Garmin Varia – Less Beaten by Traffic When Cycling

Okay, so that was a clunky title… and I’m on a bit of a cycling kick but I rode over 4,000 miles last year. It kept me sane and healthy during the pandemic, and I learned a lot, and got some new gear. Lots of newer cyclists are understanably paranoid about road riding and the threat from cars behind them. Lots of vetrans just quit caring. I’m somwhere in the middle, and I cycle with my kids. So when a couple of my friends picked up their Garmin Varia RTL515 lights, I was curious. $200 seems like a lot for a bicycle tail light but this one has an interesting feature, RADAR, and well, it works.

Is it a Gimmick? How does it work?

At first, when I heard about this light I thought… eh, seems gimmicky. Then a friend of mine, new to cycling as an adult, picked one up. He’s one of those guys in the fully traffic-paranoid stage. He’s got a Garmin 830 Edge bike computer as well and the integration is slick. Garmin is the do-all leader in bike computing and navigation. They aren’t always as user friendly as the offerings from Wahoo, but they have widgets, and gadgets for any need. So, this light pairs with your Garmin computer (or smart phone, or other stand alone Garmin monitors) and is recognized as RADAR and a tail light.

Garmin integrated lights are great. When you start a workout, it turns them on for you. It chooses the lighting mode (day/night flash, etc.) based on ambient light. The trick though, is in the upper right corner of your screen. There’s a RADAR icon. So, you pull out on the road and start riding. As a car approaches, the computer chirps and you get a dot on the right side of your screen. There is a highlight of color based on speed differential, red for high differential, yellow for low differential, and green for when you’ve been passed or the car has turned. The tail light will track multiple vehicles indicated by multiple dots and it picks them up at a very good distance, easily 200 yards, allowing you to be well prepared to be passed. The smartphone experience should be pretty similar.

Where is it Used Best?

As you can imagine, on a busy road, it’s constantly tracking cars and road noise often drowns out the alert chirp, but that is really okay as you already expect there to be cars. Where it shines is on less populated roads and even back woods gravel rides. On longer rides it’s easy to get lulled into the zone and lose your surroundings. A chirp from the Varia light often hits before you can even hear a vehicle approaching from behind. When I’m riding with my 13 year old son, it gives me an extra eye to keep aware of surroundings and ensure our safety.

What About Falses?

Of course you get an occasional false alert. When I had my cargo rack on it was even worse, it seemed very prone to falsing when I was taking tight corners. Also, riding buddies closing on you will also trigger the RADAR. That can actually be a fun way to mess with your mates.

All this said, I would never trust this device to just cross a road and assume it’s clear, that’s foolish. I always trust it if it says there’s something behind me, because being cautious doesn’t hurt, but before moving out into the lane or crossing the street I would always check over my shoulder. When it’s said and done, this thing has a high accuracy and I value the information it provides.

The Bottom Line

The Varia RTL515 is a great piece of kit, especially when paired with a Garmin bike computer. It’s rechargeable and lasts a good 8-9 hours on a single charge. It will wake you up when you’ve entered into the zone and need to pay attention. A good tail light is a no-brainer when it comes to cycling safety. They run about $200, less for older models. The links throughout this entry go to Amazon, but you can also use my Raise gift card method to save a little when buying one at REI. You can use that same trick to save on a new Garmin bike computer if you’re in that market as well.