Sunday, January 24, 2010



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.

Early devices

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 main purpose of the odometer was bragging rights: Aaron and I were only thirteen and doing our first century rides; seeing that thing tick over from 99.9 to 100 was pretty exciting. The rest of the time the Multito was a bit of a nuisance because the little rubber band was always falling off.

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.

Fancier stuff

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.

The survey

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.)

Keeping in mind that only 17% of my respondents still race regularly, check out how many use electronic devices:

Racing isn’t everything, of course, and it’s perfectly reasonable that a non-racer who wishes to increase his or her fitness would use performance data from these instruments as part of a sophisticated, methodical workout program. But I had a hunch most of the guys I ride with—strong though they are—don’t adhere to a formal training regimen. I asked them what best describes their approach to riding, and here’s how they responded:

A question presents itself: if we don’t follow a strict training program, why bother with heart-rate and/or power data? Why pay attention to average speed or rate of vertical gain? Could it be that the minimal weight of these devices makes them analogous to the windshield ice scraper we Californians keep in our cars—seldom used but occasionally handy? Or perhaps it’s just smooth-talking bike shop salesmen getting us to buy accessories we don’t really need?

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.

Okay, suppose we continue to play the devil’s advocate (or “devil’s avocado,” as I like to call it) and question what features actually get used. What if all theses guys are only checking the clock function (as one rider commented)? Perhaps the acid test of how truly hungry we are for data is whether we upload device data to our PCs to analyze post-ride. Here’s how that inquiry shook out:

A bunch of nerds?

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:

There you have it: of those who use these devices, 54% (21 riders) are stoked by good numbers. I suppose this phenomenon is no different than a diet that has you count your calories: measuring performance holds us accountable to ourselves. Especially when I’m riding alone, little contests against myself or the mountain (how fast can I go up it? how hard can I run my heart? how many watts can I sustain?) keep things lively.

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.


  1. One of the main things about electronics for me is that they make solo rides less boring. I like the data and I like comparing one ride to the next, but it never seems important if I'm riding with friends (though I'll check the numbers at the end of the ride just to see if my legs agree with the data). But when I'm riding alone, I get really bored. That's where the LCD displays come in. "My HR is good for this hill. Oh, man, I just set a new max speed on that downhill. Ok, that's 1 hour down." If it weren't for this internal narrative, I think it would be hard to get out for solo rides.

    I'm also a nerd for numbers. To wit: at one point you refer to 21 respondents who use electronics as being 60%, and just 3 paragraphs later, 21 riders who use electronics are 54%. How's that? I need a Venn diagram for the first bar graph, showing the overlapping device usage...

    Great piece, Dana. I remember the Avocet 20 (I want to say I had one on my Miyata 912, but I probably just made that up). The Avocet 20 was iMac-like in it's simplicity and user-friendly design. I don't remember the display pooling with sweat, but that's probably because I never rode hard enough to sweat back in those days (not to mention that sweating enough to drip off your face was a real feat in arid Boulder). Honestly, I was lazy. Needed more data devices to push me faster...

  2. John, may I commend you on your close reading. I had (obviously) not noticed the 60%/54% discrepancy. After some investigation, I can explain: to the question "do you use these devices" only 13 people said "I don't use these," whereas to the question "do you upload data to a PC?" I got 16 people saying "I don't use these devices" and one person who didn't answer. Why the inconsistency? Were they quibbling about "device"? Were these perhaps Apple purists who wouldn't dare insinuate that they use PCs? Anyway, glad you liked the post! And I agree ... cool toys are really helpful when you're riding solo. "Internal narrative" is exactly right.

  3. Ah, gear; a topic near and dear to me. Why? I wish I knew. Heaven knows it doesn't make me any better and as a matter of fact I often chastize myself for continuing to "invest" copius amounts of money on this technology, all in the name of more speed.

    I train with an HR monitor of course but then had to add a GPS unit so I could more precisely measure my variance between laps (usually to find out where I am losing so much speed as opposed to where I am getting so much faster). Lately the arsenal has expanded yet again to include a Power Tap. So, now I go out on training rides with my Power Tap, HR Monitor and GPS unit because I can't seem to get ALL the information of just one of them. to his credit and riding buddy really did nail home a good point recently. Spending so much cash and time on all this "technology" is ridiculous. It's all just a history lesson.

    Oh God, something has just occured to me-the ridiculous money I have spent on my bikes to shave precious grams has been more than offset by the added weight of my gizmos. Only one way to find out-get out my super sensitive digital gram scale and weigh it all. Maybe they make lighter gizmos!!

    Loved the read Dana

  4. "Don't let our speed drop below thirty!" That is so true, I can just hear Pete's voice yelling it! Man that's funny. Sometimes these electronics hurt us.

    I know that if it weren't for the electronics, though, including some sort of music making device, I could not ride the trainer. In fact, if I lose my precious heart rate datas, as the Germans call them, I just can't go on. Either there's no point to it or it's just too depressing, I can't tell which. I've even been known to change a battery while still breathing hard, min workout, trying not to sweat into the device.

    On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if all this instrumentation is really good for us. Are our hearts really designed to be run like a machine? Is it really good for that quivering, messy mass of muscle to be duped into performing at a certain level, no matter what? I have all manner of tricks to keep my heart rate up in the right zone and sometimes it just doesn't feel natural. I wonder if the poor thing might just cry uncle one day. We sure depend on them, and I'd hate to see mine go, that's for sure. I guess I would get to monitor the action on my mighty Ciclosport HAC-4, though of course I'd doubt the instrument first, and my last thoughts might just be, "The HAC was right after all!"

    1. Bry, you might consider checking out this blog post about whether exercise can damage your heart: