Power by Pioneer

Power by Pioneer

That could have been the tag line for a line of stereo amplifiers in the 1970s, when Pioneer was one of the kings of the home audio market. How times change. If you’d asked me to guess who from the home electronics market might start producing a wattage meter for cyclists, I’d have maybe guessed Sony or Samsung, but certainly not Pioneer.

For those who actually concern themselves with quantifying their cycling, the first thing you need to understand is that you only need two numbers, provided they are the right two numbers. You need time. Your body understands time. And it understands work, or effort. You can do away with current speed, average speed, heart rate, and scads of other figures that we’ve all geeked out to at some point. Honestly, I still love gradient. Even so, when it comes to looking at how hard I am working, wattage tells far more than anything else.

But holy hell, did Pioneer jump in. Seriously, they could have done a simple wattage meter and left it at that. But nooooo. They created meters for both the left and right cranks, a proprietary head unit and their own web site to crunch the numbers. This isn’t so much whole hog as entire farm. And except for the 1990’s-era Netscape look of Cyclo-Sphere, the site works very well.

Cyclo-Sphere gives a pretty full accounting of a ride. There’s a window that gives each of a ride’s final stats, from average speed, to elapsed time, elevation gain, average cadence, max gradient—you get the idea. There’s a map of the ride, a histogram showing the bell curve of your power distribution, a line graph that will allow you to follow things like speed, wattage, altitude or heart rate and will show your position on the map as place your cursor on the graph. There’s also an MMP graph that will show your power curve from 1 second up to 180 minutes. In all, there are seven windows that will allow for plenty of navel gazing. And yes, you can use Cyclo-Sphere with other computers, such as Garmin and Lezyne; you aren’t tied to the Pioneer.

I began my investigation with just the left crank arm. The left arm is available for either Dura-Ace ($899) or Ultegra ($799); sorry, no Campy, no SRAM (yet). It adds but a measly 22 grams to the arm. The Ultegra is available in four lengths: 165, 170, 172.5 and 175mm, while the Dura-Ace is available in seven lengths, from 165 to 180mm in 2.5mm increments.

Here’s the remarkable thing: While, yes, Pioneer offers their own head unit, because these wattage meters use ANT+ for communication, you can pair this with your Garmin, Wahoo Rflkt+ or Lezyne computer. You don’t immediately have to invest in the computer as well, unless, of course, you don’t have one. At this level, the Pioneer unit is largely indistinguishable from the Stages unit. What’s different is that with Pioneer, you can add the right crank, and begin to analyze your pedal stroke and find out if you have a leg strength imbalance, something that is well-documented in me. Pioneer also claims to measure force more often through the pedal stroke, taking readings 12 times per revolution.

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I’m not going to get into the fight over whose unit is most accurate. I don’t think it’s relevant at this price point. Manufacturers of wattage meters spend too much time fighting over whose unit is more accurate; and it may be that +/- 1 percent accuracy is important if you’re targeting interval training at your lactate threshold. But for us mortals a +/- 2 percent accuracy rate will not do you a disservice.

For people adopting a wattage meter for the first time, what’s most important is just getting wattage data. You need a reliable baseline. What’s most revelatory when you start looking at your power numbers are the incredibly long periods of time when you’re not doing much work at all while hiding inside a group. Sure, you may be going fast, but thanks to that draft, even though it feels like you’re going reasonably hard, it can be a shock to the ego and look down only to see you’re producing 115 watts.

What makes me scratch my head is that the way Pioneer is marketing their power meter, you’d think you needed to buy both the left and right cranks, plus the computer. That’s a big investment. It’s also not necessary. What strikes me as this system’s greatest advantage is the fact that you can get started (relatively) inexpensively and add on over time. No other system permits that. Cost has traditionally been the biggest barrier to entry for wattage and Pioneer has short-circuited that buy-in. Now they need to advertise it.

Final thought: adding a wattage meter to your training is like moving from a sun dial to a clock.

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5 comments

  1. Andrew

    But here’s the question, Padraig- are you actually using the power figures to help you train, or just going “cool, 115 w in the pack”. I use power inside, because it’s so dull, but I’m not quite sure what I’d do with power outside.

    1. phaedrus

      I imagine indoor power use might help ease the tedium, but outdoor power is extremely helpful in racing. With my race power numbers I can see where I should have made better choices about attacks, being on the front, or when to sit in and wait.

      With my outdoor numbers I’ve been able to see why I always get second or third in a 20 second or less sprint, but I can win if I make my move with a full minute to go. I’ve been able to expose my weaknesses and work on them. Inside, all I see is a number to hit. Outside, I have my numbers combined with a result that gives the numbers real world meaning.

      Padraig’s review of Cyclo-Sphere almost makes me want to try it, but Golden Cheetah is so wonderful, I can’t imagine a switch.

    2. donncha

      While power isn’t much use in a group ride, recording your power output is useful, both in a race as already described so you can analyse afterwards to see when and how you got dropped, but also just on all your rides so you can use the TSS value to produce the PMC chart allowing you to monitor your fatigue/fitness.
      If you do intervals outside, power is also extremely useful.

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