“Why don’t you give these a go?” suggests Jamie (Flamme Rouge Cycles owner and passionate cycling advocate), thrusting a box of Garmin vector 3s at me. He’s interested to see how I, a non racing cyclist, get on with a power meter. Is it something I can use?
Garmin Vector 3S Power Meter Pedals - What's in the box
I’ve had a road bike for three years now. I’ve done a few sportives, ridden many metric centuries and a few imperial centuries, and made it to 200 km on the Dunwich Dynamo last year. So endurance I can do. But I’m a bit frustrated that I seem to have hit a plateau in average speed, 15-17 mph is my standard. And this is the speed I do regardless of distance. It’s okay most of the time but it would be nice to think I can keep up with the fast boys. Or even beat them.
The cycling computer I currently use is a Garmin 810. Every few weeks I race around the same circuit to see if I’m getting any faster. I’m obsessed with my average speed. But it’s not changing.
So how can I get stronger and faster?
In discussions with Will (Coach of Flamme Rouge Development Race Team), he tells me not to focus on speed. Speed is affected by external factors such as the strength and direction of the wind, air humidity, how wet the road surface is, and whether you are drafting others. Power, on the other hand, is a constant. It is a much better measure of whether you are getting stronger, and also means you can focus your training.
The same goes for heart rate. I have a heart rate monitor but never really took much notice because my heart rate sped up whenever I thought about it. Again, Will tells me heart rate is useful but not to focus on it. It’s affected by lots of things other than your effort on the bike, such as how tired you are and how much coffee you’ve drunk recently. Your heart rate also has a delay in response so it will continue to increase after you have completed a hard effort, and conversely take time to return to normal.
I take the plunge and install the power meter (well Dave does!)
The power meter stuff is all a bit new and scary to me and I faff around for a few days, waiting for the perfect Goldilocks weather to try it out (not too cold, not too wet, not too windy). In the end, Dave (all round handyman and chief cake orderer) says “Right! Where’s your bike? Let’s get it sorted now!”
He’s good, Dave, just gets on with it. Old pedals off, new pedals on. It’s just the single sided power meter so only the left is the fancy gadget, with the right pedal camouflaged to look the same. Now to synchronise with my Garmin 810. Spin the pedals back and sure enough the screen tells me it has detected a power meter. Easy peasy. I’m glad Dave is going through it with me, he sets the screen page for a 3 second reading, max power, and normalised power as the most useful measurements to see when I’m riding.
The Garmin power meter pedals are Look Keo in design and I have always used Shimano SPD-SLs. So I also need to change the cleats on my shoes. Again, Dave steps in with an allen key in hand and in a flash it’s all done.
When I change cleats it takes me ages as I carefully draw around the old cleats with a pencil so I can fit the new ones in the same position, using a magnifying glass like some old fashioned detective to make sure everything lines up. Dave just holds my shoe at arms length, squints at the position, and tightens the screws.
I have no excuses left to get on the bike and see what happens.
First thing I notice is the pedals have a smaller platform than the SPD-SLs so I spend a bit more time looking down to check my shoe is connecting properly for clipping in. I soon get used to it though.
But what about the power meter? Only having three measures on my Garmin screen is great because the font size is really big! Well, you appreciate these things when you have to use reading glasses. First thing I notice is that not only is the size of the physical numbers big but the numbers themselves are big! Yes, max power 568! Wow! And that was just from going around the block. But it gives me a new game to play, beat the max power.
And that’s when I realise traffic lights are my friend. Yes, really! Stop at a red light, then hard on the pedals when they turn green, the power reading going up at a pleasing rate as I sprint away. So that’s fun.
The numbers also get really small. Like zero small. You don’t see that on a heart rate monitor! Or at least I hope not.
Going downhill fast is usually my favourite, feeling the speed and the wind in my face. Now free wheeling downhill gives me a power reading of zero. Yes, zero. And it doesn’t seem quite as fun anymore.
I head out for a 20 mile ride, glancing constantly at my power reading which jitters up and down nervously as we get to know each other. Once home, I instantly download everything onto Strava, the cyclist comparison website where we all boast about what we’re doing. Now I have even more data to compare!
But the data is all a bit meaningless. I have no baseline for heart rate and power so Strava uses a best guess. I can already see that heart rate data and power data are wildly out of sync, with the power data telling me I was working much harder than my heart rate is telling me. Which should I believe?
What I need is some baseline data. I need to chat to Will.
Heart rate data (pre-baseline setting)