Evolution vs. excitement: Should power meters be banned during races?

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Has the use of power meters made professional cycling predictable and unexciting? Two Grand Tour champions at the Vuelta a España think so; one does not.

Tuesday, in a press conference held during the Vuelta’s rest day, Alberto Contador was asked — due to his failed tactics on Stage 10 to Lagos de Covadonga — whether he thought he should change the way he races, and start relying more on his power numbers instead of following his sensations.

“As Froome does,” stressed the journalist asking the question.

“At this point in my career I’m not changing my way of racing,” Contador replied, before going into a deeper reflection.

“I think power meters do take some excitement out of races,” the Tinkoff rider added. “They make everything more controlled. If you can count on a strong team, you can let another rider attack knowing that he has a limited amount of watts for a limited amount of time and therefore he is going to fade at some point.”

Contador’s rant rang a bell. The controversy on how power meters have affected racing has been a cliché since Team Sky’s domination in stage racing began in 2012. There’s been no shortage of commentary on how the British team’s riders look at their power meters to monitor their efforts during races.

And yet Contador admitted that Froome had ridden “brilliantly” up Lagos de Covadonga on Stage 10, dropping back from a group of 15 with 8km remaining, and then pacing himself back, to finish 25 seconds behind Nairo Quintana, and 40 seconds ahead of Contador.

“Following Nairo in the final climb took its toll because he kept changing the rhythm,” Contador said. “I had two options on how to do the race: The first one was to try to go with Nairo, and the second one to follow Froome because I thought that Froome in 2012 and 2014 had problems at the finish. I played the Nairo card and I made an error. He was very strong, he changed the rhythm and that made me blow up.

“Afterwards, I had trouble getting back my pace. We know how Froome rides on the climbs, he focuses on his watts and sticks to that and everybody now knows his tactics, but it worked brilliantly for him.”

Some assert that the use of power meters favours a more controlled style of racing. Others say it doesn’t have any real influence in the moment, and that current racing styles, and tactics, are just a sign of the times.

At the Movistar press conference held a few hours after Contador’s, it was unavoidable that this question was posed to Quintana, current leader of the Vuelta a España, and to his teammate, Alejandro Valverdo, second overall.

Quintana did not shy away from the topic.

“They take away a lot of spectacle and make you race more cautiously,” he said. “I’d be the first in line to say they should be banned.

Valverde’s take was slightly more wary. “I think they’re really useful for training, but they take out a lot of drama from the sport,” he said. “In competition you should be racing on feelings.”

Anatomy of a controversy

Wednesday morning, at the start line at the Jurassic Park of Colunga before Stage 11, journalists were more interested in quotes on power meters than about the mock-up dinosaurs surrounding them.

“They gave you journalists something to talk about, huh?” said a Movistar team director before bursting into laughter, taunting an underlying reality — controversy fuels journalism more than facts alone.

“It’s a story that every now and then comes back,” said Team Sky director Dario Cioni, after answering questions from journalists for five minutes. “Everyone has his own opinions. Of course, when someone important states his opinions, it gets a lot of resonance. Perhaps there’s just a lot of smoke without much fire. You can take them away but it’s not going to change anything.”

Following the stage, in his flash interview as stage winner atop Peña Cabarga, Froome was asked about the topic.

“Sure, why not [ban power meters]?” Froome scoffed. “We can also go back to single-speed bikes, without gears. Why not, eh?”

On the rest day Froome gave his take in a more assertive way. “The power meter is there and I’m aware of the numbers I’m doing, but at the end of the day it is more on feeling and I’ve got to judge that.”

A bit of fun has been made of Froome’s habit of staring down at his head unit. There is even a popular Tumblr page that compiles pictures of the British rider looking at his stem. 

“If you look at the facts, riders race on feelings more than on numbers,” said Cioni recalling some of Froome’s performances during the 2016 Tour de France. “He wasn’t looking at the power meter when he attacked on a descent, or in crosswinds. I think riders look at the power meters in training, but while racing they look at what other riders are doing.

“Possibly the confusing thing is Chris’ style of riding,” Cioni conceded. “He looks down a lot, and it seems he is taking a glance at his power meter, but for sure he relies more on feelings than on numbers. Numbers say only one part. Numbers change during a stage race because of fatigue. For sure the numbers on the third week are different to those in the first week.”

And whatever approach Froome was using to pace himself up Lagos de Covadonga, it proved to be superior to Contador’s.

“I had a different approach to the climb,” Froome said. “My past experience at the Lagos de Covagonda told me to ride in a different kind of way, at a pace that suited me best. In the past I often exploded on that climb so I paced myself a lot better. It was the best way for me to ride. [Stage 11] was a completely different climb. I approached it differently, it was better today to stay in the front.”

Opinions for and against power meters

When asked about the controversy, former pro and current Trek director Yaroslav Popovych stood firmly in favour of keeping them. “It’s a mistake to call for power meters to be banned from racing,” he said. “My opinion is that we should always move forward. We could use alloy wheels instead of carbon ones. But it wouldn’t make sense, because that would mean taking a step back.”

Another rider who currently acts as a director, IAM’s Mario Chiesa, holds a similar position. “Riders should be allowed to know their power in real time,” he said.

Popovych said he doesn’t think power meters have changed the way races are ridden.

“I don’t think that power meters have diminished spontaneity. Cycling, and cyclists, have changed in a number of aspects, and one of those is choosing their tactics and reflecting during the race,” Popovych said. “Now they pay more attention to racing and commit fewer mistakes. But this doesn’t happen because of power meters, but because of a change of mindset.”

On the other hand, Chiesa recalled that the same debate was once held over heart-rate monitors.

“Back in the day we looked at heart rate monitors carefully and relied on them to pace ourselves, until we realised that heart rate did vary depending on a number of factors,” Chiesa said. “The same will happen with watts. We reckon data influences riders’ behaviour dramatically. At IAM we usually cover the screen of the [head unit]. Then every rider can decide whether to take that cover off or not.”

Lotto-Soudal rider Tosh van der Sande said he believes that banning power meters is an issue that should be looked into.

“Maybe they should be banned, yes,” he said. “They change the way of racing. For races with up-and-down courses it doesn’t matter, but in long climbing efforts, having a power meter makes it easy to control your pace. That diminishes the excitement of racing.

“Besides, the level of every rider is improving,” van der Sande added. “We are almost even. That’s a factor too for the racing to be less exciting. Ten years ago it was different because there was a bigger difference of level between riders. Now little things make the difference.”

Quintana used a similar argument Wednesday in his post-race interview. “Of course we can live with power meters the way they are currently used, but I think we should definitely look into limiting the use of technology during races,” he said.

In a Twitter poll, two-thirds of the voting CyclingTips readership was in favour of riders using the technology, while one-third was against it.

Now it’s time for you to express you opinion. Do you think power meters should be banned? Do you think it truly affects the way races are ridden? Should we keep pro cycling away from technological evolution in order to preserve its excitement for the spectating audience? Let us know, in the comments section below.

About the author

Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modelling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF

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