BEST POWER METER FOR ROAD CYCLING - Trail Master Wheels

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Monday, 15 April 2019

BEST POWER METER FOR ROAD CYCLING

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of activity in the power meter world focused on bringing more for less to road cycling enthusiasts like you and me.  Many new small and start-up companies have gotten in while several larger and established ones have completely remade their product lines.  More power meters have been introduced for more compatible and transferable places on your bike.  New tools have been developed and offered to analyze more and more aspects of your cycling mechanics in addition to your power output.
We’ve also seen the price a cyclist can expect to pay for a power meter drop in half.  New companies have jumped in at the lowest price end often with simpler yet still well-performing products trying to attract the larger group of regular, enthusiast level cyclists who would never consider using a power meter before mostly because of its price and elite athlete focus.  Established power meter providers have dropped their prices and offered less featured, lower-priced model options to compete.
Since many of us roadies prefer to spend more time riding than reading, I’ll pause the story here and give you my bottom lines.  After that, I’ll tell you in detail what I’ve found should matter (and shouldn’t) to enthusiasts when choosing between power meters, how I chose from over 20 proven ones and which are the best.
Now, I count 14 companies that are actively selling proven power meters, many with a few different models.  Three of those companies were selling models back in 2014 but they were yet to be proven.  Another three are brand new and have crossed the threshold to proven, widely available and supported status in just a couple years.  Two others were all of that back in 2014 but I didn’t consider them because of their technology.
(When I say proven, I’m not saying good or bad.  It’s just that we now know their level of performance based on independent tests and user experience after enough people and enough time to establish what their performance level has proven to be.)
Four of the 14 companies are also now producing and selling next generation or complementary models that are going through independent testing and first customer evaluation.  Two more companies are at the same stage with their first power meters.  Finally, there are another 9 companies new to the game that have announced but are not yet making their first power meter products.

ENTHUSIASTS AND POWER METERS

If it’s not clear yet, let me make this point abundantly so.  I write and review products for use by road cycling enthusiasts, aka regular roadies, the serious, committed cyclists who typically ride 2,000 to 5,000 miles or 3,000 to 7,000 kilometers a year, 4x to 6x/week, through much of the year (inside when not outside), covering all sorts of terrain, at decent speeds (averaging in the high teens mph, high twenties kph and up), and typically do some events including group or club rides, charity events, endurance rides, and the occasional low to mid-level amateur races or other types of ‘competitive’ rides.  We own $2500-$10,000 modern composite bikes and track our performance with bike electronics, apps and software.
While some enthusiasts race, I am not reviewing and recommending power meters in this post that are best for elite level or dedicated amateur road racers and triathletes or riders with coaches.  Nor am I recommending the best power meter models for recreational riders, weekend warriors, cyclocross, gravel or mountain bike riders.  I’m reviewing the same power meters available to riders of all types but my reviews and recommendations are targeted to the training, goals and gear of my fellow road cycling enthusiasts.
Some reviewers will say it’s hard to pick the best power meter, it depends on so many things and that you should fire your reviewer or bike shop for recommending one without you going through some deep situational and budget analysis.  Well, I’m not reviewing or recommending power meters for all stripes of cycling consumers and when it comes to enthusiasts, our needs and situations and spending targets are far more similar than different.
Further, giving you the pros and cons of a dozen or more power meters without putting that information into some relevant decision framework (and I don’t mean an endlessly long spec sheet) to help you pick one is kind of like guiding you up a creek and then taking away your paddle.  You’ll just drift back to the beginning, hit a few underwater obstacles along the way and accomplish little in the process.

HOW TO EVALUATE A POWER METER

In all my reviews, I evaluate enthusiast cycling gear and suggest you do too based on four groups of criteria with more weight placed on Performance and Cost criteria.  Design (including specs and features) can contribute to performance but doesn’t determine it.  In the case of power meters, Design is also about usability and capabilities, some of which are critical and others unnecessary for enthusiasts.  Quality is first a go/no go consideration for me.  Beyond that it can be a measure of product longevity that affects cost of ownership but not performance.
For power meters, the criteria in each of those categories are as follows:
Performance – Accuracy, consistency, data dependability, functionality, and battery life.
Design – Measurement location(s), compatibility, ease of installation and transferability, interface with cycling computers and measurement software/application, ease of use including start-up, torque zeroing and temperature compensation/calibration, unit weight, firmware update-ability, and communication protocol (ANT+ or Bluetooth or both).
Quality – Product maturity, reliability, dealer/parts/service infrastructure and support, repair service, warranty, service life, and company long term viability.

Cost – Unit purchase cost net of any new or removed computer, cranks, chainrings, wheels or sensors to make the PM functional in your existing or planned bike/wheels/chainset set-up(s), and any maintenance or service costs as measured in your currency, amount of hassle or lost time using your power meter.

WHAT PERFORMANCE AND DESIGN DO ENTHUSIASTS NEED?

I’ve not seen much debate or recommendation about what road cycling enthusiasts really need from power meters.  Coaches will tell you what reports they want to see from your power meter but most enthusiasts don’t have coaches.  That leaves us hanging on the last article we read written by a coach of all levels of athletes or the reporter that quotes a handful of company spokespeople representing a range of views without separating the wheat from the chaff.  Or we try to take some wisdom from the forum writer who bought a power meter and raves about what a great purchase he made.
Worse, many of us analytical types end up scratching our heads trying to figure out what the relative value is of all the product specs and features that companies market the crap out of to set themselves apart but that may or may not matter to us non-elite cyclists (and even the elite ones).
So, based on the research I’ve done and the experience I and others have had, I’ll put an unvarnished stake in the ground on this topic.  Oh yeah, there’s a lot that went into this stake, but I’ll take you right to it rather than try to impress you with the journey I took to get there.

Proper Training is Key to Getting Value from Power Meters

As enthusiasts, we ride and train to build and maintain certain levels of speed, distance and strength.  We apply these abilities in situations ranging from individual rides where we test ourselves against past times or the performance of others, in group rides to do our turns leading the pace line (or just keep up with a fast group), or in events we do during the year from a century or other distance ride, a road race or criterium, a time trial, an alpine climb, even a vacation with a series of back to back days of different types of riding.
(If you are an enthusiast that prefers just to ride often along a handful of routes on your own and with friends, and you don’t plan to train to any goal or try to improve your performance, that’s totally cool.  Don’t bother getting a power meter, though.  It might give you some interesting information, but it won’t help you ride any better.)
Gone are the days when training meant just going out and riding more times a week or doing more distance or trying to go faster each ride to reach your goals.  That’s not training.  If you were a runner and wanted to sprint faster or do a better half marathon, would you just go out and sprint over and over or run long every day trying to go a little faster than the day before?
Of course not.  It’s the same with cycling.
If you want to make improvements, every day you ride you should be riding with a specific ride plan that is part of weekly, seasonal or perhaps longer-term plans and goals.  Some days the plan calls for you ride hard; some days it says you should ride easy.  On your harder days, your plan might call for you to do flat speed intervals or hill repeats or longer stretches or a group ride, each at defined effort levels.
You measure your effort during and at the end of each ride to see how you are doing against your plan and goals and on the path to your longer-term goals.  And the best way to measure your effort is to use a power meter, far better than your heart rate, speed or perceived level of effort.