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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 Aaron Gwin won a World Cup with no chain. WTF?! We were onto something! I continued training Seamus and others, but with this new sport of Enduro, I could only really use power meters to help their fitness and pacing practice, and couldn’t really analyze anything about their races (they didn’t pedal much down the hills). Heck, even when Seamus was winning Enduros, he really only pedaled 10-20s in a race stage.

Now that it was clear that you could go really fast without all this extra pedaling, I wanted to know more. Pedaling made us tired and being tired made us slower, but we still didn’t know what this missing link was. We looked at vibrations, suspension setting, physiology, etc. As was the case, I was pointed in a different direction in my PhD research, but while collecting data for another study, I found myself keeping up with my extremely fit research supervisor, Professor Steve Stannard, during an XC race on twisty, sandy trails. His big pedaling watts but squeaky brakes told all for me - we need some way to measure braking! I wasn’t braking at all while racing against Steve, and sure wasn’t pedaling as hard.

The next Monday I went into the office and said I wanted to measure braking for my research. Steve said, “whatever you say about this - I believe you.” He was still surprised about the outcome of the race. We mustered up about $3K NZD from my research funding and built a monstrous prototype of a brake power meter. It was overbuilt because we had no idea what kind of forces we’d see (and really had no idea what we were doing since we were sports scientists and not engineers!). This changed the course of my research, and really changed the course of my life.

And here we are today.

Researchers, coaches and innovators like Dr Andrew Coggan, Hunter Allen, Joe Friel, Chris Carmichael, Dirk Friel, and more all had a hard journey with things like power meters and remote coaching platforms (e.g. TrainingPeaks) in the early days. Nobody believed in power meters; I know this for a fact - I was one of them, and so were all my friends. But while very few believed in the technology at the start, there were hundreds of years of scientific data showing that training interventions worked and that producing more power with your legs made you go faster. From the 1900s until today, cycling is the most researched sport - there’s tons of data, even if much of the research does not care about cyclists, per se. (You’ll see lots of fitness or nutrition research reporting or controlling cycling power as the “performance measure”, or the outcome the scientists are measuring to prove that their novel dietary supplement or other intervention actually works.) While there’s still debate on whether training by power is an art or a science, or which workout will give you the best FTP, we have millions of data points to know that measuring pedaling power is important. I know that the road that power meter pioneers followed was hard, and believe that getting power meters to the point that they are today is extremely commendable. In some ways, I’m not sure if the years of scientific research helped to communicate the message of power meter utility to riders in the real world. I mean, do people really care about science these days? Getting riders on power meters only came from great tools, simple analytics, and years of grinding to find the first believers.

This paints the picture of the road ahead for BrakeAce. The point we are at with braking today is that riders still need to be convinced that braking is important. Even brake companies know so little about how riders brake. I mean, come on - new MTBs are still stocked with smaller rear rotors! We are in infancy when it comes to braking. This is all changing thanks to the small number of innovative brake companies who have started to use BrakeAce, and the athletes and companies looking to understand braking to ride faster and make better parts. BUt since

But there are a few things we know for sure, and these are the things we will go over in this book.

The impetus for writing this book is BrakeAce’s successful Kickstarter campaign, and the promise to our backers that we will help guide them to getting faster with the world’s first brake power meter that they have. These pioneers already believe that changing their braking will make them faster, just as all the evidence and anecdotes have indicated. But just like that initial power meter booklet that came free with power meters so many years ago, we know that our knowledge will grow and the utility of the BrakeAce device will improve beyond what we discuss in this book. Indeed, that initial power meter book grew from 32 pages to hundreds of pages, and there are dozens of books on the topic in dozens of languages.

BrakeAce will be no different.

So while we expect our knowledge in braking to grow, we have already set a solid foundation of metrics and measurements that will be outlined in this book. These will improve as time goes on. But as of today, the guidelines and rules outlined here have been proven to help riders get faster without getting fitter.

And that’s why we’re all here.


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