What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Test: Polar RC3 GPS Tour de France Edition

The guys at Polar have long been market leaders in heart rate monitoring but before this test I hadn’t actually used one of their products in more than 10 years – when my racing career fizzled out, monitoring my heartrate was one thing that didn’t appeal to me anymore. But when Polar launched a new RC3 GPS Tour de France Edition at the famous Mt Ventoux, my interest quickly reignited.

One good thing about a flashy media launch besides the free food? The guys that actually designed and made the product were there to explain its features.

The reason for Polar’s extravagant launch was their new limited edition RC3 GPS Tour de France unit – a heart rate monitor, GPS, watch, altimeter and even a coach all in one. Yes, it has A LOT of functions. In fact for a ‘typical guy’ (as my wife calls me) who just likes to get things out of the box and use them straight away, this unit made me do something I don’t do enough of – read the instructions.

The RC3 GPS comes with a comprehensive ‘Getting Started Guide’ – use it.

Not because it wasn’t easy to use though, it just has so many functions that I realized I wasn’t getting the best out of it with my basic out of the box and use it style. And that’s what the RCS GPS is all about in fact, ‘Getting the best’ out of yourself with its heart rate monitoring, intelligent training benefit feedback and more.

So how did they get the best out of 30 journalists, some of whom were much fitter than others? They strapped an RC3 on to each of us and sent us straight up the Ventoux on some borrowed LOOK bikes. It was certainly a great way to get our heartrates up and to test their product I guess, but it’s only now after a full 2 month test that I can really get down to the nitty gritty of this device and its best uses.


What You Get
The Polar RC3 GPS Tour de France cycling edition offers a big range of features that can track your current speed, average speed, maximum speed, cadence, altitude, current time with GPS built in with back to start, distance (training, lap and total), route mapping with PolarPersonalTrainer.com web service all in a watch with a slim and lightweight design. There’s a rechargeable battery via USB cable (12 hours continuous GPS use), a comfortable chest strap, cadence sensor, universal handlebar mount and much more and I haven’t even got to the most important feature yet – its heart rate monitoring and all the analysis, zone indicators, personal training and advice that goes with it and I’m already approaching my word limit – yes, this unit really does have a lot of features.

Let’s look at how to get the best out of the RC3 first though, and that’s to perform a VO2 Max test with it to set your baseline fitness. Now when I think of VO2 Max tests I think immediately of painful experiences in labs hooked up to an ergo bike and machines so I was pleasantly surprised to hear that you can perform a V02 Max test with the RC3 just by sitting down or lying down somewhere and following a few basic steps;

1) Plug in your personal information, age, height, weight, gender etc to the unit
2) Put the heart rate strap on and lie down somewhere calm.
3) Start the test, relax and your VO2 Max will be known in less than 5 minutes!

All I needed for my VO2 Max test, the chest strap, the watch unit and a bed.

I was a bit doubtful about how accurate this test that results in your ‘OwnIndex’ score would be, but upon completion of my test I was surprised that yes, it was very close to my own estimated V02 Max. In fact talking to a few of the other journos and the Polar technical team at the launch it seems to be pretty widely accepted that the OwnIndex score is accurate to about +/- of 8% of your actual V02 if tested in a lab. The obvious benefits of doing the test with the Polar is the no-lab needed, no other expenses (once you’ve bought the Polar of course), it’s super quick and easy and my favorite benefit – no messy throwing up after giving your all on the stationary bike.

My naturally skeptic self though was still very active and later that day after my first test I performed the test again just to see what it would give. Exactly the same result. Ok, I then tried it again the very next morning with once again the same result. Now this led to the obvious conclusions of my RC3 being a) consistent, b) broken or c) my V02 max had not suddenly improved overnight after getting the RC3.

Well it looks like it was options a & c because I borrowed a colleague’s unit later that day and performed the test just for my own curiosity’s sake and I once again got the same result – I still didn’t have a good score!

How to Improve
Ok, so I didn’t have a good score but I did seem to now have a tool strapped to my wrist that could at least monitor my low levels. The idea of having a heart rate monitor though for me and I imagine that most people who spend their hard earned money on one is not just about monitoring but more about improving their fitness. This is where www.polarpersonaltrainer.com comes in. This is Polar’s online tool where you upload your training data from your Polar unit and it can then track your progress, tell you what benefit each particular training session has been and even plan out a training program for you. Basically it’s a well educated coach that uses your actual data and listens to your body to help you improve.

After two months of using the RC3 I’ve managed to log some good kilometers on it and have even competed in a number of races that have seen my heartrate figures go off the charts, and others where I thought ‘Gee I felt pretty good today’ to then confirm it by analyzing my data post race.


Above is an example of what you see on PolarPersonalTrainer.com when you’ve uploaded your training files. This one is from a recent time trial I did in a stage race, and thanks to the GPS functions of the RC3 you can track exactly where you went on the map, and with the heartrate functions you can track your physical perfomance. The red line is my heartrate and the grey line is my speed. I started recording exactly 30 seconds before the time trial started and as you can see once it started I immediately accelerated up to my Zone 5 which is rated at 90- 100% of my maximum heartrate and I basically stayed there the whole time trial hitting my maximum heartrate perfectly in the last kilometer before then stopping the unit 30 seconds after the finish when I began to get my breath back.

A closer look at my tt performance.

For me, this ability to analyze the data after your effort is one of the most interesting features for the RC3 as it’s through this analysis where you can improve. Initially after the time trial I was a little disappointed with my effort (I lost the leader’s jersey) but upon analyzing the data I saw that I actually rode a near perfect time trial, immediately getting into my zone, holding it throughout the course of the race and even accelerating to my maximum effort for the final kilometer.

Yep, I was in the red zone pretty much the whole ride.

The post ride analysis is of course just one aspect of the unit and interestingly for me on this particular day you don’t actually need a computer to look at your data – it is all available to look at on the watch itself. Sure you don’t get the sexy graphs with the colors and various graphics like you do on Polar’s website but all the data is there and I was able to check it all out, roadside whilst waiting for the afternoon’s stage to start. Speaking of which, let’s have a look at one of the graphs from that ride:


This was a very hot and hilly stage where I started the stage in 2nd on GC, 16s behind the leader and with only one teammate left in the race versus the 4 that the leader had who were all very strong and in the top 10 on GC themselves. I had to try something, something pretty unexpected if I was going to get the win. At the 40minute mark you can see a spike in my heartrate and this is where I played my hand, breaking away with one other with almost 50km remaining. We worked well together for all of 5km before my breakaway mate stopped riding and then dropped off, exhausted leaving me out front, more than 30s clear of the bunch but with 45km remaining. This is where I was faced with a dilemma, sit up – or continue and hope somebody bridges up to me?

I chose the continue option and this is where the Polar came into play. From my experiences with the unit over the last 2 months I knew that if I kept my heartrate at 165bpm I could sustain that effort for a long period of time. For some people, 165 is low, for others 165 is too high but for me it’s my personal nirvana of pain threshold. It hurts, it hurts so much – but I know I can do it and I’m hurting others at this heartrate so it hurts so good!

A closer look at the graph from the final road stage.

In a very SKY-like, Wiggo-esque style I kept a close eye on the RC3 throughout my suicidal move and the couple of times that I did start going too hard, I backed it off to my magical figure and continued on. This is not something I’d ever done in a race before, nor had I even looked at the unit in that morning’s time trial, but here in a lone break with nothing but my thoughts, the hills and the heat to distract me, the Polar came into its own.

I’d love to see John Degenkolb’s figures after this stage win from the Giro this year.

So I didn’t get the few thousand Euro and thousand of Italians swamping me after the race that I eventually won like John Degenkolb did but I did get 100 Euros and a couple of dozen Frenchies… We were wearing the same watch though and interestingly this watch has actually improved my performance on the bike. It hasn’t increased my VO2Max score in just 2 months though (still embarassingly low) but it has improved my ability to ‘listen to my body’ (one of Polar’s catch phrases and much better than ‘listen to your wife’ which seems to be the motto at my house). The fact that I now actively monitor my performance through the Polar website and regularly make use of the data highlighted by the race example above has actually improved my performance. For me that’s what this unit is all about.

My standard view of the Polar RC3. The unit does come with a universal bike mount that can fit any type of handlebars but I prefer to leave it on my wrist.

The POLAR RC3 GPS Tour de France edition has a lot of features, only some of which I’ve been able to cover here. It’s one of those units where you keep discovering things each time you use it for the first month (even if you’ve read the instructions). The essential features are of course its heart rate monitoring, the GPS tracking of your route, speed & distance but for me personally it was the training feedback and monitoring of my training that was the best feature. At a price of US$369.95 it’s not cheap but in terms of quality, design, construction and features it’s good value.

Another feature that I like is the magnetic flap that closes the entrance to the USB cable. It snaps closed when you take the cable out and gives a good seal to it preventing, sweat, sunscreen and the like from entering.

For those of you addicted to certain tracking websites like Strava you can use the RC3 with these simply by exporting the files from PolarPersonalTrainer.com in GPX form and then uploading them. The heart rate data isn’t transferred but all the GPS data with your speed, distance and possible KOM’s etc is.

Overall the RC3 GPS Tour de France is a unit that seemingly monitors everything – except power – in a well constructed and comfortable package and is certainly worth a look for those who are serious about performance. Whether you’re simply tracking your fitness and performance on a basic 20 mile ride or monitoring performances of the very highest levels like the guys at Argos-Shimano, FDJ and Euskaltel who all use Polar, the RC3 monitors it all and can help anyone improve. After more than 25 years racing roadbikes and in the middle of somewhat of a comeback at a veteran age I didn’t think the Polar could really help me with my training, but I was wrong and this is one product that I will continue to use after the test is finished.

For more on the RC3 GPS you can check out Polar’s website

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