It's no secret that power meters have fundamentally changed the way cyclists train, and why not?
Used correctly, they can be an incredible tool to guide your training, measure improvement, and help you delude yourself when you get dropped.
Still, if you’ve been around wattheads long enough in the cycling world, you tend to hear and see cyclists using power meters and data in ways that not only don’t serve them but make them look like clowns…
If you’re bristling already, I’d like to say upfront that while I’ll never make any cycling hall of fame, I’m definitely in the running for the watt-clown hall of fame, so before you drag me on this list, realize that I’m ripping on myself more than you.
The following list is not exhaustive, but if you follow it I assure you you’ll probably avoid watt-clownery for life.
1. Comparing your wattage with someone else's wattage.
The basic formula for this watt-clownery is as follows:
I should make up a law for it. Let's call it the Transitive Law of Wattage.
You should avoid making direct watt to watt comparisons for two major reasons:
First, though coaches rarely admit this, especially because athletes tend to equate their power numbers with a universal, or true power value, which is a critical mistake.
While this is slightly self-evident, power meters vary in accuracy to each other, and the differences are between the two are often enormous.
If you somehow wasted time rigging up your bike with every power meter known to man and then went and did a few different efforts you’d notice something after you downloaded your data – the power reading doesn’t match up!
Your SRM says your 20-minute power was 280. Your Stages? 310. Your old Powertap? 270. Your Garmin Vectors? Let’s not even mention what they said.
You notice something else – on your shorter efforts, like your 30-second effort, the power meters still don’t match, but they’re different in different ways. Now your SRM reads highest, at 500 watts, your Stages says 460, and your PowerTap splits the difference at 480.
What the hell is going on? Back up, because I'm about to say a word I can't pronounce:
What you’re witnessing is the heteroskadiscity of power meters. Not only do they not vary reliably from each other, but they vary at different rates at different powers.
Sweet baby Jesus.
But wait, it gets worse – there’s a second major reason you shouldn’t even directly compare your power meter with another power meter. Your own power meter isn’t even consistent with itself. You think if you go out and ride at 250 watts one day that the next day on the same power meter it would read 250 watts.
Depending on what you’re running, your power meter might read 230 watts or 258 watts. Or, if it’s precise, it may in fact read 249 watts, or 251 watts.
It’s hard to say. This little phenomenon is called precision, or how reliable your power readings your numbers are day to day. What we can say is, that power meters, even to themselves, aren’t as reliable as marketing would make you believe.
Not quite. Just because the numbers aren’t always reliable doesn’t mean there’s no value in them. What really matters is that your power meter is precise, meaning that if it’s reading 250 one day for an effort, it’s reading only slightly differently another day. As long as your power meter is precise, you can measure progression.
Sure, accuracy matters, but as long as it’s not reading 100 or 400 when it should be reading 250 you’re good.
Just take wattage readings from other people’s power meters and your own for what they are – low-resolution, imperfect estimates of wattage that you shouldn’t use as definitive proof of your superiority or worth.
2. Equating the split-second number you saw on your Garmin when you got dropped to how many watts you pushed.
Another sure-fire way to cement your reputation as a wattage-clown is to casually mention in mixed company how many watts you saw on your Garmin when you were getting dropped.
Unless your last name rhymes with fart, (Wout Van Aert, c’mon, keep up.) and you were racing in Strade Bianchi while on Mathieu Van Der Poel’s wheel, you weren’t.
I’m sure you saw it at least once. The thing is, you were only glancing at the 1-second recordings of your effort, not watching a rolling average of it. In reality, this is what was happening:
500, 500, 500, 200, 300, 500, 250, 300, 270, ...2 minutes later...250, 200, 210.
You saw 500. The average ended up being 287.
I know this might seem trivial, but I’ve seen this magical thinking work against an athlete because they’re certain in their mind that they can’t hang because their group in the CAT 3s are all aerobic monsters that can drop 500 watts for 3 minutes.
They’re not. They’re human too, you’re just mythologizing their fitness and erecting a completely unnecessary barrier to you believing you can hang with them if you keep training.
3. Chris Frooming your Z2 rides.
No kid grows up dreaming of emulating Chris Froome’s riding style. I’m not attacking Chris Froom’s accomplishments here – he’s one multiple grand tours and I’ve won…CAT 4 Mead Roubaix in 2012, which is basically the same thing.
What even his most ardent fans can agree on is that his riding style has never moved anyone to poetry. I mean, it’s awful. Sure, it’s fast, but he’s all cramped up on the bike, his long, frog-leg limbs whirring on a gear that would make Eddy Merckx sad, but most of all, his vision is glued to his stem.
He’s defended his stem staring by saying it helps him open up his lungs to suck in more oxygen.
Do you know the real reason he's staring at his stem?
Because he can see his watts. He stares at his stem because Team Sky worked out that if he weighs this much and puts out this much power eventually everyone would crack and he would win. Simple.
If that sounds gross and too formulaic, consider how you’d feel 3 weeks into a grand tour after summitting two mountain passes in pissing rain knowing you were going to have to absolutely kill yourself up this last climb with all the pressure of the world on your shoulders…
ou know if you just keep this number on your screen, you’ll win. The math doesn’t lie. Staring at his stem was his pacifier, his comfort against the chaos. He and every toddler have something in common, and can you blame him?
So if a multiple Grand Tour winner stares at his stem all day, why shouldn’t you?
Cyclists Zone 2 range is always broad and isn’t something so narrow you need to constantly check in on in order to stay within.
Physiologically, it’s actually better to let yourself float naturally between the bottom and top of Z2 rather than ‘chase the ceiling’ of it because you think if you ride at the top you’re ‘maxing out’ Z2 benefits.
You’re not – you’re actually doing something detrimental because you’re shifting the muscle fiber strain over to more type 2 fibers and encouraging your body to use a higher percentage of carbohydrates when the whole point of Z2 riding is to teach your body to burn more fat. Oops.
Moreover, if you’re staring at your stem the entire time when you don’t need to, you miss out on one of the best parts of riding in Z2, which is looking around.
Riding bikes is fun because you get to see the world, even if it’s on the same old roads on which you always ride. That doesn’t mean life hasn’t changed, that the leaves aren’t emerging, that you might see something new.
Don’t rob yourself of the chance for beauty because you think seeing the second by second reading of your power in Z2 is so important.
4. Thinking the watts you held on your Strava PR means you'll win.
Another common watt-clown move is thinking that a lengthy Strava-PR with king kong wattage means that you will just walk away from everyone in your next race.
How does this go down? It’s an easy process:
Why is this thinking flawed?
For one, few races are time trials – they usually involve lots of other racers. Do you know what’s stronger than 1 person riding really hard for X number of minutes? 60 people riding really hard for X number of minutes.
Of course, there are exceptions. If it’s a hill climb, sure, the watts you put out might give you warranted confidence that you’re going to win. Or maybe the watts you put out are so extreme that it will easily overwhelm everyone in your category. There’s a name for that – it’s called sandbagging.
For nearly every other example, the perfect, utopian effort you produced in training, while impressive, doesn’t translate one to one in races, because races are messy.
In all likelihood, you’re racing in a category of similarly matched individuals, and even if you’re the strongest, it doesn’t take more than few other racers who are slightly less strong to work together and shatter your dreams, especially if you use your energy poorly, don’t eat enough, and have the tactical nous of a two-by-four.
Believe me, I would know – I’m famous for it.
5. Racing by Power.
People train with power and they like to race with power, and I really can’t blame them. Racing files provide invaluable data to inform training. That said, the best thing you can do in a race is to switch out your data fields and hide your power output.
But, but, But
Seriously. Data is great, but once you’re in the race, you should be working on developing a race feel. You need to be able to look around and ahead of you, anticipate obstacles, find the best line spot to draft in the washing machine of the peloton and anticipate attacks.
All of which you won't do as well if you're staring at your stem.
Because cycling training is so watt-focused, athletes forget that there is an art to racing and that art involves moving through the peloton the most economically and using the power you do have at the right moments.
I’m sure you’ve ridden with people who you can regularly drop in training but continually get beaten by in races. How is this so? It’s probably because their pack craft and tactics give them a better edge than the cyclist hanging out just outside the draft frothing at the mouth to drop an All-time power five minute effort 40 wheels back.
5 (heh.) - Thinking Watts are a turn on.
I’ve run in cycling circles for a long time and spent quite a few nights at a local German bar trying to drink my weight in Pilsner, but despite that, my ears still worked, and I could hear my buddies chatting up some smoke show on the side of the bar and suddenly dropping this line.
For the love of God and all that is holy don't reference your watts as a pickup line.
Do you want to know what would have happened if I said that to my wife when we first met?
No romantic prospect wants to hear how many watts you can put out. You’d be better off talking about all your exes and admitting you have a ‘thing’ for your first cousin.
Referencing watts to attract the opposite fails for 3 reasons: