Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's a data driven world... AKA to powermeter or not?

This is a snapshot of the visitors to this blog in the past couple of weeks. No surprise that most of you come from the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. But a little surprising to get some hits from Singapore and Taiwan.

I've always been a numbers and data kind of person. I was the stereotypical nerd in high school... running off to math team with my Coke bottle glasses and my bookbag on the verge of bursting. And now a good part of my work  involves research using strange statistics on very large data sets. I'm probably largely a product of my environment, seeing that I was born into a family of mathematicians.

But when I started cycling, I was blissfully unaware of what kind of data could be generated on the bike. Here's a timeline of my experience with cycling-related data:

2008 - Pre-data year
This was the year I picked up cycling again after a hiatus of several years... and when I first started riding a proper road bike. No data other than the watch on my wrist. The only thing that was important to me was getting home in time for dinner. I was a data virgin.

2009 - My first cycling computer
Ah, you never forget your first. My first Sigma cyclocomputer that dutifully read off time, distance, and speed. It was my first step into the world of cycling "data" and it was awesome. I could come back from a ride and quantify things like distance ridden and average speed. For a former mathlete like me, it was a taste of the forbidden apple. It was a whole new world....

2010 - GPS and heart rate monitor
I eventually upgraded to a Garmin 500 that allowed me to track my routes via GPS and provided truckloads of other data such as heart rate, cadence, climbing gradients, temperature, etc. I was in data heaven! I would go on long rides and then come home and eagerly look through the data from the ride. Some of the data was quite interesting, like this:
This is my heart rate data from my first century of 2010. There are a few things I found interesting about this:
  • You can see the two little downward blips in my heart rate in the first half of the ride. These were rest stops where I got off the bike to pee. (And eat and drink as well.)
  • The third little downward blip was when I had a flat and had to fix it. That was awesome.
  • Overall, there is a slight upward trend in the heart rate data. This is called cardiac drift and it is an indicator of how fat and out of shape I was. Or maybe it occurs during endurance events when athletes get mildly dehydrated and the heart rate speeds up to compensate. Maybe both of those things.
  • The last quarter of the century was when I realized that I had some energy left and decided to time trial the last 25 miles to the finish. Average HR: 174bpm. Average speed: 4.3 mph. Just kidding (about at least one of those averages).
Neat, no?

2011 - Powermeter year?
I'm torn this year about whether I should invest in a powermeter. For those of you who might not know, a powermeter is a device that takes measurements of the actual power that you're generating while on the bike. It's supposedly more accurate for managing workouts and rides because it's a "true" measurement that isn't affected by silly things like that little organ called the "heart" or that mental frailty called "pain". Many well-respected coaches, such as Joe Friel of The Cyclists Training Bible, will require a powermeter as part of their training regimen.

An example of a Quarq Cinqo powermeter. Data generated by this is sent wirelessly to the cycling computer on the handlebars.

Part of me wants to buy one because it'll be more data. But at what point is enough enough? Is the last bit of data really going to help me so much on the bike? Is it really going to be beneficial for me to know that I'm generating enough power to light 2 light bulbs? Really? Thoughts?

Of course, thinking about spending more money on my bike always reminds me of what Eddie Merckx once said:
Don't buy upgrades; ride up grades!

On a more somber note, the promising young cyclist Carla Swart was killed this week in her native South Africa while she was out for a training ride. As with any young individual with a bright future ahead of them, it is a terrible tragedy and one that was felt pretty deeply by the cycling community. Please be careful on the road. And wear a helmet. To those of you who insist on riding with just a handkerchief on your head... I've got some news for you. Your name isn't Marco Pantani. So put on a damn brain bucket before you kill yourself.

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