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September 3, 2014
Pioneer isn’t a company you think of when talking powermeters. However, inside the US division of the company are a number of cycling enthusiasts and when they began tinkering with the idea, they realised that they had all of the technology in-house to be able to create a powermeter with all the best features that the market had to offer. After three years of collaborating with their colleagues in their Japanese division, the Pioneer Powermeter came to fruition.
The first iteration of Pioneer’s powermeter was perhaps a bit premature. It was a complicated and messy configuration of three main components zip-tied onto a set of Dura Ace cranks. It was something they’d probably rather forget, but now their second generation model (dubbed Gen-2) has been completely redesigned, tidied up, and is ready to make a statement as a serious player in the powermeter market.
The Pioneer Powermeter Gen-2 works as a complete unit on either Shimano Dura Ace FC-9000 or Ultegra FC-6800 11-speed cranks. Because strain gauges are bonded onto the crankarms, the system is limited to aluminium cranksets since the predictability of carbon fibre flex isn’t reliable.
The Australian distributor (FRF Sports in Sydney) recommends that the system be installed by a qualified dealer. There’s really not a lot to installation except for placing the magnets on the frame and installing the cranks as per normal. Some bikes require arm-type magnets (intended for triathlon frames and frames with integrated brakes under the bottom bracket), or magnets affixed by stickers if you have the clearance. After that, it’s just a matter of calibrating the measurements with the head unit through a specific process.
Why magnets? I asked the same question since this looks similar to Stages x2, but Stages doesn’t require magnets. This comes down to the detailed measurements that the Pioneer powermeter produces. The magnets act as a reference point to calibrate against so that 12 different points of the crank rotation can be measured. An accelerometer alone cannot do this.
If you’re a bikeshop owner reading this or a customer who is installing this yourself (which isn’t recommended), I’ll confess that I had a few difficulties doing this myself. It’s more about the documentation being hard to understand rather than the process being difficult. However, after going through this once successfully, you should have no problems thereafter.
Installation and calibration requires a process of installing the magnets and setting the mode “under the hood”. The CR0232 battery is also located in the unit.
The chainring adapter on the inside of the chainset (comes installed)
The arm-type magnets that need to be installed if the adhesive magnets don’t work on your particular bike.
A view of the adhesive magnets
All the parts of the unit add only about 70 grams to the total weight of a standard Dura Ace or Ultegra crankset.
Besides simply measuring how many watts you’re pushing, the Pioneer has many other built-in features that sets this powermeter apart from the rest. Power, real-time left and right leg balance, and efficiency are what this Pioneer does brilliantly.
Pioneer’s Gen-2 powermeter’s construction is similar to Stages at first glance. It bonds strain gauges to the inside of aluminium crankarms so they can measure the flex. While Stages takes power from one leg and doubles it, Pioneer mounts strain gauges onto both crankarms to determine true right and left power. For much of the population this will have little use, but if you’re trying to fix an imbalance or if you’re fascinated by the numbers, this will be of interest to you.
This means that there are two powermeters at work measuring both right and left forces, similar to the Garmin Vector, but not quite like Quarq and SRM. Within each left and right pedal stroke, Pioneer’s system measures torque, cadence, force location, and force angle at 12 different points of the rotation.
This gives you real-time pedal analysis on Pioneer’s own Cyclocomputer head unit (more about this below). However, if you already own an ANT+ head unit, it’s not necessary to go out and buy the Cyclocomputer. The Pioneer Gen-2 powermeter can switch modes to transmit in ANT+. However, much of the high resolution data transmitted (such as vector forces) won’t be displayed or recorded on any head unit except for the Cyclocomputer. But you will be able to receive information such as separate left/right power values, balance, and possibly efficiency (depending on the unit).
The Cyclocomputer head unit is sold separately from the main powermeter unit and is able to display and record all of the high-resolution measurements that the powermeter is able to produce (left and right leg real-time directional forces, etc).
With multiple customised or pro-configured homescreens, there’s never a missing piece of data right in front of you.
The Pioneer SGX-CA500 head unit features a 1.87 inch black and white touchscreen display that’s purpose built to receive the unique directional-force information from the Pioneer powermeter. It’s a solid computer in its own right offering GPS, WiFi auto uploads to Strava and their own free online software called Cyclo-Sphere, as well as ANT+ compatibility for other devices (i.e. other powermeters, cadence sensors, or heartrate straps).
The Cyclocomputer has excellent battery life (12 hours stated, but it ran longer in this testing), has a really nice form factor similar to the SRM, and countless display options for all your needs. However, the user interface can be a counter-intuitive to use at times. If you’re like me and just want to begin using right out of the box without reading the instructions, you might be left scratching your head. But after a while playing with it and reading the instructions you’ll get the hang of it and even find quite a few handy features that have been well thought out.
As you can see, the power unit has a very powerful transmission range and the head unit can pick up its signal from quite far away.
Bike mounted computers have never had iPhone quality touch screens in my experience and the Cyclocomputer doesn’t break any new ground here. It’s designed for use with gloves and seems to sometimes take exaggerated gestures to navigate, but other times is sometimes fairly sensitive. Fortunately I don’t change screens very often while riding (except while reviewing gadgets) and I did find it slightly frustrating at times, just like I do with my Garmin. There are three hard buttons on the side for frequently accessed buttons (start/stop, lap/reset, menu back).
The accuracy of a newcomer on the powermeter market is a valid concern and Pioneer states +-2% accuracy (same as Stages, less than Powertap (1.5%), Quarq (1.5%), and SRM (1%)) but the method to determine accuracy of a powermeter is debated. A direct comparison of powermeter accuracy isn’t as simple as you might think. Communication between head units and the meter can be imperfect (packets can be lost, transmission rates may be different etc). Even pairing two head units to the same power meter can result in slightly different results due to variations such as temperature calibration. The limitation in all power measurement is not the accuracy of the strain gauges, but rather the speed at which you can measure events.
I’ll leave the accuracy debate for DC Rainmaker to settle, but in my experience the accuracy is consistent with itself and I’ve used enough power meters in my day to generally know how many watts my legs are pushing. The Pioneer does the trick. If for some reason your readings seem off when comparing to your old powermeter, there is a calibration setting in Cyclo-Sphere to align them.
There is a zero-point calibration feature on the head unit where the sensors will learn the characteristics of new environments and automatically respond to changes in temperature to keep the unit measuring accurately and consistently. After a few of these calibrations there shouldn’t be any more to worry about.
In terms of reliability, the battery life is claimed to be 180 hours (I was never able to get this far into my testing to verify) and all the units attached to the crank as well as the head unit feature IPX-6/IPX-7 waterproofing.
I contacted my regular bike shop sources to see if they’ve seen any problems come through their door yet and there are none to speak of at this early date. The only potential for a minor catastrophe that I can foresee is if the chain were to come off and get jammed between the chainrings and the frame. This could potentially tear the magnet off (which used to happen to me with my Quarq).
Cyclo-Sphere is Pioneer’s free power analysis software that’s able to interpret all the information stored on the Cyclocomputer. If you’re interested in digging into all of this data, you’re in for a feast.
As I said before the wonderful thing about the way the Cyclocomputer and Cyclo-Sphere integrates together is by the simple WiFi connectivity that automatically uploads your data as soon as you’re in range. You can also set this up to auto-upload with Strava (through Cyclo-Sphere).
Beyond the scope of this review is how Cyclo-Sphere is different from Golden Cheetah, Training Peaks, or any other analysis software and I’ll have to admit that I’m not familiar with all of them enough to be able to make informed comparisons. The Cyclocomputer is compatible with training programs such as TrainingPeaks, but what you have to do is import to Cyclo-Sphere and then export the .fit file to bring across. Pioneer tells me they’re working on streamlining this with other training programs such as TrainingPeaks.
On the flip side, if you’re not using Pioneer’s Cyclocomputer as a head unit (i.e. if you’re using another ANT+ device such as a Garmin), not all of the data being transmitted by the powermeter will be recorded because of the limitations of ANT+ protocol. Thus not all of Cyclo-Sphere’s tools will be available because the data simply wasn’t recorded.
You can view some examples of what Cyclo-Sphere can do here.
The Pioneer Gen-2 Powermeter is positioned in the market to include all of the “best of” features in powermeter devices. It does that well, but it does come at the expense of a few functional limitations.
The crankset in theory is easy to swap between bikes (not that Pioneer harps on this claim), but the specific calibration routine will need to be done and the magnets will need to be affixed to the other bike as well. This is when you’ll likely take the calibration into your own hands instead of a qualified dealer, so make sure you have the process shown to you beforehand so as not to be confused.
Lastly, as mentioned in a previous section, the powermeter and head unit work best and fulfil all promises when used together. If you want to use one or the other paired with another ANT+ device, it will work but it’s kind of like watching a VHS tape on a HD television. You won’t utilise the full resolution of the product and won’t get access to all the features you bought.
Now this is a bit confusing so let me clarify. In Australia, the method to get the Pioneer powermeter is for you to supply your own Dura Ace or Ultegra 11 speed crankset. The attachments are professionally installed onto your crankset and then fitted onto your bike. If you don’t have a crankset, BikeBug or an authorised dealer will be happy to sell you one and install the Pioneer powermeter onto it.
– $1648 Pioneer Gen-2 Power Meter (you supply your own crankset).
– $349 Pioneer Cyclocomputer SHX-CA500 head unit
Find out more here.
The Pioneer Gen-2 powermeter’s main point of differentiation is how it measures true left/right power (force and directional) as well as balance and efficiency through a plethora of data for real-time viewing. But does it really translate into anything useful? That’s debatable depending on your knowledge and goals. However, at a price less than SRM and Quark (more than Stages and Powertap) you’re sure to be getting a powermeter that’s jam packed with a lot of features, whether you use them or not.
To get the most out of this system, it’s best used as a combination with the crank based powermeter, the Cyclocomputer head unit, and the Cyclo-Sphere software. Some interoperability shortcomings between ANT+ head units and Cyclo-Sphere (and the SGX500 Cyclocomputer and other powermeter software) might be a bit clumsy and won’t get the full feature set that the Pioneer Gen-2 has to offer.
Thousands of kilometers are still needed to asses reliability and potential maintenance issues, but in the hundreds of kilometers I’d ridden the Pioneer Gen-2, it offers some serious competition to the existing powermeter market. For those of you who want or need directional L/R power measurements and the analysis tools to go along with it at a reasonable price, this is something you should take a serious look at.