Lowdown: Is technology the way forward? Ex-rider and coach Lee Rodgers thinks not and, surprisingly, he agrees with Taylor Phinney's latest stance on the World of pro cycling that is becoming "analytical and a wattage-based sport". Power meters are a tool not a rule!
"Dude, five races in a row now, you are doing my head in."
"Past five races, last 4 or 5km, when I need you, you disappear and then trail in a minute down! What’s going on?"
"It’s my heart rate monitor. Last 5km it starts going nuts, I can’t go that high, it freaks me out! I might have a heart attack!"
This is me talking to a new teammate after a stage in the Tour of Taiwan 4 years ago. He was not over 60 nor did he have a pre-existing heart condition. He didn’t even have asthma (so I guess he was never going to win a Grand Tour, chuckle). He was in fact 24 years young and one of Taiwan’s top climbing talents, 54kg when wet and whipped cut lean as a butcher’s dog’s stripped bare T-bone steak bone.
"Chief," I said to him, "if I raced with a heart rate monitor - and remember I’m f*****g 40 years old - I’d have to stop 3 kilometers after the start. Take the bloody thing off!"
He did. And guess what? Next day he was right there in front of me, leading me in safely over the line.
Froome leads Wiggins safely
You know those stories of women overturning their car on the high way, when they get out but their kid’s trapped inside and the engine is on fire, but their kid strapped in the baby seat, and somehow - as if possessed of Herculean strength - they manage to lift the vehicle?
Well, it’s not urban myth, it is in fact a well documented occurrence.
It’s known as ‘hysterical strength’, when the adrenal gland goes into Hulk mode and kicks out enough of its junk to propel an otherwise normal human being to achieve the impossible. (Cue the EPO jokes).
Speaking of the Hulk, it was witnessing a woman lifting a car up that inspired the artist Jack Kirby to invent the green monster in the first place.
Peter Sagan - 'The Hulk'
Which brings me to Taylor Phinney and power meters, in now what feels like an uneasy segue but actually isn’t. Regular readers of my PEZ column will know that I rarely agree with the drivel that escapes the mouths of most professional cyclists but, I have to say, Phinney talks a lot of sense - so much that, often I have to check to see if he is not an apparition from another, more enlightened dimension.
This is what he had to say recently about power meters: "We're in this place in the sport where it's like 'watts, watts, watts, go up to altitude, boom, boom, boom'. But it's like hold on, why? Tell me why. No one tells you why."
"So many kids get burned out in this sport because you throw them into this pressure cooker of numbers that completely takes people away from the sense of actually riding a bike."
Amen brother! Keep it coming! And he did.
"Where do you go from this wild, analytical, wattage-based sport that didn't exist 15 years ago?" he asked. "For me it's mindfulness, being present, actually understanding what the fuck you're doing. You have to bring it back to a sensory experience at some point, otherwise we're just going to be like robots."
"If you keep on with this trend, it's like a human that doesn't think, doesn't process anything, like a hamster on a wheel, you just set him and he goes, like a video game. But cycling is the most beautifully sensory experience you can have as a human. Like, you're flying, you're levitating, riding on two wheels magically balancing, going up and down mountains, you can ride for like 12 hours and still keep going. That's the heart and soul of cycling - not the numbers. It has to keep coming back to that.”
Taylor has the right idea
As a coach, I get many a rider new to the sport, a year or even less deep, asking me if they need to buy a power meter. ‘No’ is my answer. First, just ride, and follow the plan. Then consider upgrading the wheels, the most important component of your bike. Then consider a bike fit from a reputable fitter. And then ride some more. And then, once you’ve established a connection between your body and your mind - the body being the most reliable ‘computer’ you can possibly hope to have a truly viable relationship with - then, maybe, consider a power meter.
Those of you who live and die by your numbers will be shaking your heads at this, but bear with me. A power meter is a potentially valuable tool in making you a better rider. It does indeed have its place. Yet, for one thing, many never use it in a way that will deliver tangible improvements in power and speed, never mind a better understanding of what they, as a rider, are truly capable of.
Why? Because a lot of people who fork of $1000 of more for this piece of kit will be buying it simply because they think that to have it on their bikes means they are ‘more pro’. To get close to making this a sound purchase, you either need a coach worth his or her salt or to be a rider who can first make sense of the numbers and, crucially, know when to ride by watts and when not to.
This brings us to the second point. A power meter needs to be viewed as a guide rather than as an oracle. Few riders can use it daily and realize their full potential, because riding every ride by numbers is ultimately limiting.
Do you think that if the woman who inspired The Hulk had been using a power meter, she’d have been able to lift that car? ‘Sorry kid, I’m on 450 watts, can’t go over.’
The numbers should be used to guide the rider when needed, but should be turned off at times too. Only then, in the cut and thrust of a race or a hill climb training session to exhaustion, forced ever upwards by an imaginary truck full of ISIS fighters - or Trump supporters - behind you, can the rider exceed all expectations, all imagined limits, and indeed all the numbers - can we break through to new ground.
So yes, I do welcome new coaching clients who use power, but for the first 6 weeks I ask them to turn off the numbers and ride on ‘feel’, because I want them to re-establish the connection between the legs and the head. Then, if they want, we phase in two or three ‘power’ rides a week. However, the number of riders who used power meters before they came to me and then gave them up is high. It’s not something magical or groundbreaking - it’s just that the way that they used the watt reading previously was limiting them, denying them breakthroughs. All our lives we hear the phrase ‘you can’t do this’ - at home, at school, through test results, at work, and now with power meters - well, screw that.
Embrace the impossible. Because you can.
Taylor, spot on mate...
One power meter would be enough
Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.