Just Add Power

Just Add Power

I am to disciplined training what politicians are to humor. My intersections with it at this stage of my life are almost entirely accidental. I ride as much as I’m able, but unless I’m on a Wahoo Kickr doing a Zwift workout, I don’t do timed intervals. That’s just not why I ride.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, I think we can all acknowledge that makes me either the best possible or worst possible advocate for using a power meter. I’m certainly not the ideal power user (pun definitely intended). You will, no doubt, get more out of the device if you’re doing periodic FTP (functional threshold power) tests and disciplined intervals. You also risk becoming a humorless obsessive (he says from vast personal experience).

Most riders I know are neither humorless nor obsessive, unless you count their love of riding as obsessive, and I think we can give that part a bye. And that’s why I might be the very best advocate for using a power meter there is. Even though I don’t do FTP tests or structured workouts, I still go plenty hard at certain times, but I’ll let the terrain dictate the length of that interval, or I’ll let me strength dictate it, because when I blow, I blow.

What I can say is that having a power meter is a fantastic education into what “hard” is. There have been so many times I thought I was going hard while working with a group only to realize that the only real training I was getting was when my nose was in the wind, and while that may seem beyond obvious, in the moment it can feel like you’re going plenty hard inside the group.

I’ve been using a Stages power meter for a while now and have become rather devoted to it. Indeed, I prefer riding a bike with one than without one. The model I’ve been using is the Stages Carbon SRAM Road GXP. At this point Stages offers a variety for every crankset I can think of. There must be a hole in there somewhere (oh! square taper, ha ha ha), but for people riding up-to-date bikes you can likely find whatever you need.

The Stages Carbon SRAM crank weighed in at a bantam 147 grams. The actual power meter only comprises 20g of the total weight. That’s an utterly irrelevant penalty. It comes in four lengths: 165, 170, 172.5 and 175mm. In the early days of carbon fiber cranks some were pretty twisty; you can feel flex at the pedals. Those days are long gone.

Only recently have bike computers enjoyed enough connectivity that you could purchase a Bluetooth-enabled power meter and simply pair it with your computer. With a device like the Wahoo Elemnt it’s easier than remembering the password for your Wifi router (no names mentioned). The import of this is that you can have power without dropping more than $1k on a system.

The unit I have retails for $629.99. They offer a variety of spindles, depending on your needs, for $70. Other units go for as little as $579.99 and there are some closeouts and cosmetic blems available for as little as $349.99.

Setup for Bluetooth use was as easy as with a heart rate monitor chest strap. Battery replacement is just as easy.

Stages has competitors that will decry their +/- 2 percent accuracy. If you’re a pro and need to target your FTP down to the last watt, sure, that could be a problem. After all, +/- 2 percent at 500 watts is a 20-watt range. My point is that having a wattage meter will fundamentally change your understanding of what hard is. The simple fact is if you spend more of your ride going hard, you’ll wind up more fit, and we can slice fitness in a bunch of ways: stronger, more efficient, lighter or greater endurance all among them. I’m not seeing any downsides.

Final thought: The difference between a compass and looking at your shadow.

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17 comments

  1. Andrew

    Interesting and timely. I have a crowd sourced crankarm power unit (ZWatt) coming in the mail from Scandinavia as I write. As an early contributor, it’s costing me around $150, so what the hell, right?

    I haven’t really figured out what i am going to do with it, or whether I should put it on my road bike or gravel bike. It’ll be fun playing around with it though. For inside riding in the winter, it should be great.

    1. Papuass

      I already received mine (I am in Europe), have not put it to good use, though.
      Note: You will pay about 100 more as maintenance fee, but still the price is good.

    2. Andrew

      It’s only 2 Euro per month, so about 84 Euro total. That’s not a bad total cost.

      Just installed it today. Works very well. I rode 160 km yesterday, though, so I was kicked today. I really didn’t have it in me to push the watts. It was interesting, though, to see how few watts were really required to maintain high speeds with a tailwind- it strikes me that one of the best uses of this is for energy conservation on long rides.

  2. Chuck

    Padraig – I have a Cyclops (now Powertap) pseudo power meter that calculates power with an algorithm via heart rate. As you would expect, the manufacturer claims it’s relatively accurate (but also acknowledges it’s not spot on accurate or as accurate as a true power meter that measures force). But since I’m like you, i.e., I don’t do FTP or structured workouts, I figured WTH? Plus it was free swag (is that redundant?) when my wife was working for a bike shop. So who cares if it’s not perfectly accurate? And as long as it’s consistently accurate, that’s probably what matters most. Yes, it does weird stuff every once in a while. Like power spikes of thousands of watts! And yesterday, my HRM decided that (after a rest stop and for the rest of the ride) my heart rate was a steady 240bpm with attendant power output readings. But overall, it seems to do what it claims, i.e., provide me with an accurate enough reading of my power over the course of a ride to know how much time I’m spending riding “hard” and something more than average speed to compare my riding from ride to ride. Not that I’m racing anymore or training for anything. Just riding to ride. So it’s not so much that I actually care or that it even matters, but it’s kinda fun to know.

  3. Bear

    I have a power meter (powertap GS3 hub) and use it all the time in a manner similar to Padraig, i.e. it’s a “effort meter” I look at it and see how hard (or not) I am working. Some days when I am on song, I can be motoring along a a great speed, feeling great, and see that I have been pulling 230 W for quite some time. Other days, I struggle into a head wind/perceived slope thinking I must be doing 300W and look down to see only 175 W!! I do some FTP and intervals, but only when I feel like it, and not to a plan. I also find that when I have done a good ride and come home tired, if I have manage to average 200 to 225 W for a 2 hours ride the numbers really motivate me to push harder/go further on the next ride. In addition 200 W for 2 hours is about 1400 C, so a good excuse for that extra glass of wine!

  4. Peter

    It’s not only accuracy – the Swiss study you guys referenced in the Paceline came down pretty hard on Stages for being inconsistent between uses (ie. it tells you 200 watts today and 210 watts tomorrow for the same effort).

    I really want to get a Stages for my MTB – going left side Stages only would basically future proof my chainline if I go from 135mm to 142mm or to 148mm, but if they can’t nail consistency, I’m hesitant to pull the trigger.

    1. Peter

      I really like Ray’s work and find it useful and informative, however, the Swiss Institute of Sport didn’t just cross measure devices but went further to test. For the record, I bought my current power meter (Powertap P1 pedals) on the strength of Ray’s review and recommendation.

      The Swiss folks found that Stages units and one from Quarq were basically inconsistent across devices (ie, same models) and between tests. Also – keep in mind, these are laboratory conditions without road vibration, changes in temperature, humidity, etc, all of which could potentially affect power meter readings further. Unfortunately, the published study doesn’t go into much detail about which specific models and how they were inaccurate and inconsistent – or how many units they tested, etc.

      I would really like to hear the companies respond to these studies and their criticism, since this wasn’t done by some guy on the internet or by a competitor, but rather published in a serious academic journal. I’ve heard interviews with Stages and Quarq people on podcasts from Velonews and Cyclingtips and the folks they interviewed sounded sincere in their effort to find some compromise between accuracy and consistency in all conditions while staying affordable. That said – I really think that such criticism, not intended to gain a competitive advantage or demean the company, deserves increased consideration both from consumers and from the manufacturers themselves.

  5. Mike E.

    I have Power2Max PMs on my two main bikes (road and gravel), and use it more or less the same way. It does really come in handy on long rides/events, or when in the mountains, where you want to make sure you aren’t going to hard too early when you have a long way to go or to make sure you are climbing within your limits.

    Now that I am mountain biking quite regularly again, I want to get a stages for that bike just so I can grab some actual metrics instead of trying to guestimate TSS based on similar other efforts.

  6. Bryin

    Buying a power meter is actually a measure of stupidity. If a person NEEDS a power meter one will be provided by their sponsor or National Federation. If no one is willing to provide you with a power meter than it is completely unnecessary.

    1. Bear

      You are welcome to your opinion, of course. But, do you own only the stuff you need (no need for shouting capitals on RKP!), and nothing that you just want? If you have anything but a base model groupset on a base frame, then you are probably not following your own mantra.

  7. KG

    I have a stages and so does my wife. Good luck.
    I’m on my 5th (through the warranty process) & my wife is currently talking with Stages about getting her 3rd.

    The combination of ANT+ failures, broken battery doors, drop outs during FTP tests, & batteries lasting just two days has left us wishing we’d spent our money on a product that actually worked. A few of our friends (on our racing team) have had similar issues, though none as bad as ours.

    I’m guessing my experience with stages is on the far right side of the curve, but certainly not entirely unique. It is extremely frustrating to analyze data after a 20 minute test to find that the power meter only worked for a random 15 minutes during said time. Or even worse – to find myself in a 3 man break in a race and hoping to use the power meter to control my efforts at the front, only to find that the Stages gods have turned against me as the power reads 0.

    1. Tim Guthrie

      I went through 3 stages power meters and 3 Garmins. Could not get the setup to work for more than 1 or 2 rides. The last 2 Garmins would not even stay on long enough to use after a few uses (yes that battery was charged). I gave up. My LBS said he hates this stuff.

  8. Chris

    Both my stages compare similarly in power to Power2Max and PowerTap, I don’t notice any of these showing me making more/less power than any of the others.

    My issue with Stages is that on rough descents it collects extremely high power spikes, up to 2300 watts of 1 to 3 seconds while cadence is 0 (I would think they could see I am not pedalling and ignore values being collected during this time). This makes all of the power graphs for the ride useless and overestimates the TSS for the ride by as much as 80 points on a five hour ride. It has been a problem since they first came out (I have a v1 on my MTB and v2 on my gravel bike, I know, stupid me for thinking it was better) and apparently it is not something they think should be fixed.

  9. Sean

    Patrick, as you pointed out – with a PM you really understand what hard or easy is when the number is right there.

    One area I’ve found these devices absolutely helpful is in pacing for longer events/rides. You can also compare HR or PE relative to power – HR and PE can go haywire for a large variety of reasons, but that PM tells you exactly how it is.

    I switch seamlessly between bikes with SRM on the mtb, Powertap on the Road and Stages on the CX.

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