The Backtracker is touted as a device that monitors traffic approaching from behind a cyclist. When I first heard about it, the idea came across as a bit gimmicky. I thought a quick look back or a mirror would be just as effective. Then I tried it...
When I first handled the device, I had two initial impressions: Firstly, this thing is tiny and light. Secondly, that the build quality felt solid and the plastic of a high quality, especially as we were being lent a test unit that still needed to undergo a few updates, such as the latest waterproofing treatment.
The Backtracker consists of two small units, which communicate with each other wirelessly, a front display and rear box with LED lights. The rear unit uses radar to keep track of vehicles while the front display reports the distance, speed and proximity of vehicles from the rider. All this information is displayed very simply by a line of LED lights. The rear radar device doubles as a rear safety light, which warns motorists by flashing more frequently as they approach the rider.
The mounting system uses a simple mount held to the handlebars and seatpost with O-rings. While low tech, I found this method to work flawlessly and it should mean a good fit on most bicycles.
Maximum Vehicle Range: up to 140m.
Maximum Vehicle Speed: 160 km/h
Battery Endurance: 8 hours
Rear LED - Peak luminous flux: 40 lm
Mass - Rear Unit: 80g
Mass - Front Unit: 50g
Connectivity: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
API: Open API
Does it work?
From a visual and functional point of view, the display on the device is superb. The simplicity in the way it transfers information to the rider is striking. Through the use of bright LEDs, the display indicates the detection of a car with a single LED. The LED then moves the length of the display as it tracks the proximity of the car. The speed at which an LED travels along the display gives the rider a rough idea of the speed at vehicles are approaching.
Watch our demonstration of the Backtracker in action below:
Ikubu claim that the Backtracker has a range of up to 140 metres. My guesstimate is that it started picking up cars regularly from at least 100m away, so Ikubu's claim could well be true. On straighter roads vehicles are detected before you can even hear them coming, which I found to be very comforting (especially as some cars and busses are getting quieter). Using the Backtracker gave me the confidence to ride in the centre of the lane (where I feel more comfortable) trusting that I would be notified when it’s necessary to retreat back to the ‘safety’ of the yellow line or gutter.
A neat feature of the Backtracker is the ability to track multiple cars at a time while still indicating the proximity of each vehicle. The accuracy of the Backtracker in tracking more than one vehicle is impressive. For example, with the bicycle going straight and a left and right turn lane on either side, the Backtracker picked up approaching vehicles in all three lanes.
Unfortunately, I was unable to test the abilities of the Backtracker in a group of riders. Our tests with a single rider closely following the Backtracker showed no interference with the functioning of the device. Putting my hand directly over the rear unit was the only way I could manage to interrupt the Backtracker’s functioning.
Rear LED unit
Although not promoted as the devices main function, my favourite feature was the rear warning light. The LEDs chosen for this task are more than adequate in terms of brightness. But it’s the increased frequency of flashing as a vehicle approaches that sealed the deal for me. When cycling behind the Backtracker, the increase in flashing as cars approached drew my attention. Hopefully doing the same to motorists and informing them of their own proximity to the cyclist.
There were some limitations to the Backtracker’s abilities. It struggled to identify the correct number of cars if they were travelling tightly packed together, often reporting two vehicles as one until they were close to the rider.
Another concern is having the display on the bars. It may have been because I was new to the experience but I spent a lot of time looking down at my bars when looking ahead would probably have been safer.
Is it worth it?
Ok, this is the hard part for most people, the price. The Backtracker is listed at R2,125. This is a significant amount of money to spend on a nice to have gadget. Even though the product is well-built and works as advertised, some might struggle to value the functionality of the Backtracker at this price point.
I can imagine the Backtracker being particularly useful when riding outside of the city, where traffic is less dense. In the city traffic, the Backtracker constantly lights up like a christmas tree.
I can also see device being useful for those that are not agile enough to look back with confidence or are hard of hearing.
Lastly, while I was unable to test the Backtracker in these conditions, I can picture it being a very comforting companion in low visibility conditions or at night.
In the end
Having used the Backtracker, my initial impressions of gimmickry have been abandoned. The Backtracker is an impressive piece of technology, it does what it claims. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s a must have item for everyone hitting the tar. But if you’d like some added peace of mind while on the road, then I’d highly recommend you consider the Backtracker.