0 Garmin Varia (1)

Earlier in the year we learned of Garmin acquiring South African company iKubu, maker of the Backtracker radar detection system so it was no surprise when the slightly more refined Varia was announced soon after. We got our hands on one to put to the test to see how well it worked and how useful it really is.

Head past the break to see the Varia in action and why I have such a strong opinion about this device after just one ride….

Garmin Varia (5)

Even though I am a purist at heart, I un-admittingly like how many choices we have in how we want to be “connected” during our ride. One of the most recent trends we’ve been seeing is an increase in options related to rider safety. There have been a couple of crash detection devices like ICEDOTBike Tag and the smart helmets from Livall, that notify your emergency contacts of a crash (afterwards) and some improved visual devices like the Blaze Laserlight, and Niterider’s Sentinel laser casting blinky light that help notify drivers of your presence. Aside from a helmet or bar mounted mirror, there has been little development in something that notifies the rider of what’s coming up on them until the Backtracker… now Varia, was developed.

The Varia head unit and rear light use Garmin’s quarter-turn mount so you have an abundance of mounting options including any Garmin-compatible mount on the market. It also comes with an insert for the rear mount to fit aero posts as well which is nice since I’ve complained about this before when reviewing the Fuji Transonic.

Garmin Varia (4)

The Varia’s rear light contains a radar that has recently been listed as an Ant+ open source system, so we might start seeing software updates to current and new ANT+ receivers making them compatible. Though the unit’s casing seems to be refined, it basically has the same exact layout as the original Backtracker. Currently, the Varia rear radar (available separately for $199 or bundled with the Varia head unit for $299), is currently compatible with Garmin’s Edge 1000, 1000 Explorer, Edge 520, and Edge 25.

Garmin Varia (2) Garmin Varia (3)

The head unit remains calm with a green LED indicating you’re in the clear (see very first pic), until a vehicle approaches. The pic on the left shows when a single vehicle is approaching and the right pic shows three. It was impressive to say the least on how accurate it was. It did pick up cars in the next lane which is fine as I would rather it be a little overly sensitive than not.

Garmin Varia (6) Garmin Varia (7)

The rear light is somewhat pointless being on if there are no vehicles in sight, but as soon as it senses on-coming traffic, the light and blinking pattern increases to better catch their attention. The one real beef I had with the Varia was that the light output was nothing to write home about. Considering the number of brighter options on the market, I would have liked if the Garmin was much brighter. Adding a light to it is no big deal, (other than having yet another device to charge), as I have quite the collection, Check out the short video below of the system in action to get an idea of how it works.

I was completely addicted to the Varia within less than 5 miles of riding. I have this rather religious silly, long-time practice of, “If I have to load a bike on the rack, it’s to go ride trails”, so 95% of my road rides, (not counting my more adventurous urban or gravel rides on my cross’ish bike), are from my driveway starting off in a congested area before I hit some country roads. On most rides, I don’t always care to stare at my “specs” so being disconnected is nice. The Varia, rather than be a distraction on its own, takes another distraction that is far more worse (drivers in cars that texts), and humbles it quite a bit. One of the challenges I face on my goto route coming home is turning left into my neighborhood. Climbing up a curved road with little shoulder (I am only on this road for less than 1/8 of a mile), it is stressful holding a good line, looking back before, during and after, (because I just do), the actual turn. Though I would never completely trust it, the Varia at least lets me know when it was pointless to look, and once it indicated I was in the clear, I gave one good “safe” look, and took my turn.

I’ll be doing a more long term review with the Varia paired with Garmin’s Edge 1000 Explorer with “Incident detection” in the near future, so keep an eye out.



  1. I would love an audible beep after a long period with no traffic.

    It might as well go dark when no traffic is present to save batteries.

    It should get brighter and brighter to an excessive level as a car approaches.

    Otherwise this is a great concept that can only improve with time.

  2. How about it communicating through garmin Nav app or Waze to alert motorists to the presence of the cyclist. This device warns the cyclist about the potential threat of the motor vehicle but it doesn’t address the real problem of the inattentive driver of said motor vehicle

  3. I love this thing, I have been using it for a couple of months and ride on a lot of very quiet roads.

    When I get alerted about a car back, I often come out and take the lane a little more, and then watch as the car gets closer, and as it approaches and gets closer, I then slide back to the right side of the lane.
    This does allow me to “show” myself to the driver and then slide over as it approaches.

    I would highly recommend this to any roadies or gravel travelers out there

  4. I use “the Roadie” by cycle aware.
    It allows me to see cars instead of just be told they are there.
    I guess this is for those that a truly mirror phobic although it would be better if the radar alert one of cars with a trajectory that would result in an accident of the path was maintained.

  5. I’d to be riding Froome style and be looking down at the blinking lights instead of looking up the road. Should have a device that taps your skin or vibrates, possibly hooked up on your heart rate chest strap, or near temple area

  6. For those of us with compatible Garmin devices (520. 1000, etc) there’s no need to get the bar mount display ’cause the rear light syncs up with the head unit and has a display on the sides of the screen.



  7. I have the radar-only unit. It does what it claims, but the tracking blips are on the wrong side of the Edge 520 display, at least for those of us who ride on the right side of the road.

    Also, as pointed out above, the light output is just pathetic.

    What would be cool is if it could turn on a high lumen rear-facing ANT+ light when cars get too close.

    Or even a rear-facing ANT+ camera.

    If only Garmin made ANT+ lights and ANT+ cameras… /s

  8. Hum, yes now I Know a car is behind me, then what I m doing ? Jump out of the road or continue my way as I don’t Know a car is behind me ?

  9. Pretty soon I’m going to need a 700mm wide road handlebar to put all of the gadgets and doodads the industry is developing.

    Please tell me there isn’t an ANT+ seat dropper post. What about ANT+ water bottle level detector? (humor)

  10. I think a lot of people are missing the bigger picture here–the fact that Garmin has acquired this company means that they’re on their way to integrating the technology into their GPS devices. Yes, the system is a little on the clunky side now, but in a couple years this will be a little notification in the corner of your Edge 2000 to let you know to watch out.

  11. It looks like it has side lighting. Is that correct?

    My beef with Garmin is that since they defined ANT and ANT+, and they bought this technology, they get to define the interface standard by themselves. This is probably fine, since Garmin has obviously good engineers, but there’s the potential they didn’t think of everything. Then, Garmin’s lighting solutions, those are just ANT, because they’ve got to lock you into their system somehow.

  12. Trusting one of these with your life is stupid. Like the freaking car side view mirror alert symbols.. Ill always check my blind spot.

    Be alert, think ahead and ride safe everyone!

  13. Thanks and all great points everybody! Just a quick note: As great as a mirror is, the Varia was picking up multiple vehicles likely before I could see them in a mirror or HEAR them. Trying to constantly look at a mirror to see how many cars there are vs a quick glance to see 3 or 4 at once was much easier. The LEDs on the head unit, (ironically), were bright enough to be picked up in my peripheral vision so I never felt like I had to focus on it. Ed.

  14. I’m not liking the idea of having a radar device emitting radiation merely inches from the family jewels. Anyone remember the story of the CHP officer who used to lay the radar gun in his lap in between cars coming down the road? He ended-up roasting his nuts with the radar gun over the course of several years.

  15. I applaud the progress in rider safety, but for now I have a mirror.
    I recommend the “bike eye” mirror which sits near your frame’s down tube/head tube junction.
    It works great although you really need to put down a bead of silicone for better waterproofing.

  16. Yeah, the cop would only have toasted his scrod if he kept the trigger pulled on the radar, thus causing constant radar emission.

  17. Radio waves used in RADAR emitted from HIGHLY directional antennas. There’s nothing directed at any part of you. Your cell phone, in your pocket, puts more energy into your balls/ovaries every day than this device will ever.

  18. I was thinking about this today going down a wet and windy descent. It was imposdible to hear at that speed but cars do try to overtake cyclist on this road. One time a 4runner was hauling ass past me as like 55. It would have been nice tbknow that since it was wet with a lot of that crack seal stuff thats like black ice. You can only check so often. this thing I want to try.

  19. But… helmet mounted rear view mirror. It’s like having an eye in the back of your head. I can’t ride comfortably without one, I feel blind.
    Like the bicycle itself, a mirror on a stick represents a level of technological elegance that will likely never be surpassed. As for the fear of being a fred, I get nothing but compliments for my mirror… but it works so well I’d put up with the opposite.

  20. This, yet most riders I see wear dark or neutral colors. We want cars to start seeing us but we do little to be seen. The bright yellow or orange jerseys go a long way to setting yourself apart from the surroundings but riders are still wearing black or neutral colors jerseys that blend right in with the terrain. The sooner a car sees a bike the better decisions can be made. Bright jerseys can be seen from a long distance putting drivers on alert.

  21. @brian – a fairly exhaustive study was done at the university in Bath that proved drivers do not change their behavior one bit for what a rider is wearing.

  22. Since the comment section for this post seems to have some real legs, I’ll just reiterate what Trey said above. This is just another tool, it doesn’t mean you can’t use your ears, or that you can’t turn around and look behind you, or that you can’t use a mirror or your ears, it’s just one more way to get additional information about your surroundings. It’s not a perfect product (yet) IMO, but the ability to “see” a series of cars on the road approaching from behind made it worth the $170 (on sale) that I spent on mine, esp. since I integrates the display with the 520 I already use. Even with light output that is completely inadequate.

  23. @Eric- you know as well as I that studies have their limitations. They even admit their limitations in the study. So you are saying we all might as well be wearing camo? It just makes good sense to be more visible. Here in the rural Midwest when driving through the country the scenerey gets pretty monotonous and bright jerseys set a rider apart from neutral colors or a background of all green. I can see these bright jerseys from a mile away. Sure it may not do someone anygood in an urban setting but with my rural riding I want to stand out especially when rural drivers tend to be more on “autopilot” . While driving, I have come pretty close to riders out in the country who i just couldnt see until I was near them because they were wearing all black and blended right in with the wall of corn that is 10 ft high. On the contrary, a orange jersey sticks right out from that wall of green.

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