Until recently, I'd never owned a cycling computer. I figured I should give it a go, and decided to experiment with one for a year. I bought one in January and stopped using it in July.
While I'm neither a technophobe nor a progressophobe, I am the kind of person who, for a time, mounted a small abacus to my handlebars. The joke was worth the rattling.
I don't care about tracking my stats and I enjoy navigating with paper maps--they don't run out of battery or break in a fall, many people can look at a paper map at once, and there's a lot of valuable information on a map that doesn't show up on the display of a cycling computer or smartphone. Yet, I decided to try a computer anyway. Data can be interesting, invaluable, and counterintuitive. I talk to a lot of people who know how much they ride in a year, and I can't contextualize their experience without quantifying my own. I was also curious to learn how many miles I put on my mountain bike versus my commuter, how often I actually used my swamp touring unicycle, and things like that.
No surprise: the computer and I weren't compatible. Only a small part of my frustration has to do with the make and model of the computer itself, so I don't want to pick on Sigma's Rox 11 computer. Most of my complaints would hold true for any computer on the market.
To be clear, many people enjoy competing on their bikes, and in order to compete, data is essential. This is not a critique of that. Some people simply enjoy sifting through data and using spreadsheets. This is not a critique of that, either. If you use a computer and like it, that's great. This is my critique about how data transformed me in ways I didn't like, and how quickly it happened.
The problem with the Rox 11 was a firmware update that prevented my handlebar computer from communicating with my desktop computer for a time, which was where my stats for the year were stored. I lost data, and I didn't see the point of continuing to gather data if the totals were going to be inaccurate. How many miles do I ride in a year? I'll never know. To be fair, this was merely the last straw, and I was happy to have an excuse to call the experiment quits.
My problems with computers in general can more or less be broken down into two categories.
1) The data is too immediate.
There's no point in having a computer if it's difficult to see, and mounting it on your stem or handlebars ensures you'll never not see it. That means I couldn't think about anything but how fast I was going and how far I'd ridden. For me, this invoked exactly the kind of internal monologue that I ride bikes to escape. How fast am I going now? How fast am I going now? I'm going slow! Is my tire pressure too low? Is my saddle too high? Are my gloves aero? Maybe I shouldn't have eaten that third donut. How fast am I going now? Any faster? Am I dehydrated?
Sometimes I ride longer distances, and I'd almost always rather not know how far along I am because I always feel very tired about 10% of the way in, and this invokes a very similar kind of internal monologue. How far have I gone now? 10.1 miles! Why am I so tired? Do I have a tapeworm? Are the planets misaligned? Perhaps four donuts was too many. How far have I gone now? 10.15 miles! Am I dehydrated?
I could stow the computer in a pocket or a pack in order to not look, but then obviously I couldn't reap the navigational benefits of the GPS computer that I spent the extra money to have. (I did appreciate those navigational benefits, by the way. I will continue to use the GPS function on long gravel rides or unfamiliar terrain.)
2) The data becomes a substitute for the experience.
In a way, using a computer was quite like playing a video game. In many video games, you begin with a weak and unskilled character, and as your character battles they become stronger and learn sweet new moves. Once you've played the game for several (or countless) hours, your character becomes impressively powerful.
This is satisfying because this kind of thing almost never happens in real life. Struggles often don't lead to rewards but instead to new struggles. We learn lessons that are inapplicable down the road. In a video game, the narrative is clear, the goal is known, struggles reap rewards, and the sense of accomplishment one feels at beating a video game is pretty clearly a substitute for the lack of accomplishment we feel on a daily basis. Riding bikes with a computer provides a narrative in the form of a little blue line that it wants you to follow, and that's a comfortable feeling.
Using a computer encouraged me to tack on miles simply for the experience points, not because I wanted to. To my horror, it only took a matter of weeks before mileage totals became inexplicably important to me, and I became a servant to an arbitrary number of miles that I thought I needed to ride. Miles became points in a game that I could easily lose but never win.
Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator have imagined the clash between human and machine, and with artificial intelligence advancing as quickly as it is, this clash may someday move off the screen and into your woodshed (or wherever you keep your android). There is presently a danger, though, in how easy it is for a human to slide into robotic, unthinking behavior. People text and check Facebook when they drive, and they may not even be aware that they're doing it. While there is a non-zero probability that a robot from the future may appear and kill me while I'm commuting to work by bicycle, it's much more likely that a texting humanoid robot will run me over as they sift through emojis to put the perfect finishing touch on a text about a fungal infection. As someone who owns a smartphone and routinely pulls it out of his pocket without knowing why, I am not making accusations. I only mean to point out that I am already overrun with screens that beg for interaction; why would I subject myself to yet another? Especially while I am trying to enjoy a meditative, recreational activity?
For about two weeks after I stopped using the computer, I felt anxious every time I rode. It was withdrawal, but from what, exactly? For those two weeks, when I got on my bike and realized I didn't have my computer with me, I thought, "No one is going to know I took this ride." Initially, that struck me as odd. I don't share my rides on any social platform. However, the act of tracking my rides and storing the data was a way of tracking my identity. One could argue that social media is how we sell our own lives to ourselves. That's what I was doing with this computer.
When I ride now, I look around. There is no little blue line to follow, and I am free to meander through the wide open world. The experience belongs to itself, and once the ride is over it's gone forever. No one--myself included--will remember that I rode twenty-two miles today. I relinquish this fact to the past.