Dr. Hutch: Why using a power meter is like getting a tattoo

As the years roll by, Hutch looks to fight the aging process — or at least tamper with his power files

I was an early adopter of power meters. I bought my first one in February 2001. It was an innocent age, when no one knew what the hell it was, or what it was for.

“What’s that thing for?” people would say.

“Watts!” I’d say.

“I said, what’s that for?”

“I said, it tells me what watts I’m doing!”

“What whats?”

“370, thanks for asking!” And so on. The entertainment possibilities were practically endless.

>>> Power Meters: Everything you need to know 

I’ve now got 14 years’ worth of power meter data, all lovingly backed up and transferred from computer to computer. For any bike ride I’ve done since Katie Archibald was six years old, I can tell you where I went, what I was doing, and exactly how much I was hating it, to three significant figures.

The power and the (real) story
But I’ve realised a terrible truth. A power meter is like a tattoo. You get one when you’re young and naive, and when you think you’ll be young forever. Then when you get older, you start to really, really regret it.

As you get wrinklier and wrinklier, your power output gets wrinklier and wrinklier as well. And you can’t hide from it. You can’t look at it in a steamed-up bathroom mirror and kid yourself that those downward plunging power traces are laughter lines. Nothing is that funny.

You know the saying, ‘The older I get, the better I was?’ Well, the power meter won’t just ruin your present — it will ruin your past as well. Not only will the old you be much worse than the young you, but keeping an accurate record will reveal that actually the young you wasn’t as good as you thought he was either. And quite certainly not as good as you were planning for him to have become in another few years.

I can remember epic races, where I drank from the well of greatness, where I pushed against the very fabric of what was humanly possible. Which when I go back to the old data-files and assess them in cold hard watts, they were actually… alright. No worse, no better. But certainly not as phenomenal as I remember them. And sure as hell unless I fiddle with the software calibrations, they are not going to get any better.

The measure of a man
Perhaps worse, you can compare yourself to other people. You can get a sense of perspective that means not only are you not as good as you thought, everyone else is better than you thought.

A race is, for most cyclists, just a loose framework on which to display their creativity with an excuse, so a defeat doesn’t really count. Power data is much more difficult to finesse by suggesting that you chose the wrong wheels.

You might, like me, have some sort of vague feeling that all this erodes the romance of the open road. Surely what matters is the wind in your face and the rhythms of a ride?

Maybe, but if you time-travelled back to the 1950s equipped with all the innovations that cycling has seen in the last 60 years, and showed them to a group of riders, I know what would happen.

They’d be moderately impressed with Lycra shorts, and with the weight of a 21st century bike. They’d be very suspicious of skinny 11-speed chains. They’d wet themselves laughing at helmets. And they would love, with a passion, the power meter.

The hell with romance — all that bike riders want to do is compete. Deep down, there is an urge to measure, and the more accurately you can measure, the more people you can measure yourself against, and the greater the span of time over which you can do it, the better.