Graham Springett admits that he’s got a problem. He is hooked on data. Like many in the modern cycling world, he uses a power meter… and, after some introspection he confesses: “I’m a lost cause.” Here’s how he came to that conclusion.
(This article was first published in RIDE #52, released in May 2011.)
Admitting to an addiction*
– By Graham Springett
Can you ride without a glimpse at any data on a cycle computer? If so, your diagnosis is all clear: you don’t suffer the same condition as Graham Springett. He tries to justify his compulsive behaviour but also doubts that there’s a remedy…
Everything was looking good. The weather was sunny, the road on this Sunday morning was more or less empty and there wasn’t much wind. It was a great day to be out on the bike and I was feeling fresh, ready to do some long threshold intervals. These 20-minute efforts are a mainstay of power meter junkies across the globe. They hurt, but they are supposed to be one of the key ingredients to making any rider faster on a bike.
They are ridden on the ragged edge of your threshold and must be neither too hard nor too easy. They’re best done with a power meter to help you rein in your enthusiasm in the first few minutes and to act as a carrot for when your tongue is hanging down past your front hub and you can bear no more.
I was warmed up nicely, so I pushed the interval button on my computer and eased myself out of the saddle to lift my speed and effort. You don’t want to start out too hard because the first few minutes of a threshold effort feel almost too easy, as if it’s not enough effort to make a difference.
Patience. You will know different in roughly five minutes.
I checked my numbers on the little handlebar computer. Hmm. Something’s not quite right here. I’d done enough of this sort of workout to know what sort of speed I should be doing and what it should feel like. The top line of the digital read-out, the all-important power number, was roughly 50 watts less than what it should have been saying. Slightly incredulous, I lifted my effort, my increased labours rewarded with more speed and a larger wattage number. Heck, this was beginning to hurt too much, too soon, and I was still below where my power output should have been. I dropped my head as I began to bury myself far earlier than I should have for such a long interval.
This ain’t right; sod it, there’s something wrong.
I eased up, panting madly, and looked down at my back wheel to make sure the tyre wasn’t rubbing against the chainstay and the brake was clear of the rim. It began to dawn on me: I know what this is. I had read about it before but was yet to experience it. I was losing battery power.
My brand of power meter transmits its data from the rear hub wirelessly to the little yellow computer on the bars, and if either the hub or the computer are running low on juice you tend to get weird power readings. Well, that’s it, I thought, there’s no point in carrying on. If the data isn’t going to be recorded so that I can gleefully download it, analyse it and add it to my ever-growing collection of power files, then there really isn’t any point in continuing the session. As far as my training program is concerned, the workout would never exist.
Nope, there’s no point. Let’s just call the whole thing off. I began to soft-pedal and head for home.
I’m sure most of you are now shaking your heads in disbelief, and I do not blame you whatsoever. You’re right. I was being a fool, a slave to the computer – a data junkie.
Of course I should’ve kept riding and gone on feel. My body wasn’t going to know that the power meter was buggered, it would still respond to the stress of training and do its magic super-compensation thing. But the data freak in me just couldn’t bear the idea of not only not seeing the numbers as I rode, but also of not being able to add the session to my computer program at home and analyse the ride.
This, then, is a condition which medical science is yet to recognise, but which can be broadly categorised under the heading ‘Addiction’. It’s a condition where the sufferer simply has to preserve data from a ride, or they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the good condition of that data. I gotta crack 100 kilometres, I need to burn up 2,000 kilojoules, I can’t stop at the cafe because I’ll get 30 minutes of blank data which will ruin my average power output.
Oh, it’s a sad, sad condition and the sufferers need your pity, your understanding. If you ride next to a sufferer sitting steadfastly on the front of the Saturday bunch refusing to drop back, please understand. He or she is simply trying to build their chronic training load by maintaining a steady but testing pace. If you see a normally strong rider drop back from the group inexplicably, muttering something about isopower work, please understand that it’s simply because they don’t want to push themselves into the red.
The condition has been widely recognised in power meter users, but it’s by no means unique to the species. I was discussing the issue with a strong local rider who uses a heart rate monitor. Laugh as he did at my ridiculous addiction to data, he still confessed to a small moment of panic when he forgets to wear his chest strap. See, it’s not just me.
I suspect the earliest diagnosis of the condition would’ve been somewhere in the late 1980s when the Avocet handlebar computer popularised by Greg LeMond first appeared. Here was a little black device which told you accurately how fast you were going. With the arrival of such technology you could become addicted to the thankless taskmaster that is ride data.
We’ve come a long way in terms of electronic gizmos. First it was the Avocet and its ilk, the electronic speedos. Then we all started riding along getting a ‘beep-beep-beep’ from heart rate monitors reminding us that we were going into the anaerobic zone. It got ever more sophisticated, adding the ability to download the data to your computer. Then we got power meters recording our every pedal stroke, followed by the GPS computers showing where we were when we were doing 320 watts at 183bpm at an altitude of 176m in 22 degrees.
The latest gadget is a corker, the iPhone. You can buy apps for just a handful of dollars which will record all the data a GPS unit does, but it will transmit that data as you ride so that the whole world can follow your riding progress. In theory, I could automagically email my wife at 6:15am to let her know I was travelling at 33km/h and pushing out 220 watts at 168 beats per minute at the local velodrome.
She’s already asked me not to.
And you know what? She’s absolutely right – we’re getting into the realm of data overload. Did you start cycling because you simply adore collecting data, or because you love being out in the morning air with your mates having a laugh?
I have for quite a few years been a slave to the indoor trainer. My work and family schedule are such that it’s most convenient that I train after work, when everybody else has gone to bed, but I went absolutely crackers.
Sure, you get complete control over your workouts, but it’s lonely and not a great deal of fun. You can collect some pretty good data and hold a remarkably constant power output during your threshold intervals, but you also don’t get the rush of air on your face, the excitement of chasing down a rider who fancies his chances, the camaraderie of working hard in a fast-moving paceline.
So for now I’m getting up at the crack of dawn and meeting the guys and girls, going for a ride, and not even looking at how many watts I’m doing. I’m riding my bike, and that’s good enough for me.
I’m ashamed to confess, though, that I am setting out a little bit early so that I can get a few threshold efforts done before I meet the bunch. And I’m downloading afterwards. I’m sorry. It’s an addiction. And I’m a lost cause.
– By Graham Springett
*The addiction this columnist admits to relates to using a power meter when riding his bike: without one, Mr Springett doesn’t get the same satisfaction.