The beginning of my Wattbike experiment

Last September at the Cycle Show at the NEC I had a fascinating conversation with Matt Moran from WattBike, which has led to this post and the start of this experiment.

The context for it was as follows:

I’ve ridden reasonably regularly (i.e. at least a couple of times a week) since late 2008. I’ve now ridden over 20,000kms mostly around Kent, Sussex and Surrey.

At first I found my performance would just improve by riding more and in 2011, I reached a bit of a peak where I could average 29kmh on a rolling solo ride over 2-3 hours. After that, no matter what I tried I couldn’t go faster. An injury here and there (most often shoulder) meant I’ve had a few periods of about 6 consecutive weeks off my bike in a row, which have knocked my fitness and speed each time.

I’ve ridden up to about 750km in a month with plenty of climbing and at best, I might get to that 29kmh average again but never more.

Last year I averaged about 500km a month, which is the most I’ve achieved yet. Still no faster than 29kmh an hour though. I hired a coach for a while, which made me realise I’m not very good at following specific instructions and I found it much more difficult than I thought to ride to instructions over rolling countryside.

All the while my main riding partner has religiously used his turbo trainer 2-3 times a week all year round. My turbo is extremely unloved and only gets dusted off in extreme weather or situations.

Interestingly my friend, who is a very good rider anyway, has got faster and faster. He now comfortably rides at averages of over 30kmh on the same (if not hillier) rolling countryside that I ride on – also on solo rides.

So with that as my background, the chat with Matt from Wattbike at the Cycle Show was in simple terms about how using a Wattbike might allow me to make some elusive improvements. The precision of the Wattbike’s power metre and the fact that it’s recording data 100x a second makes it a powerful tool for structured training in a way that just training with a power meter (if you have one) is very hard to do. The Wattbike gives you a controlled environment and platform that enables you to ride very specifically to hit exact training goals and routines.

As a part of the standard programmes that come with a Wattbike, they all begin with a fitness test, then you test again part way through the 16 week programme. This is important because in the first 6 weeks or so of training on the Wattbike you should improve your performance and power (according to WattBike), so you test again and adjust your heart rate and power zones as you move on – allowing your improvements to build upon themselves during the course of the programme.

I thought this was all fascinating. I had been coming to the conclusion that structured training was an important next step in my cycling to see if I can make some gains and improvements in my power and riding. Considering that old saying that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got, I thought it was time to try something new. I’m also not going to be able to spend as much time riding this year as I need to find more work that pays me rather than being out riding my bike (sadly as I am still yet to win the lottery).

So I made a pitch to Matt at Wattbike to see if they’d be up for loaning a far from elite athlete like myself a Wattbike and allow me to follow one of their standard programmes for 16 weeks, I’d like to see what improvements I (a MAMIL) could make. If you follow Wattbike, you’ll no doubt have seen all the elite, national, international and olympic level athletes that use them, which is nice. I wanted to know how someone much more ordinary might get on with one. So now we’ll get to find out – admittedly this is a sample size of one.

The Wattbike is here! The experiment begins

The Wattbike is here! The experiment begins

I’m also hoping to ride Liege Bastogne Liege (LBL) in late April and the Wattbike is now a key part of my training, but LBL falls at week 11 of 16 of my plan. It’ll have to be a good progress indicator.

Now speaking of progress indicators, I already have a couple of interesting points of reference.

This time last year at the London Bike Show, Jaguar were kind enough to let me have a go at the Bikeradar training hub, which was the first time I underwent a fitness test (http://girodilento.com/the-london-bike-show-bikeradar-training-hub/ ). The result from that was a Maximum Minute Power score of 295w and a maximum heart rate of 175bpm.

Since that test, I’ve ridden about 6,000km with my longest ride being at the Tour of Flanders sportive last year (http://girodilento.com/the-tour-of-flanders-from-the-gutter/), so a good year of riding with a 6 weeks break for a shoulder injury again.

The day after the Wattbike arrived I did a 3 minute aerobic test on it. This consisted of a 20 minute warmup and then riding as hard as I could for 3 minutes and then the same 20 minute warm down.

I have to say I was delighted with the result. A maximum minute power of 339w and a maximum heart rate of 180bpm. So this is my starting point. I did the test just once – it was enough and my score was good enough to suggest I should choose the Sportive level 4 plan for my 16 week adventure.

After my first 3 minute aerobic test

After my first 3 minute aerobic test

I started the plan last Sunday and promptly came down with a cold on Monday (in fairness it had been on the verge for a week or two). So whilst it’s not auspicious start, I have begun.

Once you have your fitness score, Wattbike have a calculator on their website which has calculated my heart rate and power training zones. Following the plans on the website (which can also be downloaded as a pdf) I now have heart rate and power zones to train in for each session.

Before each session, I need to work out what fan setting I use (which adjusts the resistance of the unit). The gear table gives me power output at certain RPM levels for each resistance setting. So then I know if I ride at a certain RPM, I need to keep my heart rate at a certain level.

Different zones of riding seem to be done at different RPM levels according to the worked example. For example a recovery ride is at 70RPM. Zone 1 seems to be at 80 RPM etc, etc. So before I get on it, I seem to end up with a bunch of sheets of paper, working out my resistance setting along with my power zones and heart rate zones. It’s not difficult and gets easier each time. However, it would be nice if the Wattbike had all of the sessions stored in the machine and you could just work through the programme from workout to workout after it had filtered through your heart rate/power zones after your test. But it doesn’t do that. Not yet anyway. The great thing about software is that it can be updated and apparently Wattbike have a pretty good record at updating the software regularly.

The paperwork I need to work out my RPM, resistance settings and heart rates zones for each session. Easy!

The paperwork I need to work out my RPM, resistance settings and heart rates zones for each session. Easy!

So anyway in my first week, I’ve done 3 sessions and my test. It’s all been recorded both in the Wattbike itself and I’ve synced my Garmin Edge 800 with it and I’m uploading all my workouts on to my Strava profile (http://www.strava.com/athletes/girodilento) to keep a log. I’m going to do an update blog every two weeks, through to the end, so you can track how I do at following instructions and if and how I improve. At the end of week one, Strava tells me I’ve ridden 100km on the Wattbike.

For me this is genuinely an experiment. I’m going to follow the instructions as closely as I can and spend as much time as I should riding the kinds of sessions the Wattbike programme outlines. From there hopefully it will show what an ordinary and reasonably committed rider can achieve in 16 weeks and what it’s been like to switch from riding outdoors to doing more indoors.

With my heart rate zones, my Garmin, a drink & a tea towel!

With my heart rate zones, my Garmin, a drink & a tea towel!

I hope you’ll find it interesting too. Please do leave comments with any questions you can think of and I’ll either reply or cover them in the next training update.


Thanks for reading and thanks to Wattbike for giving me the opportunity to do this.

For more information – you can visit Wattbike here: http://wattbike.com/uk/