What is a Watt bike? Guardian sports editor discovers the benefits and the toll of a session on the British Cycling backed training system.
Graham Smyth writes...
How can a piece of kit that looks so good leave you feeling so bad?
The Wattbike has a futuristic look, and the claim is that it can move your cycling fitness and technique forward in leaps and bounds.
Unfortunately, as with any piece of equipment or training regime, there is no quick fix, there are no short cuts – it still all comes down to the effort you are prepared to put in.
And the Wattbike is no different – it will only help you improve if you’re willing to go through the pain barrier.
However, this piece of equipment will point you to your areas of weakness and let you know exactly how you’re performing.
As you cycle, the Wattbike collects data – lots and lots of data – in real time and tells you all about your technique, fitness and power output.
Steve Chambers at Apple Fitness, the man who convinced me to make my sprint triathlon debut last year, talked me through a Wattbike session, before making me do one.
It begins as any ‘ride’ on a stationary bike does, pushing your toes into the clips and working the pedals round and round.
Steve then took a wander round and assessed how the bike needed to be set up to fit my height, working out angles based on the position of my leg during a revolution and adjusting the saddle and handlebars accordingly.
For those with their own cycling shoes and pedals, you can attach those to the bike for a truly personalised workout.
Then, the hard work begins.
At first, I just warmed up with a brisk cycle on a fairly low resistance.
The little screen in front of me analysed the balance of power I was putting through each pedal and portrayed it in a diagram that changed with every stroke.
Ideally, you don’t want any ‘dead spots’ in your technique, so you can cycle more efficiently and therefore increase your power, speed and distance.
With this real-time imagery in front of me, it made me think more about trying to make each pedal stroke equal in terms of efficiency, on each side.
The diagram showed that I was ‘slacking’ a little at the bottom of each pedal stroke, but it also showed I was putting 50 per cent of my power through each leg, so my balance was pretty good.
The next test was a 20-minute power evaluation, to find out what kind of power I could output and sustain for the duration.
Psychology played a part, because although I set off with quite a pace, I was mindful of keeping some energy for the final minutes and later the data would reveal that I had worked well within my capabilities. In short, could have done better.
Watching the screen as the data comes in is fascinating, because you know when you’re not working hard enough and you try to react with more power, or more hard work.
It’s hard work, trying to maintain a certain level of power for 20 minutes.
But the first session gives you a base from which you can build.
I averaged 179 watts for the 20 minutes, and peaked at 389 watts. Steve suggested that next time I could work in five minute blocks, getting my body used to churning out say 200 watts, with more restful periods in between.
The aim would then be to get to a point where I could average 200w for the full 20 minutes.
There’s no doubt you can get a good workout on the bike, with almost 300 calories burned in 20 minutes.
To finish the session, Steve had something that sounded relatively easy but felt horrific.
Six second power peak tests.
From a stationary start, I had to blast the pedals with as much force as I could generate, as fast as my legs could go, for just six seconds.
Six seconds isn’t a long time if you’re engaging in a pleasant activity, or sitting still, doing nothing at all and in fact it might take you around six seconds to read this sentence.
But when you’re trying to churn those pedals round and round with everything you can muster, it seems to drag for an unreasonable amount of time.
It took a few attempts, but I ‘maxed’ at 1,040 watts.
Impressive? Not so much. Sprint sensation Mark Cavendish will generate 1,600w after riding all day in a stage of a tour race.
It’s a start, however, and a point from which I can progress.
Does the Wattbike help you improve? It must do, because British Cycling swear by it, along with other top sporting bodies and coaches.
Is it fun? It depends how you’re geared as a human. If you enjoy testing yourself then yes, it is fun.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely, if you’re serious about your cycling or you just want to improve your fitness.
As someone just getting into the sport of cycling, I can definitely see the merits of semi-regular sessions on the Wattbike to make me a better cyclist, and in turn make my outings on the roads more pleasant.