The early days of cycling technology were cumbersome. Like Christmas lights on Clark Griswold’s roof, each new device you added to your bike came with an endless string of cables you had to wind around the frame. Then you’d begin the process of tweaking tiny sensors to make sure the data was registering. All so we could brag about our top speed and distance. Fast forward a couple of years and we can now have a single interface to capture and visualize data in real time, with powerful wireless technology like ANT+ and Bluetooth.
Yet a fundamental issue remains even today: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. That is true for endurance athletes tracking caloric expenditure and substrate utilization or weekend warriors just looking to stay fit. It is nearly impossible to know if you are getting stronger, faster and leaner without some tools for measurement. Thanks to our rapacious demand for data, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of devices and services to help improve performance, from GPS to power meters to physiological testing services.
But even with all these advancements, we still find ourselves asking more of the the same questions: What should I measure? What do I do with the data? What technology should I actually buy? To help answer these questions we’ve got five training technologies that will help give context to your rides, improve your performance and best your training buddies.
SRAM Quarq Power Meters
Power meters provide you with the most accurate measure of performance, providing instant feedback on the amount of output it takes to propel the bike forward. SRAM’s Quarq power meters are cranksets for both mountain and road bikes, compatible across all SRAM component groups. The ANT+ wireless technology makes it easy to connect with your existing ANT+ computer, the battery is replaceable sans tools, and +/-2% accuracy of data ensures it is counting every watt.
Garmin Edge 510
These days, big data comes in small packages. The Garmin 510 is compact, light and loaded with features that make for a great partner on epic rides in the woods. Past Garmin devices have been slow to find the satellite and lock in the signal — mildly annoying if you like to capture every tire rotation, but even more of a problem when you are in the backcountry where a dropped connection can mean lots of lost data (or actually getting lost). To solve this problem the 510 supports GLONASS satellites for improved connectivity in wooded areas, and live tracking, which allows for real time tracking of your rides or races (letting your better half see that you will not actually be home when you promised). The Bluetooth and Ant+ connectivity makes this a great device for tracking heart rate, speed and power data as well.
To help make sense of the masses of training data and technology available to collect it, we took a ride on a sunny afternoon around Louisville, CO with Jared Berg, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and Pro-Level Mountain Bike Racer. Between conversations about bikes, tubeless wheel sets and gluten-free IPAs (while secretly battling for KOMs), Berg offered his wisdom on the role of data and technology in training.
Gear Patrol: What should I measure?
Jared Berg: As a coach, I really like to start by understanding my athlete’s racing plans, historical data and fitness benchmarks. To really understand your fitness baselines I highly recommend having some physiological testing done. This is not something for only the pros. A well-equipped laboratory will be capable of administrating all of these tests and analyzing the data to give you applicable information to bring to your training.
GP: What would this test actually tell you as an athlete?
JB: The exercise metabolic rate analysis can tell that you burn 600 calories from carbohydrates and 200 calories from fat at your goal 100-mile race pace. As a coach I would take these insights and either reconsider your 100 mile pace, change your training or nutrition to enforce a shift in your fuel utilization, or eat more carbs in your training and racing to avoid the big bonk.
GP: Now that we have all this new benchmark data, what do we do with it?
JB: The first step is to sit with your coach and design a training plan with this data in mind. If your training program or coach suggests you ride in a certain zone, you will now know the exact wattage to pedal in order to be in that zone. In some cases your suggested heart rate may match your suggested wattage, or it may not. A high heart rate may be an indicator of your reaction to the environment, whether you are hydrated or well rested, or if you are lacking the muscular and cardiovascular endurance to hold the effort. One key way to tell if you are gaining fitness is when your heart rate is consistently measuring under where your testing suggests it should be in a specific zone.
It’s one thing to say you crushed it on a ride and another thing to earn the KOM badge on a segment. Strava is a mobile app for iPhone and Android that does all the basics of a GPS-enabled cycling computer but with a layer of data visualization that would make Edward Tufte proud. Strava uses all of this data to “game-ify” your training by tapping into what we all want when we throw our legs over the top tube: to be faster, put out more watts and log more miles than our buddies. Strava overlays GPS data on what it calls segments or stretches of roads or trails and compares your data to others on a leaderboard. The premium subscription brings more filters to the ranking system, keeps track of weekly progress goals, and allows you to incorporate data from your heart rate monitor and power meter.
Have a bigger ambition than just snapping up KOMs from the guy across town? Training Peaks is a robust multi-screen training application that allows you to plan, monitor and analyze everything from your nutrition to your fitness levels. If you’re not sure where to start, you can select from a large library of training and nutrition plans for just about every cycling discipline, or pick from a database of over 2,500 coaches for a ever greater level of accountability — an ideal resource whether you’re just trying to improve your fitness or train for a century ride.
CycleOps PowerBeam Pro Trainer
Our preference is big blue skies and open roads, but the reality of training year-round is that sometimes you’ve got to ride indoors. The CycleOps PowerBeam Pro is a tier-1 trainer. At the $1,600 price it comes with Virtual Training software and the Joule GPS, which you don’t necessarily need if you’ve got another bike computer (but you do need if you want to take advantage of software’s full functionality).
That software is some next level stuff: By integrating Google Earth and GPS data, you can pedal with friends via the web on user-generated rides (many with video) or on routes that you create — a nice feature if you want to pre-ride a race or, say, simulate a haul from Mongolia to Bhutan. All your data is then accessible in the PowerAgent software for some post-race number crunching; you can ID the exact wattage and heart rate at which you destroyed your training partner during the final sprint to Thimpu. PowerAgent also lets you set parameters for future workouts that require you to stay within a preset power range. All in all, an expensive but valuable tool for serious training.
Dirk Shaw is a Senior Vice President at Ogilvy. His pursuit of two-wheeled adventure includes training for long distance mountain bike races, commuting to work and ripping through canyons on his Daytona. Follow Dirk’s musings about cycling on Tumblr or his blog for insights and observations on media @dirkmshaw.