Often the butt of many jokes on Twitter and dismissed by many experienced athletes. I believe running power is a misunderstood technology which can provide an athlete with unparalleled insight into their training. Here I want to give a more balanced introduction to running power for those considering it.
The running power meter was inspired by the bicycle power meter, which collects data from a strain gauge in a pedal, crank arm or wheel hub to calculate how much force is being applied by the athlete. This allows them to pace and race better on hills, into headwinds, at altitude and in the heat. The running power meter is not a true power meter in the respect that it is based on an algorithm, using accelerometers rather than a strain gauge. Combined with the pace at which an individual is running to generate a number measured in watts, this gives the athlete an insight into how much energy they are expending to achieve forward momentum.
As a runner, I would put money on you having trained with pace, heart rate and RPE in the past. So to start with I’ll break the pros and cons of each method down to help you make the right decision for your training.
Rate of perceived exertion is how hard you feel you are running, whether you are going eyeballs out in a race (RPE of 10) of gently jogging along on an easy run (RPE of around 4). It’s an important skill to develop for runners of all abilities even if they also use technology, as data doesn’t have all the answers and can fail at any point.
If you are having a bad day, RPE will make sure you don’t over exert yourself and push you towards exhaustion or overtraining
It removes the risk of setting targets that are too high/low for an event
Newer runners will struggle to understand what their bodies are telling them, and may be based on what they perceive as “getting a good workout” rather than achieving the goals of the session
Will cause most runners to head out too fast when fresh, then fade as they didn’t pace themselves well enough
Difficult to accurately measure training load, fitness or fatigue
Requires many years of experience to dial in, and even then the best of us make mistakes
Heart Rate gives us an unparalleled insight to how the body is performing, if your heart rate is outside of normal parameters, your body is trying to tell you something. This helps us avoid overtraining by pushing too hard
Relatively inexpensive, most modern running watches will come with a heart rate monitor built in or come with a free chest strap
Tracking your heart rate over time provides a valuable insight into how well your body is adapting to exercise.
There is a large delay between your body’s exertion and and an increase in heart rate, so it is difficult to use it to pace races with lots of hills/surges as the feedback isn’t immediate, and your heart rate may continue to rise for up to 30 seconds after a tough section
Lots of factors outside of training can artificially inflate our heart rate. A lack of sleep, high levels of stress, temperature, altitude and mensural cycle to name but a few will all affect our heart rate and may result in us running faster/slower than we should
Prone to dropouts or false readings. Where 10BPM is a huge difference, battery or connection issues can leave you vulnerable
Sticking to heart rate based training can be incredibly frustrating for new athletes as they feel they need to walk to keep their heart rate in the correct zone
Pace is probably the most popular method of measuring running intensity, and is still the most important. Let’s assume I put a running power meter on the foot of every athlete starting a 5K run. The winner wouldn’t be the one who put out the highest number of watts or the best horizontal power. It would be the one who ran the fastest. However there are issues when using a GPS watch to measure pace
Cheap, comes with all fitness tracking devices, or you can use you phone
The winner of the race is the athlete who runs the fastest, so it’s the purest way of tracking intensity
GPS watches can lose signal, or struggle to find it in areas such as woodland or around high rise buildings
Large events place so much strain on GPS systems that they cannot keep up. This resultis in athlete’s watches giving false readings, and getting out of sync with the race organiser’s distance markers. This can result in widespread confusion and frustration
GPS watches are very sensitive to changes in direction. They expect you to continue running in a straight line. Making a U turn or sharp corner can leave the GPS struggling to catch up
It does not take gradient or headwind into account. If you are running up or down a hill, pace data is of very little use
Susceptible to headwinds
Finally, this brings us onto the running power meter. For my money, this goes a long way to correcting the flaws of other methods:
Takes hills and wind into account (new generation Stryd only)
Provides advanced running metrics such as stride length, ground contact time, running efficiency, form power and leg spring stiffness
Reliable data in all situations
Measures distance precisely using the accelerometer inside the power meter, giving you an exact pace rather than GPS estimate
Allows you to track improvements easily
Unparalleled treadmill accuracy
Can be confusing at first, requires time investment
Expensive, at £200 for a Stryd unit, on top of a compatible watch, it’s a definite investment in your running
The data can become all consuming, and athletes run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture (running faster)
Any long term changes in athlete weight require re-calibration and redundancy of previous data
Can be tricky to use if you are aiming for a specific finish time
The biggest benefit for running power for me is consistency and the low margin for error. While the algorithm behind running power is up for scrutiny, as long as the data that is outputted is consistent that’s the most important thing. Whether an athlete is running on a treadmill, up an alpine pass, a road marathon or simply on a jog with friends, I know I have good data which represents their effort, using it to track improvements and calculate fatigue.
Hopefully that has given you an insight into the advantages of using running power over other methods. Next up I’m going to delve into a bit more of the science:
What is running power?
Running power is measured in the arbitrary measurement of a running watt. This is a combination of force (in newtons) and speed (metres per second), with higher numbers translating into faster running. When you hit a hill the power meter will recognise this and increase the power to represent the additional effort you are using to fight gravity. On the downhills it will recognise the gravitational assist and lower the power number to represent the reduced level of force you are having to generate yourself. This helps us pace our runs much more accurately.
Training with Running Power
Hopefully by now the concept sounds appealing at the very least. So how do you get started? First off you need a running power meter. I would recommend against any power meter which generates numbers based on speed derived from a GPS signal. This will normally involve an algorithm which looks at your cadence and your speed to generate an estimation of power. For my money though, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Running power in itself is an algorithm. So an algorithm that is required to generate another algorithm has a large margin of error. I use a Stryd footpod which is easily the most popular running power meter available currently. I will be writing the rest of this article on the assumption this is what you are using.
These numbers, like those from a cycling power meter are fairly meaningless without a benchmark. Is 250W a lot? What should you be hitting in your intervals? Is there a number you should be staying below during your event? When is your run too easy? To find the answer to these questions, we need to find a threshold, a point where an effort becomes unsustainable. The simplest way to use this is to use the Stryd auto CP (critical power) calculator. This harvests the data from all of your runs to give you an estimation of your ability. It’s important you feed it a variety of data points, from sprints to 5Ks and long runs. Don’t expect an accurate number after a few easy runs.
Zone training is nothing new as we have zones for pace and heart rate. What’s different here is the fact that thresholdis calculated by looking at thousands of data points rather than a single point. This means our threshold is much more accurate. It also updates automatically with time. Smash out a big hill session which included your best two minute power? Your threshold may improve by a couple of watts. Absolutely storm that cross country race? You may see a nice big boost to represent that. It’s important to note that these are based on a 90 day rolling average, so any data older than 90 days will disappear. This can result in sudden increases/decreases to your threshold power even if you’ve spent the day on the sofa.
The way our power threshold updates itself automatically reduces the need for formal testing every 6-8 weeks. For me this is arguably the biggest benefit of running power. Ensuring your threshold is always up to date.
I don’t like running on a treadmill, however, sometimes it’s a necessary evil. This can be due to the weather, or when we’re in a country where wearing sports clothing in public is not appropriate. One of the frustrating issues I encounter as a coach is accurately recording treadmill workouts. Treadmills vary significantly in accuracy, and the indoor running mode included on sports watches leaves a lot to be desired.
You may be lucky enough to have access to an indoor running facility such as a sprint track or even a full 400M. The lack of GPS signal can be a issue if we want detailed information from our session, but a running power meter provides us with all the information we need, without the GPS accuracy issues which plague even outdoor tracks.
Running with power is the perfect way to record your indoor runs as we get meaningful figures that can be directly compared to your outdoor runs. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re a serious runner who trains indoors regularly, a running power meter is an essential purchase.
My preferred way to train on the treadmill is using Zwift. This is software which takes you through a virtual world as you run where you can also join races and complete workouts. It’s free for runners and pairs with your power meter, so download it and give it a go.
Post Run Analysis
Once you get back from your run your watch will upload your data to an analysis platform of choice. Most software now supports running power, however the level of support varies considerably. If you are a basic user the Stryd Power Centre will offer enough information for you, with the bonus of being free. TrainingPeaks offers some basic functionality, but if you are a serious runner only looking to analyse data, and have little to no interest in purchasing a TrainingPlan then I recommend using WKO instead. It costs the same as a year of TrainingPeaks premium with far greater support for running power. There’s a steep learning curve however, so if you’re a new runner this is probably overkill.
Assuming your threshold is accurate, you will be able to see in detail how hard you ran. This data will be far more insightful than pace or heart rate, and pick up small, rapid changes much better. This could be jumping over a fallen tree or sprinting for a couple of strides to make it across the road before the lights turn green. While these aren’t necessarily actionable data points, the power meter ensures that these efforts are recorded and reflected in your training load calculations.
If you are so inclined, you can take a real deep dive into your data looking at the advanced metrics offered by WKO. Here you can see your leg spring stiffness, duty factor, percentage of power generated horizontally or vertically, and all manner of other metrics, which I’m not going to go into here.
Two metrics that are worth paying attention to however are running efficiency and horizontal power.
Running efficiency (RE) looks at how effective you are at turning watts into speed. As you may remember, higher speed means higher watts. But you can also create power simply by jumping up and down on the spot, so this metric looks at how efficient you are. Running efficiency is quite a finite metric, but when running at threshold, anything below 0.97 requires improvement, 1.0 is a good score, and 1.03 or above is likely the realm of elite runners. An improvement in RE over time at the same pace/power suggests that you are improving as a runner.
Percentage of power generated in a horizontal plane (or horizontal power) tells you how much power generated is transferred into forward momentum. As mentioned above, you can create power by jumping up and down on the spot, which would create 0% horizontal power, and 100% vertical power. You can’t create 100% horizontal power, but if you can get it up to around 75-80% this suggests you are moving fluidly.
These metrics will vary from run to run, and will be lower on easy or hilly runs so make sure you’re only comparing these with like for like runs.
The real danger here is getting lost in the numbers and over analysing every single data point. Or believing you aren’t capable of more than the software’s predictions. We should still be runners at heart, hitting the roads/trails for fun and the challenge of pushing our limits. Running power data is so in depth we can run the risk of becoming data analysts first instead of athletes.
Running Power for Triathlon
So, if you’re a triathlete, how does this fit into your training? How can you use it to run faster off the bike? The answer is in form power.
When we run off the bike we’re never going to run as well as we will at a standalone event. Depending on your event and ability you may be up to ten hours into the race at this point. Your legs will be tired and stiff from the repeated pedalling action on the bike. Your mobility may be impaired and your legs will be fatigued. This can mean you find yourself not running as quickly as you’d like. Add to this the accumulation of fatigue over the rest of the run and pace isn’t as useful.
Running power takes this into account. It recognises that you’re putting in the effort, even if you’re not travelling as quickly as you would normally. This is form power, it looks at the vertical and lateral movement from the foot compared to the horizontal power which we touched on above. While generating a high amount of form power is bad news for our running, what’s worse is not taking this into account and pushing harder because we feel we’re slacking off.
This becomes imperative to our pacing. We may know we can hold 5:00 for a marathon when fresh, but after a hard 180Km on the bike this may be 5:20, maybe even 5:30. If we stick to our guns (and pride) aiming for 5:00 per KM we could well be slowly running ourselves into the red. Aiming for a power target instead takes our loss of form into account, ensuring we focus on what our body is doing, as opposed to what we think it should be doing.
So, you may be wondering why more people don’t run with power at this point. I’ll break down a few most common issues people have with running power
Elite athletes don’t use it
It’s true, not many professional runners use Stryd. There are some notable exceptions such as Ben Kanute and Olympic Triathlon Champion Gwen Jorgennson. More often than not this is the choice of their coach rather than the athlete, who will adapt an “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Truth be told, if I had an athlete who was winning races training with pace and/or heart rate, I probably wouldn’t suggest they switch to running power. Elite athletes are often training at a level where they can’t afford to try something new, especially going into an Olympic year, so they stick to what they know.
Some very successful coaches out there won’t even want their athletes to wear watches. They’ll stand next to the start/finish line of a track with their stopwatch, barking splits out to runners as they complete every lap. While this is an extreme example, many coaches who qualified in the 20th Century aren’t interested in opening their minds to new training methods. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if they’ve been coaching for 30 years and had great success with their current methods, but they may not be getting the most out of their athletes.
This also extends to athletes who may not understand what running power is, how to set it up, or how to use it to make themselves faster. To them it’s just a number that appears on their watch. I hope to demystify it in more detail with more articles in future.
Just not appealing
For some, training with heart rate and pace is enough, or even too much in some cases. If you live a very busy life and don’t have the time, headspace or inclination to look through your numbers after a run. For some, running is a time for them to switch off, lose themselves in nature, or blow off some steam. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not a “mature technology”
It’s true that our understanding of running power is accelerating at a rapid pace. In fact it could be argued that the entire concept is in beta testing with rapid developments and new interpretations of the data on a regular basis. The concept is based on an algorithm and it’s hard to see how that could be changed currently, so it’s hard to see it becoming as reliable as cycling power any time soon. That being said, look at the way Team Sky and British Cycling advanced the knowledge of cycling power, first developed in the 80s, to emerge as a dominant force in 2012. There is a lot of potential in running power, and early adopters with the right guidance can capitalise on its benefits.
Early versions were poor
Running power meters first arrived on the scene back in 2015 with the Stryd chest strap. By the company’s own admission more recently, it left a lot to be desired. New generations have improved the accuracy and the stability of running power significantly.
The best thing of all though? Just because you record running power doesn’t mean you can’t also run with pace, heart rate or RPE. You can record all four at once, and choose whichever you want to dictate the intensity of your workout. Following a MAF plan? Increases in power can reassure you the training is working.
It may be you want a running power meter simply to record your pace more accurately, or you’re only interested in a single metric such as leg spring stiffness or horizontal power. As with everything in our sport, you only need to take it as seriously as you want. If you have the cash I recommend you give it a go though. It may be just what you need to take your running to the next level.
There are limited resources out there for running power, but I have a few recommendations:
Palladino Power Project
Steve Palladino is an accomplished running coach who has invested heavily in running power, and has created a Facebook group to act as an open forum to discuss running power. With up to date information and good discussions, I recommend you join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PalladinoPowerProject
Run With Power by Jim Vance
Unfortunately this book is slightly out of date now and I’m hoping for a second edition. However it’s still the primary source of information for running power.
The Secret of Running by Hans van Dijk and Ron van Megen
This is a more up to date book which includes useful information on Running Power
As a company, Stryd have done a good job of creating a number of resources for runners. This includes articles on their website, their podcast and their Facebook group where runners can ask questions and discuss training with Stryd staff https://www.facebook.com/groups/strydcommunity
I hope this has opened your eyes to the potential benefits of running with power. If you have a running power meter and are struggling to understand your data, why not book in a coaching consultation with us here where we can talk you through the process and help get your training on track.
Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.
Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.
What is a road bike?
This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:
Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.
You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.
Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.
You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.
Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.
You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.
The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel.
You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.
I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.
You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.
Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!
Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix
These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.
Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane
These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.
Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series
This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.
Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing.
How much should I spend?
This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.
These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.
This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration.
These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.
So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.
Where does your money go?
It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:
There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons.
“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.
Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap
Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option
This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well.
Pros: Light, responsive, durable
Cons: Slightly harsher ride
“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.
Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride
Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials
Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.
A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c.
As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.
Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.
This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably.
Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.
In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.
The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.
This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.
One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.
Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano.
With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.
There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes? They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.
It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.
This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you.
Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.
Research and Development
As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.
To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike.
Geometry and fit
Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.
This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there.
The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer.
The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle.
This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.
Shape of saddle
Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.
The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.
This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level.
How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale.
Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.
Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.
You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.
A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.
Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.
Choosing the right bike for you
By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:
Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.
I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.
If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.
Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.
Budgeting for extras
Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.
Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency” C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”
This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:
This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.
Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.
Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat.
The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here
Saddle bag and basic tools: £40
You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient.
I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.
Bottle cage and bottle £20
This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders.
Cleaning products and lubricants £30
A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.
Cycling shorts and jersey £100
Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)
Rain cape: £50
It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations.
Arm and leg warmers: £40
Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.
You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.
If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time.
Where to buy the bike
One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable.
Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.
Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support.
I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of 99 questions.
I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:
A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
Budget for accessories
Get a bike fit
Buy the bike which speaks to you
Bikes have very different geometries
Make sure you’re buying a road bike
Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
Remember to buy pedals
Upgrade your tyres
I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?