with GPS cycling computers, and it was just a matter of time before it refined its recipe.
Enter ELEMNT Bolt.
Smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the Garmin Edge 520 when it was introduced, the ELEMNT Bolt harnessed the same user-friendly interface as the original ELEMNT but in a far sleeker form that was more keenly aimed at the high-end road crowd — so much so that the company employed the services of former UCI technology and innovation consultant Dimitris Katsanis to aerodynamically tune the casing and mount shape.
The new Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT Bolt boasts a far sleeker shape, and a much lower weight, than its predecessor, and has quickly found appeal among discerning road riders.
According to Mendez, sales of the original ELEMNT were about what Wahoo Fitness had expected them to be — modest, steady — but ELEMNT Bolt apparently struck a nerve with consumers. It was easy to use, it was packed with features, it looked good, and with a few years of history in the GPS cycling computer world — along with an increasingly impressive track record of stability — there wasn’t as much trepidation on the consumer side as far as venturing outside the Garmin brand.
“Even when we launched ELEMNT, we didn’t think we would unseat Garmin; we just wanted to be a good alternative solution to people,” Mendez said. “It was a trickle getting into the market. We were definitely poking the bear, but that was okay. But when we launched Bolt, we realized that we struck a nerve, and that we actually have something here. For the first few months, we were just struggling to keep up with demand.”
Almost overnight, the ELEMNT Bolt changed the company’s perspective on where it could go. Internally, Wahoo Fitness couldn’t just be part of the conversation with Garmin when it came to GPS cycling computers; it could eventually dominate it, particularly given that Wahoo Fitness’s computer business is bolstered by its fast-growing KICKR line of indoor cycling simulators.
“We are officially after the 800-pound gorilla,” Mendez boldly stated. “With ELEMNT, we were happy being a strong number two. But I think now, with what we’ve done and what we’re working on behind closed doors, everyone [internally] has it in their sights that we can not just be a strong number two, but challenge for number one.”
Comparatively speaking, Wahoo Fitness is still very much the newcomer, and with Garmin so deeply dug into its position, how this scenario plays out over time is still very much uncertain.
However, it is noteworthy that Garmin dropped the price on its Edge 520 shortly after the ELEMNT Bolt was released (bringing the two exactly in line with each other at US$249), and inside rumors have circulated that Garmin abruptly decided to delay the release of the new Edge 530 given the heated competition.
Also noteworthy: Garmin declined our interview request for this story.
Despite gaining major ground in recent years, Wahoo Fitness’s range of cycling computers still only consists of three models. From left to the right is the ELEMNT Mini, the ELEMNT Bolt, and the original ELEMNT; only the latter two are proper GPS models, with the Mini relying on a paired smartphone for full functionality.
For its part, Wahoo Fitness isn’t about to take its foot off the gas. According to Mendez, now that the company feels it has figured out the formula — user-friendly functionality paired with attractive industrial design — the challenge now is deciding how to grow. Will the next computer be a new high-end option or something at the lower end? Or perhaps it will be something different altogether?
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out. We’re always looking for opportunities. If we find one that we believe can provide value to the consumer, we’ll chase it. I’ve never been a fan of expanding a product line just for a price point, but if it doesn’t serve to build the brand and deliver on what the brand promises — and we that as an innovative, intuitive, and value solution for a consumer — I’d rather just not do it. If we can keep with that recipe, I think we’ll do extremely well, but we’ve got a long, long way to go.”