Monday, December 23, 2013

Power Meters: A Brief History

Apparently, Power Meters are a really important accessory for any serious cyclist these days. But how did athletes from days gone by monitor their performance? Before power meters, heartrate monitors and cyclocomputers, the only real option was to train by feel. There wasn’t really any other way of quantifying your output or performance. 
If you were puffing a lot, then you were training hard; if you could maintain a conversation with your training partner then you were probably doing it fairly easy; and if you still could still roll, light and smoke your cigarette then you were definitely in the recovery zone.
As a cyclist way back in the 17th century, none of these modern training devices existed, in fact, bicycles didn’t even exist, so you would probably have had to endure running instead. If you were really serious about measuring your training performance then you might check the clock before you left home for your run and compare it to the time you got back to get an idea of how fast you were travelling.

Then, at some point in the mid-1600s, an invention came along that changed all that – the wristwatch. Now it was possible to tell the time while you were exercising without having to rig up some sort of unwieldy contraption. 
Before the wristwatch came about, training with the time required a significant commitment.

The wristwatch provided athletes with the ability to measure their performance by timing how long it took to cover particular routes (now known as segments) and thus quantify their performance. They could also compare their times to other athletes in order to see who was performing well. Unfortunately there was still no easy way of notifying the masses about your achievements. You basically had to use word of mouth or take out some (rather expensive) advertising space in the newspaper in order to spread the word of a new best time on your training route.
When bicycles appeared in the 19th century, the wristwatch, naturally, became an important training accessory for any serious cyclist.

As these watches continued to evolve, from mechanically-powered (spring) analogue devices to battery-powered digital electronic devices, there was still no way to easily measure the distance travelled on your bicycle without taking a trundle wheel out on your ride. Even with the trundle wheel securely attached to your bicycle, you still needed to manually count the number of clicks and then make a calculation in your head in order to determine the distance covered.
An early bicycle odometer.

It wasn’t until the invention of the first cyclocomputer or cyclometer, in 1895, that the trundle wheel was finally banished to the shed, once and for all, along with re-usable prophylactics and whatever people used prior to the invention of toilet paper.

The cyclometer basically worked the same way as the trundle wheel but was smaller, counted the number of revolutions of the actual bicycle wheel and was calibrated to display distance travelled so you didn’t need to make the calculation in your head. It wasn’t until the cyclometer was combined with the wristwatch in the mid 20th century that cyclists finally had available a device that could measure speed as well as distance.

For those interested in the history of cyclocomputers, there is a good collection at the Classic Bicycle Museum on Barinbridge Island near Seattle in the USA.

Despite this huge advancement in training technology, the cyclocomputer still provided no way of quantifying the output of the rider, only the output of the bicycle, so there were still limitations.

In 1977, the Finnish Cross Country Ski Team began training with the first wireless fingertip heart rate monitors, enabling athletes to target specific intensity levels for each mode of training. Although they did achieve some great results, it turns out that these were probably attributable to “other measures”.
As it turns out, the success of the Finnish XC Ski Team in the late 1970s was more likely due to a sophisticated doping program - detailed in the 2012 documentary Sinivalkoinen Valhe (When Heroes Lie) - rather than the Micro Heart Pulser.

But as cycling has continued to evolve, athletes and coaches have continued to demand more and more accurate and useful training tools. GPS-enable cycling computers allowed route-tracking, barometric pressure sensors provide altitude data and you can even connect your cyclocomputer to your mobile phone via Bluetooth now – whatever that is. 
But the biggest innovation in the world of cycle-training equipment in recent times has been the Power Meter. Cyclists rave about the benefits of training with a Power Meter because not only do they provide a more accurate measure of exertion and intensity than either speed or heartrate, but they are also relatively new, expensive gadgets – and cyclists love new, expensive gadgets. 

Power Meters measure the actual output of the rider at some location on the bicycle. This allows training intensities to be very precisely managed. It has transformed cycle coaching into a very scientific endeavour and yields very good results. In fact, the benefits of Power Meters were deemed so important by the Victorian government that they are currently rolling out new, state-of-the-art “Smart” Power Meters to all Victorian homes and businesses. It is their aim that by the end of 2013, every Victorian will have access to this powerful, new training tool. 
New "Smart" Power Meters will soon be available to every Victorian.

The new “Smart” Power Meters use low power radio transmitters to communicate meter readings in the range of 900MHz, 2.3GHz or 2.4GHz allowing a fast and safe way to access all that useful training data. According to the Energy Australia website, the “smart meter records electricity use every half hour…” and “This gives you better information and allows you to make more informed decisions…” What this means for athletes is that you are constantly able to access up-to-date information about your output and workload and can better target precise training zones in order to maximise your athletic performance.

The Power Meters themselves are housed in a sleek resin casing and include two push-buttons as well as an LCD display so that riders can view all the useful training data. At this point, it’s still not clear exactly how they attach to the bicycle.
Obviously, being the first generation of government-delivered Power Meters, they will probably evolve over the coming years. It seems likely that there will be a more compact version released soon, that not only takes up less handlebar real estate, but also weighs less than a heavy pair of aluminium mountain bike wheels.

The effects of this blanket roll-out of smart Power Meters will be closely monitored over the next few years and it will be interesting to see what other innovations the Victorian government adopts in order to take cycling to the next level.

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