by Kevin E.
The great Eddy Merckx once said “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.” For the most part, his words still ring true. Fitness and skill will almost always trump equipment when it comes to all-out speed.
But if there’s any piece of equipment that will measurably improve your fitness, its a power meter. It is perhaps the most effective upgrade to help you ride up grades.
Now is a great time to make the jump to a power meter. They’re more accessible and affordable than ever! Just a few short years ago, you couldn’t get near a power meter for less than $1500. Today, you can get a proper power meter for half that. You’ve also probably noticed that you’re positively swimming in options, and you’re left with more questions than answers. What’s the best place for my power meter? What kind of data will I get? What does all that data actually mean? How does it help me?
This handy guide will help answer at least some of those questions. Here we’ll break down the bevy of devices available to you and what kind of data you’ll get from them. As far as what the data means and how it will help you be a better rider, you might consider getting some outside help from a USA Cycling Certified Cycling Coach.
So What Is A Power Meter Anyway?
Before we delve into which power meter to buy, you might be asking “What is this voodoo device, and why should I get one?”
The short answer: A power meter measures the energy you’re putting into your pedals to move forward. If you want the most accurate way to determine, track, and improve your cycling fitness, this is it.
The long(ish) answer: A power meter uses electronic devices called strain gauges to measure the deflection of a torque tube to determine how much force is being applied to it and calculates a power value, in watts, based on a pre-programmed algorithm that basically boils down to force x distance / time = power.
Unlike a heart rate monitor that measures your body’s response to your effort, a power meter directly measures the force you’re applying to the drivetrain of your bicycle and eliminates or corrects for outside variables like temperature, humidity, and aerobic fitness. A watt is a watt, no matter who its coming from or what day it is.
Speaking of who its coming from, check out the power data from pro rider/reigning world champ Michael Kwiatkovski’s win at the 2014 UCI World Championships. For a frame of reference, the average enthusiast cyclist (aka mere mortals like you and I) can sustain ~150-180 watts for an hour. Keep that figure in mind as you read.
Where Should I Put It?
A power meter can be placed at nearly any point along the drivetrain of your bicycle, but the most common applications are at the crank, rear hub, or at the pedals. As far as which is best, that really depends on your individual needs (more on that later). As far as what will provide the most accurate data, the industry has pretty much settled on a 1-2% accuracy rating. So no matter where you put it, most direct-force power meters will reliably produce power numbers within 1-2% of the fabled “actual value”.
Why do they cost so much?
Strain gauges, the heart and soul of a power meter, are finely tuned electronic devices that require precision manufacturing and calibration to ensure that 1-2% accuracy users demand. Hence, good ones aren’t cheap to make. Yes, you will read many an internet forum post explaining how manufacturers are robbing you because strain gauges cost pennies to make. They aren’t wrong. There are cheap strain gauges out there, but those inferior units aren’t the ones going into power meters from Quarq, PowerTap, etc.
So Which One Should I Get?
As mentioned above, the power meter you choose will depend on your individual needs.
Before selecting a power meter, you should ask yourself a few key questions:
- Do you own multiple bikes? Do you want a power meter on all of them?
- How often do you change your bike’s setup? (Wheels, gearing, etc.)
- What cycling computer do you use? (Garmin, Smartphone, etc.)
- What data do you want to see?
When you’ve got your answers, tune in to Part II where we’ll highlight a few models to put on your short list, now updated for 2016!