If you look at any of the pictures of my bike rides over the last year, you’ll notice a oblong shaped light attached to the seat post. It’s a Garmin Varia and it’s not your ordinary rear bike light.
The Garmin Varia is not just a rear bike light. It’s a rear light with a radar unit built into it. I got it at this time last year and I’ll never ride my bike on a road without it ever again! You shouldn’t ride on the road without one either. Besides a helmet, it’s the best piece of safety gear I own.
What is a Garmin Varia?
In short a Garmin Varia is a rechargeable rear light and radar unit in one. There are a few different lighting modes on it that you can use depending upon the conditions. In my experience over the last year, the least battery-intensive mode will power the unit for about ten hours. Fortunately, the unit will warn you when the battery needs to be recharged.
How does a Garmin Varia work?
The light part of the Garmin Varia is fairly self-explanatory. It either flashes a red light, pulses a red light, or displays a steady red light depending on the mode you choose.
The radar works by detecting and alerting you to moving objects that are within 153 yards of you. In the year that I’ve been using it, the Garmin Varia has alerted me not only to cars and trucks that are approaching from behind but also people on motorcycles, people driving ATVs, and wayward dogs determined to taste test a skinny man in lycra.
The Garmin Varia issues an audible alert when it detects an object approaching from behind you. You can also pair the Garmin Varia to your smartwatch via bluetooth. When paired to my Garmin Fenix 5 watch the Varia creates an audible alert and it vibrates on my wrist. I appreciate the vibrating alert because there have been times that I didn’t hear the audible alert.
The Garmin Varia will also pair to most bike computers including newer Wahoo units like the Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM 2 and older units like my first generation ELEMNT ROAM. When paired to my Wahoo ELEMNT the Varia displays how many vehicles are approaching from behind and their relative distance from me. It also flashes a red light on my Wahoo ELEMNT when a vehicle is very close.
An Unexpected Benefit of Using a Garmin Varia
I live in an area in which most roads do not have any shoulders let alone bike lanes. Because of that I have always constantly looked over my shoulder as I rode. I got the Garmin Varia so that I didn’t have to do that quite so much. I still do look over my shoulder whenever deviating from my line, but I don’t do it when riding on a long straight line like I did before.
My friend who convinced me to buy a Varia told me that he started getting faster downhill times when he started using it. That was because he didn’t have to always hug the shoulder on a descent and could take a faster line knowing that the Varia would alert him to something approaching from behind. I have found the same to be true for me.
What I didn’t expect when I started using the Garmin Varia is that I would record faster uphill times. Again, I live in an area that has many narrow and poorly maintained roads. Often, the smoothest pavement in somewhere in the middle of the lane. With the Garmin Varia on my bike I can take the uphill line on the smoothest section of pavement and not worry about someone approaching from behind without me knowing it in time to move over.
I’ve even used the Garmin Varia in gravel races over the last year. Much like descending on an open road in training, when descending on a long gravel road in race it’s nice to know if there is someone close behind me as I pick the best line for my descent.
Garmin Varia Mount
The one thing that almost everyone mentions about the Garmin Varia is the mounting system. At first glance it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
The standard mount that comes with the Garmin Varia is basically a big rubber wedge and a strong rubber band. It feels a little cheap for something that costs $149-$199 USD. That said, I haven’t had a problem with it over the course of 6,000+ miles of riding in the last year.
I’ve used the standard mount on my road bike, my gravel bike, and my mountain bike (there are trails I can access by riding a mile of public road from my house). Even on some rough downhill mountain bike descents the Varia hasn’t come off. It has gotten spun sideways around the seat post a couple of times, but it’s yet to fall off.
If the standard Garmin Varia mount still isn’t secure enough for your liking, there are aftermarket mounts available from KOM cycling and others. The one made by KOM uses a BOA-like ratchet system. A guy on my regular group ride has one and it appears to be very solid if not a bit heavy.
Buy a Helmet, Then Buy a Garmin Varia
After a helmet, a Garmin Varia is the one piece of safety equipment that I recommend to anyone who rides a bicycle on public roads. Like the old American Express ads say, “I won’t leave home without it.”