Are power meters killing the art of cycling coaching?

Bow down to the watt! Hail the all-seeing power meter, training software algorithms and obscure numerology. Look upon the power meter and the mighty Robo-rider and despair. Really?
Katusha leads the peloton in Doha on stage six of the 2015 Tour of Qatar

Katusha leads the peloton in Doha on stage six of the 2015 Tour of Qatar

The rider dragging along the bunch, glancing down at the head unit on his handlebars every 20 seconds. The time trial effort during which the rider spends more time looking at his power output display than the road ahead.

>> Subscribe to Cycling Weekly this Autumn and save 35%. Enjoy the luxury of home delivery and never miss an issue <<

These are common sights, visions of modern cycling that lead some to despair, as though blood, sweat and tears — and then more sweat — had been washed away by the clinical application of coaching ‘science’.

The contemporary doomsayer insists that, watching races now, we’re seeing soulless robo-riders, trained by computer, controlled by their wattage. If you took away their power measuring gadgets they’d be clueless. Really? Well, don’t be fooled by appearances.

“A big part of the problem — in France at least — is that TV commentators don’t really know what they are seeing and they come from another generation that didn’t use that technology, so they are often giving fans poor information.”

That’s the observation of FDJ coach Julien Pinot, whose younger brother Thibaut was third overall in the 2014 Tour de France. Not that the ‘frères Pinot’ are strangers or resistant to the utility of the power meter…

Perfect pacing on long climbs is made easier with a power meter (Watson)

Perfect pacing on long climbs is made easier with a power meter (Watson)

When it comes to getting fit for cycling there are no secrets, not really. Whether you are a Grand Tour contender or a middle aged newbie who wants to ride l’Etape du Tour, you are pushing on pedals. If you have a coach, they’ll still be working you towards the same goal. Riders and coaches may have different resources and natural aptitude, but they will all be on the same road.

Etixx-Quick Step coach Koen Pelgrim explains: “Coaching is about trying to find ways to get the best out of a rider. A power meter is just a tool, it’s part of the dialogue, it’s not a machine to make them into robots.”

Essentially a coach is trying to maximise the rider’s aerobic capacity, their ability to ride close to their limit for as long as possible — bore out the engine and trim the bodywork. That’s about it. And, as the cliché has it: there are 50 ways to skin a cat. The cat here being ways to train and motivate the rider as well as gauge his training and monitor any improvements.

In the 1970s, riders started taking advantage of light, cheap and accurate speedometers (Avocet 30 nostalgia anyone?) to monitor and measure their effort.

In the 1980s, the speedo was displaced by the heart rate monitor (a chunky Polar Sport Tester, preferably) and, most recently, the SRM Power Meter, with its strain gauges and power measuring technology has become the ‘must have’ pro training aid.

Different technologies, different tools, but all used to help riders and coaches try to attain those same goals. When ‘training with power’ became established as the gold standard for performance measurement, the swing to power-based training was quick.

The arrival on the market of other measuring technologies from other companies (Stages, Garmin, Pioneer, PowerTap) has further established power measuring based coaching, which is now used by enthusiastic and wealthy amateurs. As the price of the technology drops, the probability is that we’ll see more and more weekend warriors staring intently at the head units on their handlebars, a Strava PB on their minds.

SRM has led the way for years but now has serious competition from the like of Stages and PowerTap (Watson)

SRM has led the way for years but now has serious competition from the like of Stages and PowerTap (Watson)

Science and art

Technology has its advantages, of course. It brings screens of stats and charts, metrics and software for riders to endlessly pore over. However, a power meter, laptop full of data and an account with Training Peaks are not what make a successful pro rider, or a solid team.

Just because you are an oligarch or a billionaire who can afford to kit out your team with the latest hardware, you can’t realistically expect it to change your team from journeymen into supermen. You’ve bought into the science of coaching, you’ve bought the Bunsen burners, but you need the lab technicians and tutors. Coaching — despite appearances — is not principally a science. It’s an art. Still.

Study the stem or keep an eye on who's making a break up the road? (Watson)

Study the stem or keep an eye on who’s making a break up the road? (Watson)

In a WorldTour team with coaches and power-measuring devices on every racing and training bike, it’s not simply a matter of a coach looking at a rider’s data files and emailing him a week’s work of interval training at 107 per cent of FTP for 20 minutes, with 10 minutes active recovery, make sure your training stress score drops to 90 and we’ll see you in Utrecht on July 5.

There’s been a lot of criticism of ‘robo-riders’ in recent seasons. Chris Froome’s penchant for staring at his bar-mounted Stages head unit or a phalanx of Sky, Astana or Tinkoff-Saxo riders dragging a thinned-out peloton for hours on end.

Organised and well-drilled teams with a clear plan and the wherewithal to execute it, it’s all about those damn power-measuring training gizmos, isn’t it?

No, it’s not. In fact, in these times of high altitude training camps and the reduction of the number of days many pros actually race, understanding how to get the best out of a rider involves much more art than it ever did.

>>> How does weight affect your climbing speed?

When teams were smaller 25 years ago, riders raced from February to October and that was the end of it, often with well over 120 race days each. Now, 80 days is considered a big season.

A coach now has to work out a programme for the riders in his charge. He needs to know their ambitions, where they fit in with the team, with other riders’ aims, whether they prefer racing or training camps, whether their contract is up at the end of the season and whether or not his partner has just had their first kid and will therefore want to get the hell out of the house…

In other words, there’s a psychological aspect to coaching a rider that no amount of technology and data gathering can ever supplant. Simon Jones is head of performance support and innovation at Team Sky. He explains some of the challenges involved in turning out a group of fit riders.

“There are individual differences and preferences, and these may change year on year depending on rider goals, team objectives and the desire to keep the competition guessing,” he says.

Froome has been criticised for staring at his stem instead of the road (Watson)

Froome has been criticised for staring at his stem instead of the road (Watson)

“Getting the best performance possible can be a trade-off between developing physical, technical, tactical and psychological performance requirements and then of course avoiding or managing risks [crashes] or illness for example.

“Coaches have to decide what the priorities are, what time is spent where and on what. This will depend on the rider, the event demands, and in the case of the Tour de France, a broad range of qualities are required to be successful,” Jones continues.

“The real art in coaching is customising, getting athletes to buy into a process, and believe what they are doing is going to help them reach their goals.”

Communication breakdown

The art of coaching is also about getting the blend right, not only in terms of training camps to racing (is there a perfect ratio?) but in tailoring coaching to personalities.

“Riders come to a team and they have different personalities, different learning styles, different beliefs about what is good for them and different experiences,” explains Tim Kerrison, head of athlete performance at Team Sky.

“One of the things you have to look at when you are hiring riders isn’t just their physical ability but also their experience and their relationship skills, their abilities to work within a team and their communication skills.”

Communication — a clear understanding of your rider and his requirements, his state of mind as well as state of fitness — is a key component in a successful coaching relationship, no matter who the rider or team.

Even firms such as hi-fi specialists Pioneer are getting in on the act these days (Watson)

Even firms such as hi-fi specialists Pioneer are getting in on the act these days (Watson)

In the winter of 2014-15, Team Sky ‘poached’ Movistar coach Xabier Artetxe to work with a group of its Spanish riders. “We realised that we needed to be able to communicate better with our Spanish-speaking guys,” Kerrison explains.

“We’ve got great Spanish and Colombian riders and Belarusians who speak Spanish a lot better than they speak English. I was coaching some of them last year and, honestly, not doing a very good job of it because I couldn’t understand what they were saying and they couldn’t understand me — that is a crucial part of coaching, in fact, it’s not really coaching at all.

“Coaching is about communication, it’s not about writing out training sessions, it’s about having a conversation with your rider and I couldn’t do that with the Spanish-speaking riders on the team.”

Communication and dialogue are the keys to getting as much out of a rider as you can. “For sure those power-based tools are very useful, you get a lot of data, but the art of coaching is still so important, to fit the data into the picture you always need to keep the athlete in mind, how he felt when he was generating that data,” insists Pelgrim, one of two coaches working at Etixx.

“You can always talk about the numbers, the watts, but as a coach you have to understand how those numbers were generated and how the rider felt when he was riding.

“You can see he produced 400 watts and his heart rate was 180, but you need to ask him how it felt, what he was experiencing when he was producing the effort. And to do that you need to talk to the rider, not just look at and interpret data.”

Power-measuring devices are merely tools generating numbers, not magic boxes that take away a rider’s autonomy, or a coach’s interpretative skills. “I’d say that they are useful, a step up from what we had in the past, like just a heart rate monitor, because you can understand a rider’s form. With numbers you have a pretty good idea where the rider’s shape is headed.

“You can’t really hide anything anymore, playing mind games or with a pep talk,” says Pelgrim. “But if a rider is feeling down or worried that he’s not going well, you can overlay data from, say, the previous year and show him how he has progressed. That’s a lot easier these days.”

Tour of Normandie 2015 Prologue AJ_Scully Garmin

Collected data can aid understanding about a rider’s form (Andy Jones)

The bigger picture

If there is a ‘danger’ with power-based coaching, it’s that the rider will become utterly fixated on numbers. “You have to take care that the rider doesn’t draw the wrong conclusions because it’s not always easy to interpret the data,” admits Pelgrim.

“The way that some software tries to create scores, balancing fatigue with training stress doesn’t really fit with our practice or experience and riders can get lost because it’s pretty complicated.

“In the end, that’s just an algorithm, not a coach looking at all the elements and context, so it’s important that you can talk to your rider and explain everything.” Which is something a computer cannot do.

Sometimes a rider will complain that he’s not going well, that he feels rubbish and here again, it’s not simply a matter of looking at a power curve plotted against a heart rate and the number of hours ridden in the last training block to understand. It needs interpretation of the bigger picture.

“Sometimes, after a training block, a rider will tell you that they don’t feel great yet, even if the numbers are good, or as good as they were before, they need to think about why. Why does the rider have the sensation that it’s not going well? Is it because he has higher expectations? Is he not feeling right even though he’s going pretty well?” Pelgrim says.

Tour of Spain - Stage 3

A power meter won’t turn you from peloton zero to hero (Watson)

“You have to look at all the factors that influence a rider’s feelings and training. Training a rider is about guiding a process, not just telling him what to do, that he has to hit some numbers.”

Talking to WorldTour coaches, the word that comes up over and over is ‘tool’ in the sense that a power measuring device is merely that, a tool, not a box of tricks that will turn a diesel into a supercharged V8. It’s just not how it works.

“It’s a tool, that’s all,” insists Pinot. “It should help a coach carry out a much more accurate, more precise analysis of the rider’s training and get a better long-term picture.

>>> How to ride with a power meter

“But coaching a rider remains the same, no matter what — it’s about getting the best out of a rider. And the most important element in achieving that isn’t the number of watts or a power meter, it’s the human relationship that exists between you and your rider.

“I spend lot more time with my riders talking to them, reassuring them, building their confidence, explaining why they aren’t going so well than I do talking about numbers and sending them numbers and files,” Pinot adds.

Educating riders

Eight years ago, when early versions of PowerControl boxes started sprouting from handlebars like digital fungus, well-funded teams bought into SRM PowerMeters by the gross. (It’s worth noting here that the attendant publicity was well worth the discounted kit sold to teams). The problem was that teams bought and fitted the kit, but most riders were clueless when it came to interpreting the terabytes of data they were generating.

Do you use a power meter in your training? (Watson)

Do you use a power meter in your training? (Watson)

Pinot rejects the ‘robo-rider’ jibes — at least as far as his riders are concerned. “One of the things that a power meter should, should allow a rider to do is know himself better, to understand and interpret the sensations and feelings so that he doesn’t really need to keep looking at his handlebars.

“Those people who think coaching these days is just about emailing a rider a block of interval training? Ha! If only it was as easy as that!” laughs Pinot. “It’s true though, there are those who think that’s all there is to it. Well…”

The final word should perhaps go to the man who coached the winner of the 2014 Tour de France (as well as Mikel Landa and Fabio Aru), Astana coach Paolo Slongo. Slongo has been coaching Vincenzo Nibali since before ‘the Shark of Messina’ was a pro.

What then, is the key to a successful coaching relationship?

“The relationship between a coach and athlete needs a mix of skills, not one thing,” Slongo says. “But the most important elements, as far as I’m concerned, are confidence in each other, dialogue and honesty.”

Not a power meter, then…