Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange toyed with format, teams, bikes and more all the time and his spirit lives on the annual suggestions after the Tour de France to make changes to the race and the sport as a whole. His successor Christian Prudhomme says power meters should be banned in racing.
But there’s a risk with the logical fallacy that “something must be done, here’s something, we must do it”. Banning the use of power meters sounds useful but probably isn’t and above all we should be wary of quick solutions.
What is a powermeter?
A device to measure the power produced in a given moment by a rider. It’s a set of strain gauges, typically on the cranks but it can be on the pedals or the rear hub and these measure the forces applied and, via an algorithm and a radio signal, send the number to the rider’s bike computer. These devices are imperfect, the best on the market have a claimed accuracy rate of +/- 1.5% which means if you are pushing 400 watts you could equally be 394W or 406W and that accuracy is under controlled conditions, on the side of the mountain when you calibrated the device hours ago things could be further off still.
Why the calls to ban them?
The idea is that riders are looking down at their displays and riding to prescribed power, that they have a known threshold and don’t want to cross this. This can make racing boring as riders produce steady, linear efforts up mountain passes. Banning them could see riders going on instinct which might encourage more attacks, it could lead to others to unwillingly go into the red and crack and both of these things could make the racing more unpredictable, more lively.
It sounds reasonable only there are two problems. First riders don’t ride to power as much as people may think. I can’t find the quote from last year’s Giro but on his way to winning it Tom Dumoulin said he didn’t bother looking much, it was more for his coaches and managers to read afterwards. If Dumoulin isn’t big on power then think for a minute because he’s the prototype rider who sticks to tempo rather than responds to attacks. You might remember his quote from the Bergen Worlds last year where he thought his power meter was broken because he was riding so fast, a phrase which again suggests he was going as fast as he felt he could rather than being enslaved to the LCD display on his bars. This is typical of many other riders who learn to trust their legs rather than a power meter. It can be helpful to glance down and check from time to time but in the context of a race riders will probably find heart rate as useful and above all the feeling of effort matters and this is something that experienced riders learn. You don’t need a screen to announce you’re riding at your threshold.
- One additional factor behind the clamour to ban could be Chris Froome and his awkward style when racing hard uphill. He appears to be looking down at his bike computer all the time. Only he says he’s not, “for some reason I feel when I look down I’m able to breathe a lot easier” he told Cycling Weekly.
Second, if the premise of riders riding like robots to pre-set power is false but you’re still not convinced then the second reason is because the the genie is out of the bottle. If we can calculate to a high accuracy the power of a rider by timing them on a climb then we can do the reverse. A team can derive what speed up a climb is appropriate for a given wattage. Vertical gain, often called VAM, could be used too. So riders or their coaches can work out a suitable pace for the day’s climbs during a mountain stage anyway.
It’s this second aspect that has probably done more to change tactics. It’s obvious that we can ride fast for short periods but for longer efforts the intensity can’t be sustained. A child riding in a park learns this and it has been essential to team tactics. The likes of Jacques Anquetil relied on pacing themselves over half a century ago. This has gone from art towards science with the advent of the power duration curve. Log enough rides and races and a chart builds up of a rider’s power over time, like the illustration example. Get rid of power meters and you don’t get rid of this acquired knowledge, just one means to visualise this… but again there’s speed/time, VAM and above all feeling. The knowledge that riding at a high steady tempo is quicker than going slower and responding to attacks will survive any rule changes.
Lastly if it’s a probably false premise, and if banning them wouldn’t stop steady tempo riding, then there’s a final bone to pick. Prudhomme says ban them, UCI President David Lappartient is more nuanced, telling Swiss newspaper Le Temps “we should analyse everything” but told Sud-Ouest, a French newspaper, that he wants to see them used for collecting data but not to allow riders to see their watts in real time. If I’ve suggested above that a ban probably wouldn’t make much difference it’d be good to test, to see some data on this, even some anecdotes. Only those who call for bans don’t seem to be saying “I’d be interested in testing this across several races in the season and learning what the outcome is“, they seem prejudiced from the off. This isn’t just in cycling but in all sorts of fields, take politics for example. People, be they sports officials or politicians, can be acting on good faith but all the same wouldn’t it be superior to act on evidence?
Ban power meters? We could but whether we should is another matter. Riders don’t use them as much as people think and there are other ways to set the pace up a long climb. A real concern is how some want to act first without testing. The only way to settle it is to have some trials, in particular races or for some stages in a race but don’t be surprised if the simple solution doesn’t change that much.