How Analysis in Cycling Went Mainstream

Look at the picture below. It’s from the Tour de France in 2007. What do you see? If you are not a cycling fan you may not know that this picture is from 14 years ago, it may look more modern. But there are some clear giveaways here which show just how far cycling has come.

A picture from the 2007 Tour de France in the UK

For starters, the best bikes in the world just 14 years ago would likely be rejected as not an upgrade for most hobby cyclists. Look at the tangle of cables at the front of the bike. They would all be threaded through the handlebars to reduce drag. Those ultra-narrow tyres, barely over 2cm, have grown by almost 50%. Research has shown that wider tyres, contrary to expected wisdom, actually offer better rolling resistance than the narrow tyres of the past. Modern bikes are smooth beasts. Everything that can be integrated is integrated to allow air to flow smoothly past it. In 2007 they were all angles and drag causing components.

It’s not just the bikes though. The riders have changed what they wear as well. Now pretty much all riders, for all races, wear skinsuits; one-piece outfits with the shorts stitched into the jersey. The time saving is minimal, just 1% compared to separate jerseys and shorts. But every little helps when you are racing almost 4,000km in three weeks. Helmets have moved from just something light that protects you in a fall to an aerodynamic battleground. Again, savings are minimal, but can be 40 seconds over a 40km ride.

One thing you definitely won’t have noticed is the presence, or lack, of power meters. A power meter is now on the bike of every pro and very many semi-pros. This article will investigate how cycling became the first sport to embrace mainstream analysis.

First of all though, what is a power a meter? A power meter measures the number of watts a cyclist is producing. This is crucial because power is the only true measure of a cyclist’s ability. Speed is influenced by so many external factors. Heart rate, once seen as the best measure, is also open to fluctuations caused by factors other than fitness. That leaves us with wattage, basically, how hard am I pressing on the pedals and how quickly am I turning them? The great thing is I could do 400W on an old steel framed city bike or a £20k race bike, the effort is still the same, although the speed would be different.

Using power allows you to monitor your fitness and workload, as well as pace yourself during a long climb or a time trial. Coaches will often set training sessions where their riders need to hit a certain number of watts for a certain number of minutes. These will recreate the realities of a bike race using data gathered, you got it, from a power meter.  I have been a power meter user for just over two years now and for me the main benefits have been psychological. Ridden up a hill is always horrible and one of the problems is knowing how hard you can sustainably go. Over time you get better at pacing but the power meter makes it incredibly easy. I can ride at around 280w for an hour or 300w for 20 minutes. During a group ride last summer the pace was high. I am usually confident that I can stay with the front group but it seemed hard and I was drifting back. I check my bike computer to see I was doing 335w, not sustainable for the 18 minutes or so of climbing left. I also knew this wasn’t sustainable for anyone else though. Rather than staying with the tempo I rode my own pace, catching and passing the pace setters near the top. Then on the summer evening rides when you are just having fun you can let the power data be collected in the background and go at your own speed, carefree about running into the red.

An example of the analysis software many amateurs, including me, use. This one is Training Peaks

Then there is the benefit of removing weather conditions. I live in West Yorkshire where riding difficulty tends to be dictated by wind speeds. Many of the climbs I train on are subject to the wind. That means that times on climbs can be especially unreliable as a measure of form. But a power meter doesn’t have that issue. If my best power for a climb is 366w then that is what I am aiming for. If I hit 366w it is a success, even if a headwind added 20 seconds onto my best time.

Prior to 1986, power could only be measured through lab tests. A professional cyclist might have two sessions a year to see how they had improved, many did not. In 1986, Ulrich Schoberer set-up SRM, the early leader in power technology, and created the first on-bike power measurer. The costs were high, the downsides many, and the demand low.

Schoberer persisted and in 1991 the German national team had a training camp where their bikes were fitted with SRM technology. It wouldn’t be fair to say that power meter technology took off immediately, but it began to increase in popularity. Tour de France winner Greg Lemond was a huge fan, even going so far as to admit that if had embraced it earlier he would have won more races.

This isn’t an article about how professional riders have embraced the power meter though. Most professional sports have analysis methods which have never filtered down to the amateur ranks. Field sports have GPS units which, with a tiny number of exceptions, aren’t used at the amateur level for example. This is an article about how power meters became the first analysis device to make the step into the mainstream.

Throughout the 90s more race wins came on SRM kitted bikes but the technology was still relatively unheard of. Cycling was an incredibly insular and unadventurous sport. Almost every race took place in Europe. There were some Australian and American racers but the vast majority came from one of France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, or the Netherlands. That all changed in the mid-00s. Cycling reached its low point when both the 2006 and 2007 Tours de France were impacted significantly by doping. Cycling responded by going global.

A season used to start in February with races on the French Riviera, now they started in Australia, Qatar, or Argentina in January. Then they would go all the way through to November with races in China and Japan. Trips to Dubai, California, Colombia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia would all be thrown in over the years. The riders became more diverse as well. A wave of south Americans swept in, followed by East Africans, and Antipodeans.

The new thinking and ideas proved fertile ground for power meters. Instead of being an unusual and weird accessory, they were expected. Since around 2012, when Team Sky further popularised a scientific approach, the number of power meters in the professional peloton has shot up. I would be shocked if there are any professional riders currently who don’t at the very least train with power meter.

Cycling as a recreational activity underwent a paradigm shift around 2010. Prior to that it had largely been seen as a sport for poor Europeans. There were very few women cycling and the sport was a long way from the mainstream. According to cyclinguk.org the number of people cycling in the UK stayed pretty much static between 1993 and 2007 before increasing by 50% to 2019, and further still in 2020 with the lockdown. A big reason for that drive was the rise of the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). These were the people who would previously have spent their time on golf courses but were now spending it on the roads. As cycling has increased the numbers playing golf have fallen. Those MAMILs brought with them the cash they would previously have spent on sets of irons and memberships and began spending it on bikes and gear.

In those ten years the demographics of cycling have completely changed. Between 2013 and 2020 one million more women cycle on a regular basis in the UK. Cycling is also more ethnically diverse, although more work is still needed, partly driven by a slightly more diverse professional peloton, although cycling remains exceedingly white.

Those MAMILs, and their well stuffed wallets, were looking for opportunities to spend their cash and the firms were happy to oblige. More and more bikes were released which fell into the £4,000 – £7,000 price bracket. Clothing companies like Rapha or Assos began selling jackets for over £300 with shoe companies like Sidi or Mavic matching them.

When bike brands began to run out of people to sell their bikes to they began inventing new forms of cycling. Gravel riding was something which was done by people on mountain bikes or on cyclocross bikes, basically road bikes with concessions to rough riding, but now a gravel bike was a thing. Endurance bikes were sold for long trips with aero bikes for racing or going quick around local roads. Then climbing bikes were introduced for anyone who lived within riding distance of bridge. Knowing that the market of rich people with disposable income who liked cycling was finite, bike companies began selling to them again and again and again.

Professional riders like Alex Dowsett have been more than happy to share their power data on social media. That has been a key factor in getting more amateurs using the technology.

The power meter was just another part of this expansion. This was helped by a reduction in costs. When SRM was the only producer the power meters could often cost as much as the bike itself. Even today, an SRM power meter will set you back around £3,500. But newer brands began flooding the market, they were offering the same product but for under £1,000, some were even under £500. That was the first step.

The second step was that wattage, and using it to improve your cycling, became a much bigger part of the language of cycling. GCN, a YouTube channel set-up in 2013 which now has over two million subscribers, frequently talked about power during their segments. Bike adverts, and reviews, would talk about how a new bike save 40w compared to the previous model. The power meter became the must have, and people went and got it.

Strava, the popular social media site that allows users to upload their exercise shows just how common power meters are. Users who have ridden a Strava segment, basically a short loop, climb, or section of road, using power meters have a small lightning bolt next to their results. For Richmond Park in London a massive 19 of the top 25 riders, none of who are pros, rode the segment with a power meter. On Box Hill, the cycling Mecca of South East England, 17 of the top 25 used a power meter.

Analysis is growing rapidly but rarely is it practiced by amateurs. The power meter allowed riders to do their own analysis and then software like Training Peaks and Strava provided the technology to help. In doing so it provided a blueprint for other technologies, maybe like the GPS tech we spoke about earlier, to move into the mainstream.

As analysts, or people interested in analysis, we are regularly told that our interests are niche. In most cases that is true. That isn’t the case in cycling. Cycling has been a rare example where analysis is no longer niche. Under the right circumstances, analysis can just become part of the everyday, even for amateurs. What it definitely proves is there is a market out there and if you build it, in time, they will come.

sam.rhys.larner

sam.rhys.larner