Riding with Garmin

Jul 30th, 2019

Last month, I drove a few hours north of Adventure Cycling’s Missoula headquarters to join a group of journalists, tech bloggers, and Garmin staff at the Whitefish Bike Retreat. We were gathered to learn about some new devices from the GPS giant and put them to use on the roads and trails in the area (and also to drink a few craft brews and eat catered food). Press junkets are hard work, but hey, somebody’s got to do it!

Even if you’re not big on tech, you’re probably familiar with Garmin. Based in Olathe, Kansas, Garmin is ubiquitous in cycling, running, and triathlon circles (not to mention hiking, hunting, boating, aviation, etc.). Its devices have so permeated the outdoor world that it’s rare to see a bike without a Garmin device of some kind attached to it.

Whitefish Bike Retreat

Not familiar with the Whitefish Bike Retreat? You should be. A short drive west of Whitefish, Montana, the Bike Retreat is a playground for mountain bikers and bikepackers alike. There’s a system of private trails including wood features, dirt jumps, and a skills course, as well as connections to the Whitefish Trail, a 42-mile network of public trails accessible from Whitefish and 12 different trailheads. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is just a few miles north, on the other side of Whitefish Lake, and the Retreat offers a shuttle service to Banff.

If you want to stay at the Bike Retreat, there are tent sites available, all with bike racks and access to a bathroom with showers. Or you can go the posh route, like we did, and stay in the lodge, which has several rooms, a full kitchen, showers, a bike room, and a wood-fired sauna.

Over the course of a few days, we got to know one another, had some Garmin-instructed classroom time (what I affectionately called Garmin Re-Education Camp), and put the devices to use. We focused on three different models: the Edge 530, Forerunner 945, and Varia RTL510 Radar.

The media group was a mix of cyclists and runners, so for the first day’s outdoor time, we split into two groups. The runners did that weird thing they do with their feet, and we cyclists hopped on our mountain bikes and took off for the Whitefish Trail. Mostly a mix of greens and blues, the Whitefish Trail network is a blast for mountain bikers of any level. (Those wanting more of a challenge should look at Spencer Mountain. Bring your big bike.)

We rode north, connecting Beaver, Dollar, and Woods lakes on swoopy, curvy trails littered with punchy climbs. It was a hot, sunny day, and humid (for Montana, anyway). We stopped often to regroup and discuss which way to go next, hovering over our Edge 530s and swatting away mosquitoes. This spring had been especially wet and cool for western Montana, and the marshy area south of Whitefish Lake was in prime skeeter season. Good motivation to keep stops short and get back to riding.

Riding along the North Fork of the Flathead River
Riding along the North Fork of the Flathead River.
Dan Meyer

Garmin’s Edge devices have for years been popular with road riders, and to attract more buyers in the mountain bike scene, Garmin has added some clever features to the new 530. For example, it uses data from Trailforks, a crowdsourced database of mountain bike trails, to show trails on the base map, which made navigating the Whitefish Trail labyrinth a piece of cake. The 530 also gathers some fun mountain bike–specific performance metrics, such as Flow (the smoothness of your riding), Grit (the difficulty of the trail), and jump distance and hang time.

The next day, we all hopped in shuttle vans for a ride east. The runners would go for a hike in Glacier National Park while the cyclists would ride … somewhere. We hastily put together a route in the van and unloaded in Columbia Falls, about 20 miles from Glacier. On a mix of road and gravel bikes, we hopped on North Fork Road, a paved two-lane highway that follows the North Fork of the Flathead River. In addition to the Edge 530 units, we had Varia Radars mounted on our seatposts. The Varia units detect approaching vehicles and send that information either to a small included head unit, or to another Garmin head unit, such as the 530. North Fork Road doesn’t have much of a shoulder, so knowing when cars were coming up allowed us peace of mind and a greater sense of safety.

Polebridge Mercantile outside of Glacier National Park
Dan Meyer

Eventually, North Fork Road turned to gravel as it headed north to our turnaround point, Polebridge. If you haven’t been, the Polebridge Mercantile is a Montana institution. Aside from being a mandatory stop for tourists, it’s got coffee, sandwiches, camping supplies, and legendary huckleberry bear claws. While we stopped to refuel, I asked if we were really just going to turn around and go back the way we’d come. How boring. Why don’t we head into the park and take Inside North Fork Road for a change of pace, I suggested. It was agreed. I am the “local,” after all.

Inside North Fork Road is much more rugged and rocky than the road we’d ridden north on, and for years a big section in the middle has been closed to vehicles because of flooding. But it’s all open to cyclists, and it’s one of the greatest car-free cycling experiences out there. A gravel bike with big, knobby tires is maybe the bike of choice for this road, although a mountain bike wouldn’t be out of place. (One of the guys in the group was on a rental road bike with 25mm slick tires. How he managed is a mystery to me.)

The first seven miles south of Polebridge Ranger Station are open to cars, but then we went around a gate and had the doubletrack all to ourselves. It was just us and whatever wilderness Glacier National Park had to offer that day. I was the only one carrying bear spray, and, not wanting to encounter an angry ursus, we whooped and hollered and called out for bears the entire way. We had grand views of the Flathead River, rode through recent burn zones, rolled over rocks and pine duff, and finished the ride with a glorious descent into a broad, lush valley that looked as if it had just recently been carved out by a glacier. A few miles on pavement took us to Apgar, where we met our shuttle back to the Bike Retreat. We were very late. Not that any of us complained.

Look for full reviews of the Edge 530 and Varia RTL510 Radar in the future.

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