When I first got into biking I made the mistake all amateurs do: When I came across a hill I would power up it to keep my speed. If I approached a hill at 16 mph, I would try and maintain that speed until the top and coast down.
One day a riding partner asked me why I was struggling so hard to maintain speed to get up the hills, rather than staying steady. He thought I was using too much power.
“You’re pushing more than 200 watts up this hill, and that’s too much for this ride!” he warned.
“What’s a watt?” I asked in return.
Power, the rate at which energy is used, is measured in watts, he told me. Whether you’re riding into a headwind or up a hill, the ability to maintain consistency and equal power is critical. Many cyclists are using power and looking at their watts to find that consistency and optimize training.
For a long time cyclists were using their miles per hour or heart rate to measure their performance. But that wasn’t as effective as they thought.
“Heart rate monitors aren’t as useful as power meters when it comes to measuring performance,” said Alex Tweedie, founder of Roscoe Village Bikes, located at 2016 W. Roscoe St. “Heart rate lags, and isn’t as good an indication of how much energy you’re using.”
Instead, athletes like Greg LeMond began using devices measuring power output in the 1980s and 1990s, says Tweedie; energy that’s measured in watts shows the intensity of your work in that exact moment, which provides a huge benefit to cyclists.
How many watts are “normal”?
A Tour de France rider will average 200-300 watts for a four-hour stage, writes Joe Lindsey in his article “Guide to Power Meter Metrics,” but that’s more than an amateur cyclist, like myself, can maintain.
Wattage is purely individual, says Tweedie. To find out your own power output, Tweedie recommends cyclists set up a trainer indoors and take a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test, which will tell a rider the average maximal power they are capable of sustaining for one hour.
The stronger you become as a cyclist, the higher your power output becomes and your wattage can change. If you held 200 watts for two hours one month and then rode 212 watts for two hours the next month, there has been obvious improvement.
Common means of measurement
There are a few ways for cyclists to measure power. According to Tweedie, the most common include a rear wheel hub, a crank based option and pedals.
Pedals that measure power can be easily swapped from bike to bike, convenient for cyclists going from road to cross to mountain bike, says Tweedie. While some devices measure both legs, others measure one.
A big differentiating factor between the options is the price. The cost of these devices can range from $500 to $1300 and higher, so it’s all about finding the option that works best for the athlete.
Whether you’re an amateur cyclist or a long-time rider, power meters can prove to be beneficial in reaching your training goals.