By Martin Sigrist
I bought my first power meter back in 2007. It has proved to be, by a very wide margin, the best bike related purchase I have ever made, paying for itself many times over.
Back then power meters were a rare sight, if you saw someone else with one it felt almost as if you were in some sort of secret brotherhood. Now they are a lot more common, they come in many different varieties. If you buy a bike from some manufacturers you can tick an option box to have one fitted. They are not yet fitted as standard but that day may come.
Still one thing hasn’t changed. A power meter is a tool — and like many tools it can be used in a variety of different ways for a variety of different purposes. To help anyone new to power based training to get used to their new tool I plan to put together an occasional series. It will be structured as if I were giving advice to someone about to purchase a power meter with some tips of things to think about before taking the plunge and advice for what to do in the first month of ownership.
That will leave much ground uncovered but it should provide a good foundation on which to build. I hope aspects may be of interest even to more knowledgeable power users as well and would welcome feedback on their experiences and anything they know now that they wish they had known at the beginning. This may also be an opportunity to ask any questions about power in general, I’ll do my best to answer them and if I can’t I should be able to find someone who can.
Before embarking on this project I would though like to start with something a little different. Those of us who use power meters are often stereotyped as robots who bury themselves in numbers, graphs and TLAs. Our rides are not complete until they have been loaded up onto some arcane piece of software and we spend more time looking at figures than actually riding a bike. This is all quite true, I plead guilty as charged.
However there is another side to using a power meter. As I mentioned earlier buying one was the best cycling related decision I have ever made, quite unexpectedly so. It has led to me doing more things in more places on more bikes having more fun than I would ever had done had I just stuck with my previous training methods. So before disappearing into a morass of watts, FTPs, TSSs and CTLs here are the four best things my trusty power meter unlocked for me.
A power meter is a very simple device. The key thing it measures is how hard I am working for how long. There’s a relationship between these two as every cyclist knows, the harder I work the shorter the time I can sustain. Almost from my first ride this entranced me. I could put a number on how good a sprinter I was (about 1 out 10), how hard a hill was compared to a mountain, how hard I could ride for an hour or two or more. I wanted to find out how well I could do in all these various categories and the only way to find out was to try them. So I have entered all sorts of events that I would probably never have done otherwise. I’ve ended up doing everything from short criteriums to multi-day stage races. 10 mile to 12 hour TTs, sportives of many types and some mad ultra events riding near non-stop from one end of the country to the other and back. The consistent driver behind all was to put myself in situations where I would push myself to my limit. I have to confess it’s grown to be a bit of an addiction but not one I regret.
The great thing about a power meter is that I can see myself getting better. I don’t need to wait for an event, I don’t have to hope that fate smiles on my A race day. If my watts go up I am getting better. Yes it is all about numbers but that’s not a bad thing. If they improve I know my training is working and that helps me train harder. If they don’t at least I have some warning so can try something different.
Numbers don’t lie. If I have set myself a cycling challenge then it is quite easy to determine in advance about what its demands will be in terms of power. That’s the reason that power meters have been blamed for making racing boring. (Though I would disagree. Last years tours were not exactly snooze fests and one of the most exciting days racing in recent times, Chris Froome’s stunning win on stage 19 of the 2018 Giro was entirely due to him understanding and planning for the power demands of the race.) My first Marmotte is another example, the nearest hill near me is 250m high, less than 1/10 of the Galibier which is just one of the 4 major climbs on the route. But I could train for the event in my garage over winter so I could reach the start line knowing exactly what I needed to do to hit my goal time and have a great enjoyable ride as a result. Without a power meter I would almost certainly have gone either too slow or too fast and had a much worse day.
I do less organised events than I used to partly because I no longer need them to them for the sake of performing my best. I can choose where and when I want to ride hard and not have to pay a small fortune and get out of bed at the crack of dawn to accomplish my goals. Rewards for me are not dependent on how others ride but how well I ride. While I will check Strava having a power meter means I can push for and set power PBs, that matter much more to me than segment times, whenever I want.
I am by no means saying all of the above will appeal to everyone. Folks are different thankfully. Different riders will use their power meters for different things and find their own special benefits. For most though it will hopefully be the first step on an adventure discovering new limits of what they are capable of. I hope this series of articles will help with that process.
As I said earlier if anyone has any questions at all about power for training or otherwise please feel free to ask them. Also if anyone has any hints, tips or things they wish they had known when they were starting add them too and I’ll include them for others to benefit. The first couple of articles will cover things to do before buying and advice on which sort of power meter to go for so experiences with these topics would be especially welcome.
PS. By coincidence I did a ride today that was a good example of the above. I’ll be 62 in a couple of weeks and looking over my stats for this year I realised that due to covid I had not actually done any non-stop rides of 4 hours or more. I was going to give myself a pass but when I logged onto Zwift I found an 130km event with several climbs including the last 12km being up “Alpe du Zwift”. So I entered just to get a score year 61. Here’s the Strava if anyone is interested.
In terms of the four above:
Inspiration: 4 hours on a turbo is a long time, wanting to fill some missing blanks for the year inspired me to do it.
Motivation: Usually these sort of events are my forte and what kept me going was seeing how my fitness was holding up given the disruptions to training.
Confidence: I started hard to keep with the lead group then just set a steady pace for the first climbs. I felt good for the power I was putting out which I knew was a good sign. One thing about Zwift events you have no idea how the others are feeling so I started the final Alpe at a hard but sustainable pace just to see how it would go. I still felt good but the remaining 3 riders with me dropped quickly and by end of the 2km I knew I was going to cross the line first. I just needed to get to the top at an average power which I knew I could do despite not preparing any special nutrition so feeling a bit hungry.
Liberation: Every year I do at least one hard long ride. It would have been a shame to let covid interrupt that run and now it hasn’t. The average power for my ride was my 6th highest ever, a great result all things considered. Being able to show the sort of form I did today without any preparation is a great sign for the year to come.