5 Ways to Use the Brake Power Meter to Train Yourself to Ride Faster

After looking at braking data for the last several years, we’ve noticed there are several ways to use the data to ride safer, in more control, and faster.

Here’s 5 ways:

Learn how much energy you are wasting

Our power meters (the drivetrain ones) tell us how much energy we are putting out to ride a trail. The brake power meter makes it easy for us to see how much of that energy we are taking away. In its simplest form, the less energy we take away, the more we have left to use to move forward!

Think of an XC racer: the rider completes 1000 Joules of work on a climb, but takes away 700 Joules on the descent. This rider might want to think about training to ride more efficiently so that he can complete the tracks faster.

Brake harder

The fastest riders brake harder than the slower ones. They brake this way because they are waiting longer to brake. This results in more time spent going faster!

Riders can review their braking patterns and try to complete a higher brake power through practice. It will be clear that doing all their brake work in a short time (higher brake power) is usually faster.

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Even the pros learn to ride faster using the Brake Power Meter

Brake before the corners

Beginners brake heavily inside corners. This isn’t very good as it can result in loss of traction (the bike is being leaned!) and a crash. It’s easy for us to think about braking before the corners, and many riders think they are braking before the corners. However, when they see the trace of their braking it is clear what is going on…many riders are surprised to find themselves actually braking in the corners!

Rely less on your rear brake

The pros brake very evenly with their front and rear brakes. This is not only faster, but usually aids in more control. On the other hand, intermediate riders drag the rear brake. Most of the time, they have no idea they are dragging the brake, but this is not a very good way to ride.

When riders see the trace of themselves dragging their brakes, they can aim to fix this, which usually helps in the other points above. After a few sessions with the brake power meter they can often fix this.

Look for places to avoid braking

This is something the beginners to pros can do, and is a combination of all the above points. We know braking lightly isn’t very fast and might not be the most controlled (especially on the slippery stuff!). We also know we need to slow down before the corners so that we can be in control within them and exit with better speed. These can be helped by using the brakes evenly.

So what we do is look at the brake power trace for any instance that doesn’t agree with an ideal braking strategy. Light braking, rear-only braking, braking in corners are things we definitely want to review to see if they can be done properly. This is often apparent in the trace we view of raw data, but often is easier to see after the BPM is linked with the helmet camera.

The faster you are the closer you will want to look. Seconds count in racing, and informed braking improves race performance. Even the pros benefit 🙂

I can’t wait until you all can ride it too!!

The difference is clear

One of the early research studies we did investigated the differences in braking between beginners and experts. The particular graph below was from a study we did looking at a short descent leading in to a long sweeping turn. We did all the sciencey things like control speed and bike setup, and clear differences came out between the groups.

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This figure shows relative brake power across the short course. We measured lots and lots of things…

We broke the track down in to sections, and analyzed tons of data for many many months. It came as no surprise that the experts were faster (a LOT faster) over the short distance.

While the stopwatch doesn’t lie, sometimes the eye does. None of the braking differences were clear while watching the hundreds of trials, but by looking at the braking data itself, we were able to come up with recommendations for beginners to ride more efficiently.

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This is the same as in fitness training: sure, the race times don’t lie, but if we want to get faster, we need to know what we are actually doing out on the race course.

So what do we do? We record data, analyze data, hire a coach, practice, practice, practice and GET FASTER!

PRESS: Brake Power Meter on Pinkbike

Up until Interbike last year, we had been pretty quiet about the brake power meter. I had collected a bunch of years worth of data during actual riding and we’d all been working hard, but mostly working quietly.

Then we went to Interbike, and things kind of exploded! No one had seen a brake power meter before, and our old clunky prototype was more than a head-turner when walking through the outdoor demo!

Pinkbike were one of the first in the industry to pick the story up. It was really exciting showing them something totally new for the first time–a real world-first!pinkbike article

 

PRESS: Brake Power Meter on Vital MTB

While at the outdoor demo at Interbike, we showed the brake power meter to Vital MTB.  We were fresh off the plan from NZ and super jet-lagged! I gave a glimpse of some of the data we had collected during real riding on real trails with professional riders and beginner riders. It was super exciting to talk a bit about the data and to show how we can help riders perform better. After all, that’s been the whole point of all these years of research!

Here’s a screen grab below. You can see the old data logger we started with. It’s kind of funny, but that dinosaur is now a decoration! You can read the full article here.

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Brake smarter!

If there was ever a professional race in which both the use of brakes and the use of the pedals became apparent a cycling sport, this was it:

I remember watching that race with some serious excitement–we had already looked at the performance benefits of coasting down hills and was well underway with the brake power meter…and this race made it all clear for everyone.

This race run showed that you could beat the best in the world by braking smarter, and it turns out that you can brake smarter by riding fresher. We didn’t need to see his pedaling power that day (he didn’t pedal!), but soon we will be able to see how the best riders in the world brake. This is so exciting!

If I had a nickel for every time I needed a brake power meter…

Coaching cyclists generally appears to be a job people tend to fall in to. Do kids grow up these days wanting to be a cycling coach?

Firefighter? Sure.
Veterinarian? Everyone.
Cycling coach?

I didn’t have my own cycling coach until after I trained myself into chronic fatigue syndrome, and even then I was reluctant. Pay money for someone to tell me what exercises to do? That was what I’d ask myself, and it was probably the wrong way to approach the question.

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Maybe I should have looked at it like this: pay someone with knowledge to give me the best chance for succeeding at something I work so hard at?

In that case, the answer is invariably YES.

I think I really started to see the value in coaching once I became a coach. For me becoming a coach was really just a way to put my science knowledge to work, but it proved pretty useful given my own racing experiences.

The first guy I coached was Seamus Powell (KHS Factory Team). He was good; he was born to be a bike racer, and well positioned to do so. We had been teammates for a few years, but his coach hadn’t been working out. He knew about my tried-and-true ‘slacker’ training regime, and was willing to give it a go.
[maybe more on this regime later…]

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We changed Seamus’ training plan 100%, and he won two US National MTB titles that same year—one in Elite Super D and one in Single Speed XC! This was right around the time of the ‘Enduro Boom’, and that lanky XC racer was transitioning well. He won another Elite title the next year.

He had this old-as power meter lying around, and we did testing on it regularly. We knew he was fit, but we were pretty sure it wasn’t coincidence that his peak power kept reading out at 1999W (told you it was old…). Under my persuasion, he got a MTB power meter, and I was stoked on the day we could finally analyze race performances!!

Anyone who has analyzed MTB power files has probably walked away from the computer confused on more than one occasion, and rightfully so. I mean, even if we can come to terms with what’s going on uphill, what the heck is going on the rest of the time??

This is even worse when trying to analyze downhill performance specifically, and isn’t any easier whether it’s XC, DH or Enduro, cyclocross or road cycling!! Let’s face it—if it’s possible to win a world cup DH race with no chain, how important is the power meter?

By the time Seamus had gone Full Enduro, I had no idea what his race files meant. Sure, I was able to use sound evidence to guide his training, but we had no idea where he was winning or losing races.

As a coach, I was embarrassed. We were looking for seconds, and had no way to find them.

We needed a solution.

DH and Enduro races are won and lost in the corners. And this doesn’t let you XC guys off the hook—you better believe that more than one XC race has been lost in the corners, too!

We’ve been using power meters to prescribe fitness training for many years now, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a serious racer that doesn’t use one. And now that we can analyze braking data, we can come up with the best strategies, lines and skill training techniques for corners.

It’s the coach’s job to use every tool available to help the athlete perform at peak ability—and approaching this without thinking of things other than just pedal pushing would is a disservice.

So how many nickels would I have?

I’ll let you be the judge.

The birth of the brake power meter

SQUEEEEEAK!!! Skid.
Pedalpedalpedalpedal
Squeeeeaaaaaaaak
pedalpedalpedal

We’ve all ridden with that guy. Whether in a race or just having fun ride in the forest, we’ve all seen him. He’s the proverbial yo-yo of cycling; he brakes too much, and pedals too hard. He’s slow and he’s fast all at the same time. Try to make a pass and he speeds up, buzz his tyres and he won’t move out of the way.

My guess is that we’ve all been that guy at one time or another (though I’m sure our brakes didn’t squeak as much!). But whether it was yourself or one of your mates, in the situation above you were probably left wondering: how much quicker could we go without all that unnecessary braking?!?

It was exactly a situation like this in 2014 that led to the development of the brake power meter (BPM from here on out). It was a right-place-at-the-right-time situation, and despite not being unique in wondering about braking, I was in the position to dedicate 4 years of my life trying to understand what all this braking nonsense meant.

GETTING TO THE RIGHT PLACE

I’d spent a lot of years racing bikes- from 24-hour death marches and the Enduro World Series to road criteriums and some cyclocross. I knew what it took to be awesome at these types of events, and had figured out (over too many years) that I lacked some of whatever it was. But in the process of learning I wasn’t going to cut it as a bike racer, I learned a lot about science and saw some holes in the science of the MTB.

I made the big move from Small Town USA to the slightly bigger town of Palmerston North New Zealand, to take up a PhD position at Massey University. I knew I wanted to study MTB…but what about it?? It’s such a complex sport! My supervisors had spent some time quantifying vibrations and they had a great team put together, but I had no idea what I was doing.

LIGHTBULB MOMENT

In the process of collecting some data for another idea we had, I found myself racing my supervisor, Steve, for the win in the local club XC championships. It was a heated battle. We were both suffering and were neck-and-neck for the win!

Now how the heck could I keep up with Steve?? You should seriously see the guy’s calf muscles! He had been a pro roadie for many years and could put out 350W for an hour, no problem.

Was it just a ‘good’ day for me? For his 350W, I was lucky to be pushing 250W with my tongue dragging in the dirt. Sure, the track suited me with its many many many (some would say too many) corners and minimal climbing, but according to our power meters, there was no reason I should be riding with him!

At various points throughout the race, I could hear the hum and squeak of Steve’s brakes. Whether this was due to the bike hanging up for too long and collecting dust or was thanks to his kids playing ‘mechanic’, it didn’t really matter. But thanks to this built-in audio feedback, Steve was able to let both of us know when he was braking.

Being a cheeky racer myself, I started to pay attention to his braking patterns. I knew that if I could save 1/10th of a second on a series of corners, I might make up some of the deficit I’d lose on drag-race and road sections. I made a conscious effort to brake less than he did- after all, I was struggling to keep up! It seemed to be working- after each corner I could see him out of the saddle and on the gas hard, while I remained seated and continued spinning at the same pace I had been.

…so in other words, I was putting in fewer big efforts by maintaining my speed more efficiently.

Cycling sports are all about efficiency, and optimizing efficiency to go as fast as we can—this is why we train our energy systems, lube our chains, stare at our power meters, replace worn-out bearings and pump up our tires to a pressure that juuuuust right. But maybe we should be paying attention to other kinds of efficiencies—like how efficiently we can ride?

At the end of the race only one second separated Steve and I, with each of us racing to our strengths for that course. It wasn’t hard to figure out that I was able to ride with Steve because he was wasting some of his energy; the next day I gathered my supervisors and told them I wanted to measure braking.

We started working on the brake power meter that day.