This isn’t a post about the new electronic bicycle shifting system from Shimano. Electronic shifting is not the future of the sport, nor is it anything new. Mavic took a fruitless stab at it in the ‘90s, and in 2003 Campagnolo did too. Electronic shifting was a dumb idea then and it’s a dumb idea now. Why spend many hundreds of dollars to shave grams off your bike, only to spend thousands more adding needless complexity and a battery pack?! Electronic shifting is a solution looking for a problem. Enough said.
Nor is this an essay about two-way radios in professional cycling, and the debate over whether to ban them. That’s an interesting topic, but I doubt I could shed new light on it; without access to the riders in the pro peloton, I can only speculate on their perspective. (Doubtless some appreciate the radios because they remove the stress of having to figure out race tactics, while others chafe at the idea that they’ve been hired from the neck down.)
This is, rather, a post about the electronics more commonly used by mainstream cyclists: bike computers, heart rate monitors, power meters, altimeters, and GPS devices. In addition to some personal anecdotes, I will share the results (comprising 52 responses in all) of a survey I sent to my cycling pals on this topic.
The first cycling data-gathering device I remember was the Huret Multito odometer my friend Aaron had back in 1982. It was actually pre-electronic: a clunky little black box mounted at the front axle, with a little rubber ring that looped around a tiny wheel, like a pulley, that rotated with the hub. Its readout was like a miniature version of a car's odometer.
The first proper bike computer I remember was the Avocet 20, which came out in 1985. It was black, pretty small, and had a recessed display that tended to pool up with sweat. The squishy, rubbery round buttons had a pronounced click to them. The Avocet was fun to use, but this fun came at a price: when I’d ride with my friend Peter, he’d use the speed data to help drive up our pace. I’d be sucking his wheel for dear life, longing for that moment when he’d pull off so I could finally slack off and rest at the front, but as soon as he got on my wheel he’d yell, “Don’t let our speed drop below thirty!” (Maybe it wasn’t actually thirty. It felt like thirty.)
Lots of bike computers came out after that, and new ones hit the market all the time. They were and are handy devices, but their usefulness only goes so far. Perhaps this was why the coach of the Boulder-area 7-Eleven junior team, Dale Stetina, was no fan of them. (Dale was not a technophobe; in fact, he had eight-speed gearing in ’83 before anybody else did, having ground down the body of his freehub to make room for an extra cog.) At the start line of the 1986 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic Durango-to-Silverton road race, Dale chatted casually with one if his riders while reaching down and suddenly ripping the wires out of the poor guy’s computer mount. I thought this would hamper the guy’s ability to pace himself, but during that race I learned for myself how useless the mileage data really was. The race was only forty-seven miles, but featured almost 5,600 feet of climbing.
An altimeter suddenly seemed like the more useful device to have, and a few years later my boss at the bike shop loaned me his for the summer. It was, to my knowledge, the first bike altimeter on the market, made in Germany by Ciclosport. I’m guessing that cheap, small barometers weren’t around yet because this used a very strange alternative mechanism: within the computer’s casing, a dangling wire measured the angle of bike vs. the ground, and since the computer knew the speed of the bike, it could calculate the vertical gain. Setup was really tricky: you had to use a level to make sure the bike was absolutely horizontal in order to calibrate the device. And in practice the altimeter was almost useless, because rocking the bike in a sprint made the wire fly all over the place, so the device would go nuts and tally up several hundred feet of utterly fictitious vertical gain.
The next big thing for me was the heart rate monitor, which helped me with my weakest cycling event, the individual time trial. These races were boring, and I was lazy, and I’d actually forget to hammer. I’d be plowing along, and then my mind would wander, and I’d be in la-la land for awhile, not hammering nearly hard enough, until I came to my senses—but by then it was much too late. With a heart rate monitor, this focus became a snap. Knowing my anaerobic threshold (i.e., the peak heart rate I could sustain before going anaerobic), I’d just peg my heart rate there for the duration of the event. This really improved my results.
Heart rate monitors also help keep you from going too hard in a long event. Going by feel doesn’t always work, as I learned when I totally overcooked my first effort at La Marmotte, a cyclosportif race in France. My brain had been so completely marinated in adrenaline, I decided to ignore the sky-high numbers on my heart rate monitor. I guess I thought I was like Luke Skywalker and could trust my instincts over the instruments. That didn’t work so well: I had a total core meltdown halfway through the race. Three years later, I heeded the heart rate monitor, and though it seemed I was loafing for the first two passes, the numbers didn’t lie and I paced myself much more wisely. Nowadays, people use power meters in much the same fashion, with similar benefit.
Clearly, electronics are useful for bike racers. That said, I only race here and there (e.g., this race and this one) and yet I use these devices more often, and more assiduously, then ever. You may think I’m just a nerd; if so, I’m in good company, as I learned by surveying my friends’ devotion to these cool toys.
Most of the guys I sent my survey to are either current or former racers; all are riders who could hang with my bike club’s weekend rides; ten are either current or former Cat 1s or pros. (It’s the same group I surveyed for my leg shaving essay.) I set out to discover how many use these devices, how they use them, and to what extent this data affects them psychologically when they’re riding.
Here’s a breakdown of the 52 respondents to my online questionnaire, in terms of racing experience. (Click to enlarge graph.)
Not the case: the survey respondents seem to get a lot of use out of these devices. I asked the question “How much attention do you pay to your electronic device during your ride?” and offered up, as one of my multiple-choice responses, “I don’t look at it at all and arguably shouldn’t even own this device.” You won’t see that response in the graph below, because nobody selected it.
That’s pretty remarkable: fully 60% of the device-using riders (21 in all) either upload this data or wish they could, and 69% have purchased instruments sophisticated enough to do this. As a group, we’re clearly highly tuned into ride and performance data, even though the majority of us don’t follow a formal training program. What is going on here? Shouldn’t we all just put the bike computer & heart rate monitor aside, lift our heads up, and enjoy our surroundings and the speed—the things that got us into cycling in the first place?
Well, that’s a nice idea, but let's look hard at what actually did get us into cycling. I’m sure we’d like to think of ourselves as purists, but really, an awful lot of cyclists, including myself, are tantalized by the cool gear. We shouldn’t be too ashamed of this, and I harbor no ill will toward those who continually upgrade their equipment even if they don’t use it that much. (After all, wealthy enthusiasts—the ones who actually pay full retail—are the financial backbone of the sport, keeping worthy bike-related companies afloat.)
Bicycles are beautiful machines, after all. I started racing largely because I wanted a cool racing bike, and I wanted to be worthy of it. In this sense, it was about the bike. Eventually, after several years, this finally shifted, and the bike became what it should be: a tool to serve the sport, not the other way around. But even now, even for a guy like me who’s still on 9-speed, the “cool stuff” legacy continues, in a dampened mode. I'll never outgrow it.
Why so popular?
But this still doesn’t explain the popularity of these electronics. They’re just gadgets, after all, and will never be as important to us as our bikes. So why are they so prevalent? I think part of it is that these devices are just one more way to get us to go hard. Especially as we age, they can be part of the feedback loop that keeps us focused during a workout. To see if others felt the same way I do about this, I asked a final survey question: “Do your device’s real-time performance data (e.g., power, speed, heart rate, stopwatch time up a climb) influence you psychologically during your rides?” Here are the responses:
The downside of data
The flip side is what I’ll call the “data slave” effect: watching these instruments can become a pointless addiction, like crosswords or cheap, plot-driven novels. I should know: for me, watching my heart rate is like constantly checking my watch when I’m in an airport—a reflex whose repetition is excessive. I acknowledge the absurdity of this behavior, but hey, why not indulge in data obsession, if it’s not hurting anybody?
Well, the numbers themselves are harmless, but it’s possible to read too much into them. Performance data seem to answer the fundamental question “Am I any good?” (or, for us ageing cyclists, “Am I still any good?”). We run into trouble when their answer is “Hell no!” As 13 respondents (a third of electronics users) indicate, lousy numbers can frustrate or annoy us.
Rationally, I understand that on a bad day I’m not going to post impressive heart rate or power numbers, but at such times I can’t help feeling like my instrument is taunting me. This can have the demoralizing effect of turning a trivial circumstance—tired legs—into something that taints or even ruins my ride. (Sneer at me if you want: a dozen of my pals have the same experience.) One respondent commented, “If my numbers look slow I go even slower and enjoy myself,” which is wise; of course, bike racers, myself included, often aren’t.
The weather channel
To help myself cast off the “data slave” shackles, I’ve come up with a technique I call the “weather channel.” If your device tells the temperature (I think most do), put the display in temperature mode. (If your device has dual displays, put the second display in clock mode.) Temperature is the perfect statistic for lousy days: after all, you have no control over the weather, and it doesn’t say anything about you. As corporate blatherers are so fond of saying, “It is what it is.”
The best thing about this arrangement is that every time you reflexively glance at your bike computer, you get a reminder of how trivial ride data ultimately is. The non-verbal equivalent of “How am I doing?” is answered by the non-verbal equivalent of “Who cares?” And maybe, bit by bit, this practice can help wean the data-obsessed among us from our fixation on these (albeit useful) electronic devices.