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Bike Tech for Training 30 April 2021

It is nigh impossible to talk about starting a training program without bringing up the new, shiny technology required. Effort needs to be measured, progress needs to be tracked, and pretty graphs must be squinted at. Also, I am a bit of a gear junkie who finds joy in researching things online for hours.

The used 2017 Wahoo Kickr that I purchased at the beginning of winter was my first introduction to the world of tracking power output. For every workout, I could see the precise amount of effort I was expending to climb hills and go fast but also when I was casually cruising. The advantage of tracking power is that it is both more precise than using heart rate and more accurate than riding by feel.

My Kickr did not have the ability to measure cadence, so when I got more experienced with the Zwift workouts and understanding my power output, I also bought a cadence sensor that I attached to my crank arm. Most people implicitly understand that it is easier to spin your pedals on the flats than when you are slowly churning pedals up a steep climb. Power (watts) is torque (force put on the pedal) times rotational speed (cadence), so cadence gives you one more way to evaluate your cycling work. Everyone has their preferred cadence in different situations, but you can also train yourself to use different cadences and use cadence to improve your fitness. In short, it's a handy thing to know when training.

Now, none of my outdoor bikes have a power meter or cadence sensor built in. Before doing my winter workouts on the Kickr, I honestly did not think I would ever really need to care about such things. Even when doing all of that Everesting training last year, I mostly just went out and biked at whatever pace, speed, and grade that I felt like doing that day. And for the most part, that actually work reasonably well. If you want to do long distances, you need to bike longer distances. If you want to do long climbs, you need to bike longer on climbs. Your brain just exploded with that amazing knowledge drop, I know.

But–and the past 10 days with this training plan has really proven it to me–at a certain point you need to buckle down, see where you as a cyclist need to improve, set some goals, and actually focus on improving. In other words, you need to become scientific about your training. And that, my friends, requires data and analysis.

So. Last week I had my very first power meter installed on my road bike. It streams its data over Bluetooth, which means the Wahoo app on my phone was able to receive my power and cadence instantly from my bike. Since I had a phone mount for my bike already, I took my Saturday workout and did it outside.

It definitely had its challenges. The outside world has cars, other cyclists, pedestrians, stop signs, stoplights, and wind from every possible direction. Trying to keep an eye on the world around you while performing a workout based on data displayed on your phone is tricky. Definitely felt myself struggling numerous times and my workout numbers were not exactly what was specified in my training plan. At the same time, I was outside and that is rather preferable to being on a bike trainer in the garage.

The one major hiccup was that the Wahoo app drained my phone battery almost completely dry in 3 hours. Not the ideal situation for someone who frequently does even longer rides. To be fair, our phones are not designed to have their displays continuously on full brightness and streaming data from external devices for hours on end. Enter the bike computer, stage left.

A bike computer is another one of those purchases that I thought I would never make. They are designed for serious cyclists, who are out there training every day and want GPS navigation from their handlebars. And, ladies and gents, lo and behold, that is now the type of cyclist that I am!

Tina was fortunate enough to find a friend in her training group that had an older bike computer to give her. I, on the other hand, fell down the rabbit hole of researching the purchase of a brand new bike computer for the better part of a week. There are many options out there to choose from: super lightweight and aero, those with a touchscreen, those with only buttons, color or grayscale, one based off the Android operating system, and those that have days of battery life. They all have pros and cons, of course, but all of them have the ability to read sensors from your bike and do basic navigation.

In the end, I wanted a bike computer that would last at least 15 hours (2 full days of riding without charging), solid navigation, customizable data screens, easy syncing of my rides, and buttons for when it is wet or in winter. Ideally, I wanted one released in the last couple years and for under $300. Given this was my first foray into bike computers, I also was hoping to pick it up from REI since it has an excellent return policy.

The one that most perfectly fit my needs was the Garmin Edge 530. And once I made my decision, I was able to purchase it at REI the next day and try it out an hour after getting home.

And, it seems to be working out pretty darn well! My watch and power meter connected to it without problem. The mount took all of 2 minutes to install and is exceptionally stable on my handlebar, even on rough gravel. Garmin has a well-earned reputation for having so many features and abilities that one can get overwhelmed, but I found that with a little effort I was able to set it up just how I wanted. And the battery life is exceptional; a two and a half hour ride this week only reduced the battery 8%. Rarely am I so pleased with a purchase.

Doing workouts outside will still be challenging, but I feel like I am now set up for success. And since I am training for gravel races, I am considering adding a power meter to my gravel bike as well. And, while these workouts are definitely challenging, it is obvious they are focusing on my weaknesses and making me stronger. So far, so good.