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A brief history of power meters and brake sensors in MTB

We want all of you to get as much out of your BrakeAce as you possibly can. Part of this is our easy-to-use scores already built into the app, and the other part of this is easy-to-access information. I've started writing a short book to go alongside your BrakeAce, and will trickle some of this information through over the coming months.

In 1999 Joe Friel wrote the first power meter training book. It was a 32 page document that was poised to change the cycling world. The book was called, Training with Power, and by 2001 a printed copy came with every PowerTap power meter. The booklet contains lots of low-res infographics and spent the first 10 pages trying to convince the reader that power meters were important - and that the expen$ive choice they just made in buying one was indeed a choice!

Writing this today, we know that power meters are ubiquitous in road cycling. Literally every road cyclist you know uses one. However in 1999, this just wasn’t the case. Even road cyclists didn’t believe in power meters back then, despite, you know, producing more power meant that you would go faster and that this new thing could help you train optimally. These days obviously everyone knows this - hence the ubiquity part - and this is why everyone keeps getting faster.

BrakeAce co-inventor and biomechanics guru, Dr Phil Fink with a very expensive ($20ish k SRM Scientific)

With power meters, we became our own scientists, with a n=1. We could study ourselves. Are these tires faster? Well, let’s check my average speed at a set power. Easy. Does long term diet improvement help me go faster? Measure it. Is aero really everything? Measure it. Eventually [or at the same time] coaches came in and helped us study ourselves (based on their greater quantity of experience and bigger pool of data).

I got my first power meter in ‘08. It was a hand-me-down PowerTap for my road bike. The PowerTap replaced your rear wheel, since the electronics were in the hub. Even in ‘08, roadies weren’t fully sold on the idea, and since power meters were pretty heavy anyway, nobody used them in races. This means that we all built up bomb-proof wheel sets - just to make them even heavier and to ensure that we never raced with them. My rims were Mavic Open Pros, with straight gauge spokes and 3x(ish) lacing. It hadn’t been a professional job. There was a wire/sensor placed near the rear hub that travelled up to a proprietary head unit mounted on my stem. While it didn’t have any GPS technology, it was ugly and heavy enough that I was guaranteed to never use it in a race. It did however collect the ride data and could be pressed onto a docking station for upload to the computer, where a series of line graphs could be viewed.

I “trained” for a few years with that thing, and would upload the data to PowerAgent - the free software that came with every PowerTap. I had years of data saved up, and never had any idea what to do with it. Of course, I eventually figured that out, but the beginning of personal graph analysis sure wasn’t easy. The information out there on what to do just wasn’t easy to access, and there weren’t a whole lot of people who knew what they were doing either. Training and Racing With a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Dr Andrew Coggan was released in 2007, which clearly many people read, however none of my friends used power meters. We only really talked about them in the sense of, ‘yeah, we had one.’ We didn’t read the book for several more years.

If you’re a mountain biker and I’ve already lost you - fret not! This road cycling technology just never really caught on in our world. I mean, we have many riders using power meters - and more and more each year - but really not enough. MTBers just don’t believe in power meters. It’s a shame really, because power meters are extremely helpful for analyzing racing and guiding training. It’s my firm belief that riders even at the sharp end of a world cup go out too hard - you can literally watch them blow up. A simple power meter analysis [note: I’m not saying watch the data during a race] would help them pace smarter and race faster. Nonetheless, power meters are still not common.

I got a MTB power meter in 2011 as part of an undergraduate research study I was doing. PowerTap had sponsored the study, and I went around measuring a bunch of MTBers FTP to figure out if FTP was important for us. This roadie fitness measure sure was important for us MTBers (I’ve written about this surprise finding on my blog and have published the study), but what I really got into was measuring this pedaling data on the trails. See, if hardly anyone was talking about power on the road, nobody was talking about it on the trails! By 2012 I had this new Quarq system that had just been introduced, and now I had a lightweight, crank-based power meter on my MTB at all times.

When I moved to NZ in 2014 to do a PhD in mountain biking, I had already bagged a few national championships as coach of my then teammate, Seamus Powell. He won the USA Super-D (a pre-enduro gravity racing format) and singlespeed titles that year, and we trained religiously by power. But still so much was unknown! I felt strongly about pacing properly since I had some success with pedaling less on trails and going faster myself, so I aimed to research this as part of my PhD. I did some legitimate and detailed Coasting v. Pedaling research, and that same year Neko Mullaly had his best ever result with a 4th place at the Worlds with a snapped chain. Hmm, I thought we might be onto something. The next year A