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This page displays heading, distance, and the current elevation gain of a given ride.

The trusty old Garmin Forerunner 235 stood out as a plausible contender in my recent quest to find a GPS-enabled wristwatch that tracks rides and doesn’t cost as much as my bike frame. Runners have been strapping this computerized bracelet on for quite some time, but its cycling prowess hasn’t received much mention.

Other multisport watches I have tested, seemingly designed for Xterra and triathlete needs, performed below my expectations when applied to mountain biking. I didn’t start off with the highest expectations for the Forerunner 235, but given the watch’s low weight and somewhat reasonable price, I had high hopes.

The digital details

You can add or eliminate news and other notifications to suit your needs.

The Forerunner 235 offers more smartwatch functions that I will ever use, including weather updates, news notifications, message notifications, as well as “find my phone” and music remote-control features. The user interface can be configured to fit your needs and preferred level of connectivity. On the bike, you can program the watch to limit distractions, or you can receive all of the information and notices you need while pedaling.

  • Price $249.99 / €307 (shop online)
  • Actual weight: 42g
  • Actual battery life:  Up to 9-hours GPS mode and 5-days in Smart Watch mode
  • Elevate™ wrist-based heart rate monitor
  • Water rating: 5 ATM (roughly 50 meters)
  • Pairs with phone post ride, so you can leave the other computers at home
  • Smartphone connectivity with Android and iPhone
  • Customizable background via Garmin’s Face It app

Compare Forerunner 235 prices

Ride report

Pro tip: Taking a shower with the watch on occasionally will keep it relatively clean and aroma-free.

With a cozy silicone band and feathery 42 grams of weight, the Forerunner 235 is by far the most comfortable sports watch I have worn. It’s light enough that it doesn’t have to be cinched super tight to stay where I want it, and it doesn’t leave any marks or abrasions on my skin. The low weight is thanks to its largely plastic construction, and treated glass lens. It feels like you could easily beat it up on the bike, and after a few dirt-naps, I am happy to report that the watch still looks and functions like new. I did put a protective lens shield on the watch when I first received it, as I would with any other watch, and the shield has a few deep gouges proving its worth.

I use this page often, displaying heart rate, time of day, lap time, and ambient temperature. In “ride mode” there are three screens with up to five programmable fields each, then one preset screen for the time of day and a second preset with heart rate zones.

The watch’s satellite locating system works quickly here in northern Italy, and I have not had to wait for it to sort out where I am in the world before heading off toward the trails. In fact, recording a ride with the watch is so simple that you can do it without even looking at it, which is nice when it’s tucked beneath a jacket or jersey sleeve. Simply press the runner icon button three times, and when it begins actively recording the watch will vibrate. To stop or pause the recording, push the same button again; and to resume, hit the same button once more.

I have seldom used a computer of any sort that is as user-friendly as this watch, and it is patently clear that Garmin is working directly with consumers to create a hassle-free interface. For example, at the end of a route, you will be prompted to save the ride, resume, or delete it. Simply select one, and press the runner icon to confirm. Once your ride is saved you can open the app on your phone and the software will automatically upload your data, via Bluetooth, and share the data with all of the training or tracking sites you have connected it to. If your Strava account is connected to the Singletracks trail database, your ride will automatically load so you can add details about the trail. The GarminConnect mobile app’s user interface is clean and intuitive enough that there is no need to describe it herein. You can track whatever information interests you, or simply use the app to move information to the places you prefer.

This page displays heart rate and the related zone for training.

Garmin’s Elevate™ wrist heart rate monitor (HRM) works better than some wrist HRM systems I have tried, though it’s not perfect. I tested the watch’s HRM against a trusty chest-strap HRM, and it consistently picked up beats with far more accuracy than other watches. If the band was too loose, allowing the watch to slide down past the end of my ulna bone toward my hand, it read poorly. Additionally, if I bent my wrist in an unnatural position, the watch was more likely to read incorrectly. If 100% precise HRM is a training necessity for you, pairing a chest strap with the watch is still the best option. However, if you are looking for a fairly accurate reading of your heart-rate over the course of a ride, the Forerunner can provide that.

If you like to time segments of the trail, track intervals, or know how long you have been exploring in a particular direction, the Forerunner’s lap function is a great way to watch time tick past. You can also hit the lap button, to save a location. Once you upload data from a ride you will be able to see where you started each given lap. This can be a cool trick to use when you pass a new trail and want to go home and look at where it leads before taking the full plunge.

I have yet to ride at night with the Forerunner 235, but I have used its backlight while walking at night and I have no doubt that it will provide ample luminescence for the rare occasion I want to look at my watch while I pedal.

gramin band clasp
Garmin back
Garmin side view
Garmin plug

The band keeper has a tooth to hold it in place. The watch’s main body is thin compared to its HRM-enabled competition. Garmin’s Elevate™ HRM uses three lights on the back side to read your pulse. Charging is handled by a USB cord that clips to the watch and charges through the four metal dots on the underside of the body.

Off the bike functions

Working at a desk all day, standing or otherwise, leaves me feeling stiff and lethargic. When I’m not on a trail, my favorite element of the Forerunner 235 is the programmable movement notification. I can set a reminder to take a break for pushups or to walk around the block every hour, and I feel better for it at the end of the day.

Additionally, the calendar sync feature has proven convenient when I am away from my computer and need to check a meeting time or deadline. Some of these “smart” features have grown on me.

Final word

The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a fantastic option for folks who want to record their ride, collect some general health data off the bike, and otherwise have a watch and calendar on their wrist. Riders who locate themselves closer to the Luddite side of the digital spectrum will appreciate its hassle-free interface and rudimentary setup procedure. I have enjoyed using the watch in place of a handlebar mounted computer because when I am ready to go for a ride it is already on my wrist where I am less likely to forget it.

Thanks to Garmin for sending the Forerunner 235 for review. 

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# Comments

  • enduroadam

    The watch you want is the Garmin Instinct which is often on sale for $279, otherwise retails for $299 and is far superior to the Forerunner and in my opinion the best watch for mountain biking ever made!

    It has every feature the forerunner has and many more on top of that including specific cycling modes (MTB, Cycling, Indoor, etc) whereas the forerunner does not because it’s a running watch. The Instinct is an actual biking watch and has things like climb mode, navigation, explore mode, maps, etc etc. It has features you normally only see in the actual Garmin computers. The Instinct also has 2 weeks of battery life and 16 hours of GPS battery which is more than any other GPS watch out there I’ve seen. I don’t think you can buy a better watch for biking right now and that includes the higher priced Fenix which has only half the GPS time.

    If you’re reading this and looking at the forerunner, just get the Instinct for the extra money because it’s twice the watch. To the reviewer Brian, I highly suggest you return that Forerunner and get an Instinct!!

    • Charles Lai

      Thanks for your feedback on the Instinct. I’ve run and biked with the FR235 and the Vivoactive 3, but I was intrigued by the Instinct when I saw it at the Garmin booth at the Sea Otter Classic. The Garmin 945 looks great, but it’s probably overkill for my running and biking needs.

  • Brian Gerow

    @enduroadam, Thanks for the heads up!
    It sounds like I need to review the Garmin Instinct, per your suggestion. I really do appreciate the simplicity of the Forerunner 235, as all I want a bike computer to do is record my ride so I can look at it in the future and track total weekly hours. That said, I know that a number of other folks like to have all of the data and features they can find, and it sounds like the Instinct could be a better option.
    Thanks again!

    • enduroadam

      The Instinct is extremely easy to use. I push one button 3 times to stat a ride (GPS -> MTB -> Start.) And then the same button to pause/end the ride. I’m all for keeping things as simple as possible and I waited a long time to get a watch for biking because smartwatches don’t really interest me and the GPS watches have typically had awful battery life and I HATE CHARGING THINGS. This thing mostly caught my eye when I saw the 16 hours of GPS. I charge this battery about once a week while I’m working at the computer (takes less than an hour for a full charge by the way) and it seems to have plenty of life to get 3-4 big rides in each week (2-4 hours each). If you like simple, you will like the Instinct. 🙂

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