Verdict: 
Useful early warning system with a bright rear light, but quite pricey
Weight: 
71g
Contact: 

The new Garmin Varia RTL510 is a product I never knew I needed. It's an early warning detection system that lets you know a car is approaching from behind, which is a godsend on the rural roads I regular ride; it also syncs perfectly with a Garmin Edge (no surprise there) and is a very bright rear light.

  • Pros: Early warning detection, syncs seamlessly with Edge computers, bright light, easy mounting, sleek looks
  • Cons: Expensive

A few years ago Garmin launched the Varia radar system, a rear-facing radar device that linked to a handlebar unit to warn of approaching cars, their proximity and speed of approach. I'll be honest and didn't really think much of it. I mean, what's wrong with looking over your shoulder?

> Garmin launches new Varia radar system + remote controlled lighting

But I'm open-minded and happy to try new things, so I was intrigued to try the newly updated Varia RTL510, which combines the radar technology with the light tech from Garmin's Varia rear lights. I've been increasingly running daytime rear lights so this seemed like the ideal product for me.

garmin_varia_rtl510_-_light_from_rear.jpg

And I have to admit I've been really impressed. I won't go as far as saying it's one of those products that I ever wondered how I coped without, but it's not far off. Let's be clear, it doesn't replace your own senses when it comes to being alert to other road users, and it's arguably not going to make you safer. But what it does and what impresses me is that it detects an approaching car far sooner than I would.

The range of detection is 140 metres and every time I've looked over my shoulder after first being warned of an approaching car, I've been surprised by just how far away the car is.

So it does act as a really useful early warning system, and for riding the quiet country roads that I do on a daily basis, I like that.

Heads up

The Varia RTL510 can be synced to a dedicated radar display unit, or it can be paired with a Garmin Edge computer. I've been doing the latter, testing it with an Edge 820 and more recently the new Edge 130 (review to come). You can view all compatible devices here.

Pairing the Varia RTL510 to the Edge is a doddle: you simply connect it as a new sensor via ANT+. That's all you have to do. You know it's connected because you have a small radar symbol in the top corner. The Edge can also connect to the light and switch it on and off automatically when you turn the Edge computer on and off, which is pretty neat.

Fitting the Varia to the bike is also simple. The mounting bracket attaches using a rubber band – there are two different rubber adapters to suit round and aero seatpost – and the same quarter-turn interface as the computers fixes the Varia in place.

garmin_varia_rtl510_-_mount.jpg

It's a vertical design and is fairly unobtrusive on the bike. It's not much bigger than other lights on the market and it's a fairly sleek design.

garmin_varia_rtl510_-_front.jpg

Then you go ride your bike. The first warning you get of an approaching car is a beep. After that, a thin column appears on the side of the screen (you can customise which side of the screen it appears on), with a dot at the bottom representing the car and position relative to yours, represented by that small radar logo in the top corner. The colour of the column indicates the speed of the car: amber is standard and red light means to take care, a car is approaching at high speed.

I was asked a question on Instagram along the lines of 'great idea, but surely it trades one risk for another?' It's a really good question. What I've found is that the warning beep is the best part of the system, and rather than constantly looking down at the screen, I just make occasional and quick glances to see where the car is.

Be warned

Why the Varia appeals, and why I've taken to using it for every ride, is because I'm happy to admit there have been occasions when I've been surprised by a car passing me, simply because I've been deep in thought or just let my mind wander, or because it's really windy and your hearing is impaired. That surprise factor hasn't happened once with the Varia. 

So that warning beep serves a very useful purpose. As a result, I've found I'm not checking over my shoulder 'just in case there's a car approaching' as much as I used to. You shouldn't depend on the Varia completely, but you pretty much can. What you can't see is that the Varia light blinks when a car is overtaking you to serve as an additional warning to the motorist.

After that beep occurs, it's easy to quickly glance at the computer screen to see where the car is in relation to your position, but that element is secondary in my opinion to the early warning beep. It is useful when it shows two cars on the screen, the maximum it can display.

Rear light

The other bonus is the extremely bright 60-lumen rear light that is incorporated into the unit. It has a claimed visibility range of one mile and has a run-time of 15 hours in flashing mode or 6 hours in solid and night flash mode. The light also has a 220-degree range to provide some side-on visibility and means car drivers should see the light before the radar sees them.

garmin_varia_rtl510_-_side.jpg

The Varia is easily charged via a USB port and the Edge serves up a low battery warning which is useful.

City limits

It works really well on country roads where traffic is light. Riding through towns reveals it can be triggered by parked cars which does reduce its usefulness to a degree, and I'm not sure given the hustle and bustle of busier towns that it would be as useful – when you've got a constant stream of cars passing, you don't need to know there's a car 140 metres away.

But if your commute or ride starts in the city and takes you out into quiet country roads, as most weekend cycle rides likely do, then it's a useful addition. It could also stop you being caught unawares by near-silent electric cars.

What about when you cycle with other cyclists? I've used it both in a chain gang and club run and both times it wasn't fooled by the cyclists following in my wake, yet was still able to detect a car approaching our small group. So it works well in those circumstances as well.

Warning or camera?

There's no denying it's a pricey investment. You are getting a rear light as well, although even a normally expensive rear light such as the Exposure Blaze Mk1 Daybright is still cheaper at £90. But there is nothing else like the Varia on the market – the only vaguely similar product could be the Cycliq Fly6, a £175 rear light with an integrated camera.

Choosing between the two comes down to whether you prefer to film close passes or have an early warning system, and much of that probably comes down to how busy the roads are that you regularly ride.

Obviously, the Varia isn't going to prevent a close pass or a car hitting you. But if you're riding along a quiet country road and a car comes out of nowhere at speed (as happens frequently in the Cotswolds) then it does give you that warning. What you do about it is up to you, but knowing there's a car approaching often before you actually hear it is a positive thing.

I know I will cope just fine when Garmin asks for the Varia back, but having ridden with it for several weeks I've really got used to the early warning system. Would I part with £170 for it? I'm not sure I could... But if price is no obstacle then it's a no-brainer and I'd tell you to go out and buy one.

Verdict

Useful early warning system with a bright rear light, but quite pricey

If you're thinking of buying this product using a cashback deal why not use the road.cc Top Cashback page and get some top cashback while helping to support your favourite independent cycling website

road.cc test report

Make and model: Garmin Varia RTL510

Size tested: n/a

Tell us what the light is for

Garmin says, "Ride smarter and more aware with Varia™ RTL510 rear-view radar. Mounted neatly on the seat post, it provides visible and audible alerts for vehicles approaching from behind up to 140 metres (153 yards) away. Plus, the bright tail light is visible in daylight from up to 1.6 km (1 mile) away, so you can ride with confidence and peace of mind.

This sensor has your back

While out on a ride, you have to keep track of everything. What's your route, how far you're going, how fast and how hard you're going to push it. But with Varia radar along for the ride, it's like having eyes in the back of your helmet. It's essentially an early warning system so you see cars approaching from behind and they see you.

This sensor has your back

Safety in numbers

Varia™ RTL510 rear-view radar is just one part of cycling awareness. When paired with compatible Garmin devices the system helps to create safer riding conditions by alerting riders to vehicles approaching from behind. Green light? All good. Amber light? A vehicle is approaching. Red light? Take care - a vehicle is approaching at high speed. Ride safe."

Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the light?

From Garmin:

Provides visual and audible alerts to warn of vehicles approaching from behind up to 140 metres (153 yards) away

Tail light offers daylight visibility up to a 1.6 km (1 mile) away and is visible within a 220-degree range, so drivers can see you well before the radar sees the vehicle

Sleek vertical design easily mounts to most road-use bicycles, including racing, touring and commuter styles

Requires a dedicated radar display unit (sold separately) or wirelessly integrates with compatible Garmin devices1

Battery life: up to 15 hours in flashing mode or 6 hours in solid or night flash mode

Rate the light for quality of construction:
 
8/10
Rate the light for design and ease of use. How simple was the light to use?
 
8/10

It's a doddle to use, there's just one button on the unit itself.

Rate the light for the design and usability of the clamping system/s
 
8/10

The clamping system provides a secure connection to the seatpost and it doesn't shake or rattle about, even on off-road trails.

Rate the light for waterproofing. How did it stand up to the elements?
 
8/10

It hasn't rained in ages, but I subjected it to the hosepipe test and it was just fine.

Rate the light for battery life. How long did it last? How long did it take to recharge?
 
8/10

I got pretty close to the claimed 15 hours – that's likely more than enough for a week's worth of riding for most people.

Rate the light for performance:
 
9/10

Really impressed with the performance as an early warning system.

Rate the light for durability:
 
8/10

Early days but so far, so good.

Rate the light for weight:
 
8/10

It doesn't add much weight to the bike at all.

Rate the light for value:
 
7/10

This is a tricky one. It's expensive yes, but there are no rivals on the market and it occupies a real niche. I think if you like the safety appeal of the Varia you might just be able to justify the price.

Tell us how the light performed overall when used for its designed purpose

The light is bright with a good 220-degree range.

Tell us what you particularly liked about the light

Bright and it blinks when a car passes you.

Tell us what you particularly disliked about the light

More side-on visibility perhaps.

Did you enjoy using the light? Yes

Would you consider buying the light? Yes

Would you recommend the light to a friend? Yes

Use this box to explain your overall score

It's an expensive but really useful product especially if you mainly cycle on rural roads.

Overall rating: 8/10

About the tester

Age: 31  Height: 180cm  Weight: 67kg

I usually ride:   My best bike is:

I've been riding for: 10-20 years  I ride: Every day  I would class myself as: Expert

I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

51 comments

Avatar
John Stevenson [375 posts] 2 months ago
4 likes

I still wonder what you're supposed to do with this information. A vehicle closing on you at 60mph covers the 140m detection range in a little over 5 seconds. You'll use at least one or two of those looking over your shoulder and deciding whether White Van Man is in a hurry but passing you properly, or about to hit you. Then what? Dive into the hedge?

I'm not sure my reflexes are good enough.

Avatar
hawkinspeter [2484 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

For that money, I'd want a camera.

I just had my old Fly6 give up the ghost, so I ended up buying a new Fly6CE model. The mounting is much better, but the buttons are surprisingly difficult to press. However, it does exactly what I want for a rear light and camera.

(I'm now trying to replace the battery on my broken Fly6, but haven't succeeded yet. Pro-tip - never try to solder a Lithium-ion battery unless you know what you're doing).

 

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Look555 [37 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

I've had one for a couple of years now and wouldn't leave the house without it.  140 meters is usually enough, it will allow you to claim the center of the carriageway to signal they don't really have enough space to pass you at that next traffic island, hopefully causing them to brake or get round you quicker than the island. I also regularly move out from my line and back in just to give the driver another visual "cue" that I'm there (not that you should miss me, but I'm specifically trying to appeal to the visual receptors at the periphery in case they're distracted) - I also hope they'll think me a "untrustworthy" rider, incapble of holding my line, and give me more room when they pass. The suprising one is to know you're not being followed on a descent, which I always thought I was (due to the wind noise) but would be going too fast to check over my shoulder.

 

In short, if you ride roads by yourself, I'd say its worth having. 

Avatar
jlebrech [69 posts] 2 months ago
1 like
John Stevenson wrote:

I still wonder what you're supposed to do with this information. A vehicle closing on you at 60mph covers the 140m detection range in a little over 5 seconds. You'll use at least one or two of those looking over your shoulder and deciding whether White Van Man is in a hurry but passing you properly, or about to hit you. Then what? Dive into the hedge?

I'm not sure my reflexes are good enough.

 

decide to defensively hog the road or hop onto the curb and cower.

 

Or just to now wobble around as much.

Avatar
kil0ran [1109 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

Tempting, as all my riding is rural. Can it be run in radar-only mode? I've got a Seesense Ace on the way which appears to be a smarter light than this (and lower profile).

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I love my bike [222 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes
John Stevenson wrote:

I still wonder what you're supposed to do with this information. A vehicle closing on you at 60mph covers the 140m detection range in a little over 5 seconds. You'll use at least one or two of those looking over your shoulder and deciding whether White Van Man is in a hurry but passing you properly, or about to hit you. Then what? Dive into the hedge?

I'm not sure my reflexes are good enough.

I use the information to decide if I should move out to a primary position to make it clear that there is no space to overtake, or to move over to make their overtaking easier (but not move straight back out again, if there was more than one car). On a narrow road, with fast approaching vehicle, it gives more time to pull over. Also useful if you're approaching a pothole/drain cover, to decide if you can pull out to go round it, or need to slow because a vehicle it just about to pass.

At ~140m away, I'm not sure how one judges if an approaching vehicle will hit you, so not much point in turning?

From the review: I'm not sure how a parked car can be moving towards the rear facing Varia to trigger it?

Also, it can detect 8 vehicles.

With the previous model, the large, flat black surface provided a great place for a strip of red reflective tape (that didn't affect the radar). Probably would be the same for the this, so not sure why it's not integrated by Garmin?

Avatar
Look555 [37 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes
kil0ran wrote:

Tempting, as all my riding is rural. Can it be run in radar-only mode? I've got a Seesense Ace on the way which appears to be a smarter light than this (and lower profile).

On the one I have you can adjust the light function from your Edge.

Avatar
StraelGuy [1543 posts] 2 months ago
3 likes
hawkinspeter wrote:

 

(I'm now trying to replace the battery on my broken Fly6, but haven't succeeded yet. Pro-tip - never try to solder a Lithium-ion battery unless you know what you're doing).

 

 

Did the fire brigade arrive in time  ?

Avatar
handlebarcam [1151 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

Yay, yet another source of irritating bleeping noises. Just what the world needs.

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kil0ran [1109 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

Interested to hear how well it works with the Edge 130 - is the bleep loud and does the on-screen indicator work in the same way?

Avatar
hawkinspeter [2484 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes
StraelGuy wrote:
hawkinspeter wrote:

 

(I'm now trying to replace the battery on my broken Fly6, but haven't succeeded yet. Pro-tip - never try to solder a Lithium-ion battery unless you know what you're doing).

 

 

Did the fire brigade arrive in time  ?

Luckily I found this info before I tried: https://medium.com/@bikebot/fly-6-battery-replacement-cdbcd09150ce

I got some of the conductive glue, but so far it's not working. I'll give it another try with the same 18650 and maybe use something to hold it steady while the glue dries to see if that gets it working and if that fails, I might try to find a 18650 with metal tags already fitted.

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risoto [77 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

Typical Garmin  - high price for low tech. I had the first version, battery life  was laughable. Sold my Garmin Edge (Garbage) and then the Varia. It only works with Garmin of course!

Now, instead I got the very small, but very powerful Exposure Trace daybright pack (front and rear) plus a mirror at the end of my handlebar. These lights are amazing. Since using them I have not had one car in 1½ years pass me close by.

And, actually I believe its much more important to have a strong FRONT light. Many more accidents happen from the front - oncoming cars making a turn in front of you, cars coming from side streets, pedestrians etc.

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sizbut [47 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

I have the older version. Super bright and in flashing mode the type of rear light that really annoys fellow cyclists on the Dunwich Dynamo. 

NIce that the new design is more vertical. The old one is a bit of a pain to position on the seat post for those of us with large thighs. On that subject, the Garmin mounts supplied are pretty focussed on seat post positioning which assumes that we all have a lot of exposed seat post, no saddle packs, racktop bags, etc. For my tourer, the great folks at 76Projects came up with a Garmin mount that fitted securely to the rear of the pannier rack.  

But a great shame the new model seems to have lost the automatic brightness/flash adjustment that the old one uses when it detects a car approaching - which made it a great daytime rear light even without the Garmin computer.  

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David Arthur @d... [895 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

kil0ran wrote:

Interested to hear how well it works with the Edge 130 - is the bleep loud and does the on-screen indicator work in the same way?

 

I can confirm it does - just started testing the 130 and it works just fine with the Varia

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Stueys [26 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

Upgraded from the version 1 to this version a few months back - I think they’re great, just improves your situation awareness and takes away the ‘drifting away’ factor you get once you’ve been out on a long one.  It’s the perfect example of a product you never knew you needed until you tried it.

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jmess [2 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

I have an RTL510 that I pair with an Edge 1030. I can't hear the 510 warning beeps 95% of the time. I can sometime hear a faint beep when riding slowly on a really quiet road. There isn't any volume or tone control for alerts on the Edge 1030 or any other Edge computer. So if you have some high frequency hearing problems/loss you probably won't be able to hear the alerts. You wonder who really tests these things?

Avatar
Prosper0 [146 posts] 2 months ago
3 likes

Exactly what am I supposed to be doing thanks to the extra data from this thing that I’m not doing already riding to the road conditions?

At best it’s yet another cycling gadget masquerading as a safety tool, at worst in 5 years we’ll all be forced to use them by people that don’t cycle. 

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cyclisto [406 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

To people wondering what to do with this information, at low volume roads that especially when I am very slow such as uphills or when tired, you may do the wobble dance: pretend to woble as if you learned yesterday how to cycle. It will consume around 20cm of road space but it will give you more that 50cm of extra passing distance. Just try it.

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aegisdesign [102 posts] 2 months ago
1 like
Prosper0 wrote:

Exactly what am I supposed to be doing thanks to the extra data from this thing that I’m not doing already riding to the road conditions?

At best it’s yet another cycling gadget masquerading as a safety tool, at worst in 5 years we’ll all be forced to use them by people that don’t cycle. 

My thoughts too. 

The only reason I'd have one of these is if the warning given by them was loudly  given inside the following car. But that won't happen as it's obviously an attack on motorists freedoms.

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bikeman01 [61 posts] 2 months ago
3 likes

Useful when turning right. It's sometimes difficult to take in fast approaching cars with a quick glance over the shoulder.

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mikeprytherch [226 posts] 2 months ago
4 likes
John Stevenson wrote:

I still wonder what you're supposed to do with this information. A vehicle closing on you at 60mph covers the 140m detection range in a little over 5 seconds. You'll use at least one or two of those looking over your shoulder and deciding whether White Van Man is in a hurry but passing you properly, or about to hit you. Then what? Dive into the hedge?

I'm not sure my reflexes are good enough.

I am a complete convert to these, been using them since they came out, after 30 years of cycling I never thought I would need one, but I tried one and I won't leave home without them, this review is pretty spot on.  At the end of the day if the car/van is going to pass close or even god forbid hit you it is going to do that no matter, but what this gives you is knowledge that a car is going to pass you, to be prepared for it, I see it like this... when somebody comes behind you and shouts BOO you jump out of your skin, but if you had a mirror and could see them coming when they said BOO you would not jump out of your skin, that knowledge of about to be overtaken is comforting, like I said, I never thought I would be a convert to this but it was won me over.

Avatar
mikeprytherch [226 posts] 2 months ago
2 likes
Prosper0 wrote:

Exactly what am I supposed to be doing thanks to the extra data from this thing that I’m not doing already riding to the road conditions?

At best it’s yet another cycling gadget masquerading as a safety tool, at worst in 5 years we’ll all be forced to use them by people that don’t cycle. 

If you don't hear the car due to them being electric, wind noise etc. then you won't have the "data", the way I see it is that it is like somebody coming behind you and shouting BOO, you jump out of your skin, but if you knew they were there, when they said BOO you don't, it is all about knowing you are going to be overtaken, the exact same reason when in a group ride riders shout Car Up/Down, it is all about awareness, which is all about safety.

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LastBoyScout [480 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

What if you don't have an Edge computer - does it come with it's own display?

If not, then it's not £170, is it? It's £170 PLUS another few £100 for something to see the information.

Edit - just looked and it's £260 with a display unit!

Avatar
LastBoyScout [480 posts] 2 months ago
2 likes
mikeprytherch wrote:

If you don't hear the car due to them being electric, wind noise etc. then you won't have the "data", the way I see it is that it is like somebody coming behind you and shouting BOO, you jump out of your skin, but if you knew they were there, when they said BOO you don't, it is all about knowing you are going to be overtaken, the exact same reason when in a group ride riders shout Car Up/Down, it is all about awareness, which is all about safety.

But it isn't a surprise, is it?

As a cyclist on a road, it's 100% fact that, at some point, you are going to be passed by a faster vehicle, regardless of whether you heard them coming, or not.

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LastBoyScout [480 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

Double post

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iso2000 [104 posts] 2 months ago
1 like

I had to give up cycling for over 20 years due to ill health and missed the recent cycling boom. One of the things I don't understand with the new breed of cyclist is their near obsession with what is approching from behind. Just ride a decent distance from the kerb and worry about the idiots pulling out in front of you. They are far more likely to cause you injury. 

Avatar
kil0ran [1109 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes
jmess wrote:

I have an RTL510 that I pair with an Edge 1030. I can't hear the 510 warning beeps 95% of the time. I can sometime hear a faint beep when riding slowly on a really quiet road. There isn't any volume or tone control for alerts on the Edge 1030 or any other Edge computer. So if you have some high frequency hearing problems/loss you probably won't be able to hear the alerts. You wonder who really tests these things?

Interesting. I've only used turn-by-turn once on my 130 and thought the beeps were a bit quiet so if there's no volume control for the beeps generated by the RTL510 I wonder if it's going work for me.

I agree about testing and also market awareness. Late 40s now so I'm in the world of varifocals and a lot of these screens just aren't designed for that.

Avatar
mikeprytherch [226 posts] 2 months ago
1 like
LastBoyScout wrote:
mikeprytherch wrote:

If you don't hear the car due to them being electric, wind noise etc. then you won't have the "data", the way I see it is that it is like somebody coming behind you and shouting BOO, you jump out of your skin, but if you knew they were there, when they said BOO you don't, it is all about knowing you are going to be overtaken, the exact same reason when in a group ride riders shout Car Up/Down, it is all about awareness, which is all about safety.

But it isn't a surprise, is it?

As a cyclist on a road, it's 100% fact that, at some point, you are going to be passed by a faster vehicle, regardless of whether you heard them coming, or not.

Absolutely we all know at some point we are going to be overtaken, it is nice to know when it is going to occur not, that is the bit you don't always know unless you only ride in the city with constant traffic, on country roads it can be infrequent.

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MarkiMark [80 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes

Surely this is completely useless in a busy town/city where there are always cars around you in close proximity.

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aegisdesign [102 posts] 2 months ago
1 like
mikeprytherch wrote:

Absolutely we all know at some point we are going to be overtaken, it is nice to know when it is going to occur not, that is the bit you don't always know unless you only ride in the city with constant traffic, on country roads it can be infrequent.

But if you're going to be overtaken then the data is irrelevant.

What you need is some kind of minority report like pre-crime device that tells you if they're going to hit you, preferably with gesture support for close passers.

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