What is a power meter? Do I need a power meter? Which power meter is best for me and what features should I look for and be aware of? All these questions and more are answered in our comprehensive guide to power meters, including links to reviews of the latest products
What is a power meter?
A power meter is a device fitted to a bike that measures the power output of the rider.
Most commonly, power meters use strain gauges that deflect slightly when a force is applied. By measuring this torque and combining it with angular velocity, power (measured in watts) can be calculated.
If you want to get the most out of your training then a power meter is the best tool to quantify your workouts.
As ever, there no single power meter that is the best. This will depend on how you intend to use it, your bike, your bike placement options, your budget and if you want to used it with more than one bike.
What are the different types of power meter?
Currently, power meters can be placed in five key areas of a bike. Of course, each has their own advantages and disadvantages. These are:
- The rear wheel hub
- The bottom bracket/spindle
- Chainrings and crank spiders
- Crank arm
Hub based systems such as the PowerTap G3 are amongst the most simple power meters on the market. With fewer forces acting on the strain gauges, many engineers regard the hub as the most accurate location to measure power.
Power measurement will be slightly lower here than on a pedal or crank system as you’re measuring what is left, post drive train losses. It also means your power output can be a bit lower if your drive chain is very dirty.
Bottom bracket systems can be accurate and low maintenance. However, installation is more difficult and is made all the more complicated by the varying bottom bracket standards available today.
Factor in that a system of this type may not fit your bike and it is also likely to mean you have to run a different brand chainset to the rest of your groupset. Examples include Rotor INPower.
Chainring based power meters can be very accurate but it is worth factoring that they don’t actually measure individual left/right power. They can estimate it, though.
Similar to bottom bracket systems, they are not as easy to swap between bikes, as say pedals, and there can be compatibility issues. Examples include the fabled SRM (the most popular choice amongst pro riders), Power2Max and Quark.
Crank arm based systems can be relatively easy to swap between bikes, too. Like pedals, they have the potential to be single or double sided and popular examples include the Stages crank arm and 4iiii precision meter.
Pedal based systems are easy to fit and swap between bikes, but can be less accurate owing to the complexity of the force measurement and being exposed, makes them at greater risk of damage.
Our choice of power meters
Verve Infocrank power meter
Read more: Verve Infocrank power meter review
The verve Infocrank has got a lot going for it. It’s really precise, which makes it a great training tool.
It’s also really easy to fit and has excellent battery life
Buy now: Verve Infocrank from Tredz for £1260
Powertap P1 pedals
Read more: Powertap P1 pedals review
We reckon that this is the most versatile and easy to install power meter on the market.
It works well, too. It records data accurately – just be sure to stay on top of its firmware updates.
Stages power meter G2 Shimano Dura-Ace
This is a great little package from Stages, offering almost all the crank offerings from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo.
Plus, it’s compact, lightweight and positively wallet friendly compared to some options.
Quarq Riken 10R power meter
Read more: Quarq Riken 10R power meter review
The Quarq Riken 10R power meter is easy to pair and calibrate and available in a range of sizes.
More importantly, it’s also really accurate.
Rotor INpower power meter
Read more: Rotor INpower power meter review
300 hour battery life isn’t something to be sniffed at, plus it’s accurate for a single-sided system.
Key Features of Power meters explained
Firstly, what is power?
We spoke to Professor Louis Passfield (pictured), currently based at the University of Kent Centre for Sports Studies.
The maths: power (W) = force x distance / time
Watts are the energy required to a move a mass a certain distance in a known time period. 1W = 1Nm/s in other words to move one Newton one metre in one second costs one watt of energy.
So in bike speak, the mass is you plus your bike, and the distance is the ground covered.
Moving a bike, though, is a far more complicated scenario, as its resistance to motion is far from consistent.
In laymans terms, then, this equates as: power = force x velocity
And that is the key to understanding how a power meter works. It’s essentially applying that equation to a given part of the bike – be that BB axle, crank, hub, pedal axle etc.
Accurate measurement of this force is one of the biggest challenges power meter manufacturers face. So the smallest details become important.
For instance, the placement of the gauges, the quality of the gauges themselves and even the temperature of the measured material.
Single sided power meters
These units measure power from one side, usually the left, and then double the reading to estimate your total power output from both legs.
A single sided only measurement means doubling a single legs power may not be a fully accurate representation of your power, but it can mean they are more affordable.
It may be worth checking if you have significant inbalances before opting for a single sided meter. Note a 48/52% ballance between legs is common.
Combined power meters
These units effectively combine the power from both right and left legs and do not measure it independently. An example would be a PowerTap G3 hub or SRM.
Note that these systems, although accurate, will not differentiate which leg the power comes from.
Left/Right side independent measurement
This is found on more modern and more expensive power meters that have gauges in multiple locations, such as pedals and some crank based units.
This can be useful in establishing if you have an imbalance (one leg much more powerful than another) and for working on pedaling technique.
This can be especially useful if you are recovering from a single leg injury.
This is limited to power meters that measure power in more than one location, such as pedals, but also more expensive crank based units, such as Rotor 2In Power.
The vast majority of power meters transmit via ANT+ (including all in this test) allowing them to connect to most bike computer system, including Garmin.
Newer power meters are also offering Bluetooth Smart connectivity, which is useful for connecting to smart phones or updating firmware.
How much do power meters cost?
Entry level – Typically £400-£700
At this price you are likely to get a single sided measurement, that doubles the reading to estimate both legs. PowerTap hubs are also available at this price. Stages 105 crank £449, Powertap Hub £500 and Vector S £499.
Mid Level – Typically £700-1100
Mid price starts to see pedal based systems and dual sided meters. Crank and chain ring systems also become available. Professional athletes are increasingly using meters at this price point. Examples include Power Tap P1 Pedals £999.
Top End – £1200 +
At the top of the market we find dual sided measurement and crank and spindle based systems. Examples include Rotor 2In Power £1200.
How to use a power meter
If you want to learn about how to ride with a power meter, click on the link here. It has lots of useful information about how get the most out of your gadget and how to apply the numbers to your training. Essential for those coffee stop power meter chats.
Why is it useful?
Monitoring your speed can tell you only so much about a ride, heart-rate monitors can tell you a bit more, but knowing your power output is a quantitative, repeatable way to assess how hard you are actually working.
Power data can accurately determine the specific performance requirements of a given event/discipline. Basically, they allow you to be more objective with your training.
For example, you might have got a slower time over a given training route, but if your power numbers are up, and your heart rate is reduced then it’s pretty conclusive – your training is working!
Power can also tell you when it’s time to rest. A higher heart rate than normal at a certain power level means it’s probably time to cut a ride short and head for home.
Should I buy a power meter?
Really, it depends what you want to get out of your training. Here’s the pros and cons:
Benefits of a power meter:
- Eliminates guesswork from gauging exercise intensity, so training becomes less haphazard.
- Quantitative tracking of fitness levels over time (when combined with other physiological data – heart rate etc) that provides conclusive evidence of training adaptations, including overtraining.
- Help to define your weaknesses.
- Monitor your effort levels (pacing) during an event.
- Train more specifically for the demands of your chosen event(s).
- Aerodynamic position testing.
Limitations of a power meter:
- Best suited to a rider who is interested in analysis and number crunching
- It takes patience, learning and dedicated training to reap the rewards.
- Interpretation of data requires knowledge and experience, either yourself, or with the help of a coach.
- You can easily get bogged down by numbers. Don’t forget the fundamentals of why you ride a bike – to enjoy it.
Five things we recommend before you start
1) We can’t stress this enough… Have a clear idea about how you intend to use a power meter in order to get the most out of owning one. Bragging rights in the cafe or just getting one because your mates have all got them is likely to be a big waste of your money.
2) Get a fitness test so you can be conclusive about what your starting point is and also provide clear goals/targets to re-evaluate.
3) Understand training zones and the need for rides to be more specific and outcome-dependant. Be aware this may mean some rethinking of your daily rides or habitual old routes.
4) Consider a coach and following a set training plan to ensure your power meter is going to provide the best return for your investment with an upward spiralling of your wattage figures.
5) Be clear about the bike, or indeed the possibility of multiple bikes that you would like to use the power meter on. This will help steer your purchasing decision, and potentially cut down your options.
Trouble deciding to make the leap? Why not rent a power meter?
There’s a whole host of companies across the UK who offer the latest and greatest power meters from testing.