Technical advances have a huge impact on cycling as well, and the results of these developments are not only visible on bicycles and clothing, but also on tools and software that measure the riders’ performance and help with workouts and races. We talked about these technical devices - “gadgets” - with Tibor Valter, father and youth coach of Attila Valter, winner of the Tour de Hongrie, who did very well on the Giro d 'Italia this year. Tibor Valter was an excellent racer himself, who won the Hungarian championship several times.
Tibor Valter explained that cyclists use three kinds of physical devices in workouts and racing: a cycling computer, a power meter, and a heart rate monitor.
The cycling computer is more than a simple speedometer; it uses GPS (Global Positioning System) and has all the functionalities that a GPS device can have; it also measures speed via satellite. It also includes a map; you can enter the route of the training session or the race into it, which is helpful in case of unknown routes. It also measures altitude difference and collects and stores data from the heart rate monitor and the power meter.
The heart rate is measured with the help of a chest strap, which is wirelessly connected to the cycling watch.
There are several types of power meters. They are integrated either into the crank or the pedal, and calculate performance by measuring the slight deflection of the crank or pedal shaft, and they also communicate wirelessly with the computer.
There are also various training software products that, on the basis of data received from the other tools, set recommended intervals for training, and they can help to design the most effective watt-based training programs. Trainingpeaks, Golden Cheetah, Wko4-5 are such software.
What exactly do these devices measure and why?
The power meter measures the instantaneous power output of the rider in training in watts, which, in simple terms, is the force with which the rider presses the pedal. (Of course, even the turn of the pedal plays a role here, but for the sake of simplicity we won’t deal with that now.) The heart rate monitor shows the number of heartbeats of the cyclist per minute; while the computer collects all data as well as measuring speed and ascent, plus it has numerous training aid functions.
The power meter is the basis of watt-based training.
These devices are developing very fast and now they are remarkably more complex than 10 years ago when I started dealing with them
Tibor Valter said.
The starting point is testing. There are better and better protocols for this, but many people are familiar with the FTP (Functional Threshold Power) test. This is a 20 minute maximum performance test whose result is multiplied by 0.95. This is necessary, because FTP itself refers to hourly performance, so by multiplying the 20-minute output by 0.95, we can get the average power the rider can produce over the course of an hour. Apart from this, performance can also be measured for various time intervals, such as 1 minute, 5 minutes, and so on.
These tests can also be conducted in diagnostic laboratories, where more accurate results can be obtained with the use of slightly more scientific methods. Those tests can help to set interval workouts as well, but they can also take minute by minute blood samples, with which the production of lactic acid in the blood can be measured. However, both training and racing take place outdoors on the roads and not under laboratory conditions, and outdoor ‘real-life’ results may be different for many people than those on the rollers in the gym. As Tibor Valter noted this was also true for Attila, for example.
Software solutions are also developing continuously, as they are used by more and more people and so the large amount of available data can help to make the programs even better.
Power data are largely dependent on the physique of the cyclist. A larger built racer, weighing 80 kg, has significantly more muscle mass than a 55-60 kg “climber”, and, as a result, a larger and heavier racer will produce significantly better power data. To eliminate this difference, performance can be expressed in terms of watt per kilo, which makes a valid comparison possible.
Even this calculation does not provide a clear basis for the comparison of different types of racers, though, because on a flat road, a cyclist with higher muscle mass and consequently higher watt performance will always have an advantage over a racer with lower body weight. This advantage, however, turns into a disadvantage in the mountains, when the road goes uphill. The steeper the road, the greater disadvantage weight can be. On this basis, racers are classified as flat terrain riders and climbers. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. The power data of the racers are more or less public.
Power data can be important, especially when signing young racers. The proud father explained that when Attila joined the CCC cycling team, for example, in addition to his good race results his excellent power data must have been an important factor. Coaches and managers at CCC were impressed by the fact that all his data for the past 6-7 years are available in the electronic training diary, which show his improvement and also the further potential he has.
All of this information is uploaded to the training software, which is used by coaches when they work out the training program for the cyclist, also taking into account the specific goals of the racer.
In professional cycling teams, just like in other sports, coaches are contracted with the clubs, but because training data are sent to each rider online and all parameters of the rider’s workout are recorded by the cyclist’s watch, which are uploaded into the software, there is no need for personal contact between the rider and his coach.
Attila, for example, has only met the coach who designs his training programs once; as far as I know the coach lives on a Spanish island. Of course, he may need help during his training sessions, so when he trains at home, I help him, the father added.
Riders are prescribed the length of the workouts and the intervals in time, the power output to be produced in watts, but they are free to choose the routes depending on the local conditions.
Mr Valter also told us in the interview that during the races, performance data cannot be monitored in the accompanying car, so team leaders cannot use them to make decisions.
Competitors, however, see their wattage data and can make decisions accordingly, or even guess whether their rivals are able to deliver such performance or not.
When Attila sprinted in the last kilometre up to Kékestető during the Tour de Hongrie, which was crucial for the overall result, he saw on his watch that he was doing 500 Watts and this suggested to him that not many of his rivals could keep up with him, which later proved to be true.
In most races the racer and the team leader accompanying the race communicate via radio transceiver. This can be a great help to the racer as he does not have to memorize the race numbers of important rivals, the route, when the mountains start, where there may be crosswinds, etc., and even during the downhill phase, the staff in the car can help by telling the racer about turns in the road. The speedometer can also be helpful, as the GPS indicates parts of the route where you can ride more boldly and where you need to be more cautious.
Tibor Valter also said that in order for someone to go out to cycle, even for a few hours every week, there is no need for a power meter. But if someone is willing to spend some money on it, likes to look into the numbers, has a little affinity for technical innovations, has goals and wants to improve, it can be helpful.
A lot of people already use a power meter, which generates the wealth of data that allows better and better software solutions to be developed.
The price of these devices varies and drops fast with time. A couple of years ago such a set cost around one million forints; nowadays watches are between 50 to 150 thousand forints, power meters for one foot or two feet can be around 150-300 thousand, and heart rate chest straps cost from around 10-20 thousand forints.
According to Wikipedia, the average person’s power output when going upstairs is 200 watts. In comparison, Filippo Ganna completed the fifth stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia, 225 kilometres, in 5 hours 59 minutes, with an average power output of 330 watts. It’s the same output as that of an average man, who weighs 80 kilos, picks up his 52 kg wife and walks the stairs for six hours. And that’s just one stage of the 21-day race.
The racer’s diet
Tibor Valter explained that his son, Attila, had cycled 30,000 kilometres in 2019, which could be regarded as an ordinary year compared to 2020, of which 9,000 kilometres were races with 300,000 metres ascent.
Attila and the CCC team have no special diet. They eat everything, but they pay a lot of attention to the quality of the ingredients. During the races, because of the pandemic, the team cooks for themselves on the bus or uses the kitchen of the accommodation where they are staying. Their own chef cooks from ingredients they buy themselves.
Attila and his team do not make up for this used energy with commercially available chocolates or muesli bars, but with rice pudding made by their own chef. Attila only has isotonic drinks watered down, and apart from that they do not take any other food supplements or vitamins.