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….
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 ICEDOT, Bike 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.
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.
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.
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.