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The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to Power Meters

stages power meter crank arm

For the serious cyclist, the power meter is the tool of choice. They’ve become the standard, and prices are gradually coming down, making them accessible for more and more cyclists.

This will be your guide to buying a power meter!

Since everyone’s needs and circumstances are different, we’ll compare the available models and figure out which model is best for you.

Why do you want a power meter?

If you’re not already sold on the idea, here’s a quick summary of the benefits of training with power.

A power meter measures your actual power output and, unlike a heart rate monitor, is not influenced by other factors like weather, hydration, your mental or emotional state, etc. It doesn’t matter if you’re riding into the wind or riding a heavier bike than usual. None of that matters.

And all the data is provided in real time with no lag. You can use it to monitor/dictate long endurance rides, recovery rides, and intense intervals – even sprints!

And there’s no better way to do position comparisons or cadence tests than by incorporating data from a power meter.

It can even help measure true calorie expenditure, to help plan your post-workout meals.

Everything you need to know about training with power is covered here.

Types of Power Meters Available

There are four main designs of power meters currently on the market:

  • Rear Hub
  • Crank Arm
  • Chain Ring/Spider
  • Pedals

As you may have guessed, the design is named after where the device is placed on the bike.

Rear Hub

This type of power meter uses strain gauges which are placed within the rear hub.

Currently there is only one – the PowerTap G3.

Crank Arm

These typically use a strain gauge that is glued onto the inside of the crank arm.

Examples include 4iiii, Stages, and Power2Max. There is also the Verve Infocrank, which sets itself apart because everything is enclosed within the crank arm.

Chain Ring/Spider

These types have a strain gauge mounted in an opening somewhere between the spider and rings.

Examples include Quarq, Rotor, and SRM.

Pedals

Pedal-based power meters use strain gauges on the pedals. In some cases, it is built into the pedal body itself. Other times, the gauges are pods that clamp onto the pedal spindle.

Examples include the PowerTap P1, Polar/Look Keo Power, and the Garmin Vector.

Now we can get into the specific power meters…

Tips on Choosing a Power Meter

Here are certain things to think about and options to look for when deciding on a power meter.

Accuracy and Data Quality

Arguably the most important consideration is to get a power meter that’s accurate. You don’t want to be pedaling at 300 watts and your power meter is telling you it’s 500 watts. Even worse, you don’t want your power meter to tell you that it’s 200 watts the next day!

Fortunately, pretty much all power meters these days will be accurate. Some will be slightly better than others, but what really matters is consistency. What I mean is, if your power meter reads at 305 watts when you’re only generating 300 watts, that’s fine. The problem would be if that one day it reads 305 watts and another day it reads 285 watts.

It’s worth pointing out that there is sometimes an issue where a power meter in some uncommon setup combined with a weird pedaling style somehow results in bad readings on a specific power meter. It’s very rare, but the point is, the most accurate power meter for person A might not be the most accurate for person B.

Also consider the left-only power meters. Rather than measuring from both left and right legs, they measure your left-leg power and double that to get total power. Then there’s estimated left/right power, which basically splits the pedal stroke and assumes that the power reading during the crank arm’s upstroke is coming from the opposite leg. And then there are the power meters that will measure both legs independently, giving you the most accurate readings.

Head Unit Compatibility

Remember that for almost all power meters, the price is for the power meter itself. Head units (displays) are sold separately.

What is a head unit? A Garmin Edge 510. A CycleOps Joule. A smartphone.

Most power meters transmit data wirelessly through ANT+ and/or Bluetooth Smart. What matters is that your power meter transmits data in a format in which your head unit can receive it.

Almost all power meters and head units support ANT+ wireless. A few are using Bluetooth Smart. A growing number of power meters support both. Double-check everything before you buy.

Frame Compatibility

There can be a number of issues with fitting a power meter, depending on your frame shape/style, bottom bracket type, and various clearances.

Oddly-shaped frames might render certain units useless and cross them off your list.

Ease of Use

As the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

I’m not sure if they were talking about power meter data, but the point applies nicely. If you want this great data, you have the responsibility to install, calibrate, and configure everything properly. What that entails depends on the specific power meter you purchase.

  • Installation. How many separate parts are there? Are you mechanically inclined? What tools are required?
  • Calibration. Does it come calibrated from the factory? If not, what’s the calibration process like? Does it require an authorized shop/technician or can you do it yourself?
  • Battery type/life. How often do you have to change batteries? Is the battery compartment easy to access? Does it use AA, CR2032, or something hard to find? Can you change it yourself or must you send it in to the factory?
  • Firmware updates. Are these easy to apply? Are they released frequently?
  • Performing a “torque zero” or “zero-offset.” Is it simple? Just once at the start of a ride? Do you have to worry about it during the ride?
  • Operating the head unit. Does the interface make sense? Can you access all the data? How do you download it to your computer?

Your Budget

Obviously, your budget is a concern. Prices range from $400 to $4000, with most power meters somewhere around $700 to $1800.

Certain units might not be feasible.

Warranty

These things are delicate. They are electronic devices being subjected to strenuous conditions. And they aren’t cheap.

You definitely want a good warranty and a company that will honor it.

Customer Support

If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you may have noticed that a lot of thought goes into getting the right power meter for your setup. And a lot of thought might go into setting up and using the power meter. And there are a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong.

Suffice it to say, there’s a good chance you’ll have to contact customer support for assistance. Make sure the company offers it!

Availability

Where are you going to purchase your power meter? Some are only available at authorized dealers. Some are sold through the manufacturer website. Some are available in stores now. Some require a 2-4 week wait.

The Available Power Meters for Cycling

There are a lot of them these days. This list is limited to ones in production and commercially available to the public.

For each power meter, I have provided a description, price, link to the manufacturer, and a link to the corresponding review by Ray Maker (DCRainmaker.com) because he is a power meter testing expert!

PowerTap G3 Hub

PowerTap has been around for over 15 years, and they are now owned by Saris.

The PowerTap G3 is a hub-based system, so you either have to buy the hub on its own (which requires a wheel build) or purchase it as part of a complete wheel or wheelset. After that, though, you can’t beat the ease of installation – just pop it on the bike and roll. It’s one of the most convenient and least hassle options.

It works with the PowerOps Joule or any ANT+ head unit.

Price: $790 (hub only)

Manufacturer website: www.powertap.com

Buy online: www.REI.com

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2011/02/cycleops-joule-and-powertap-wheelset-in.html

PowerTap P1 Pedal

New from PowerTap is this pedal-based system. Everything is contained within the pedal body, making for a super easy setup with absolutely no calibration required! (This sets them apart from the Garmin Vector pedals!)

The pedals measure both left and right power. You can quickly and easily swap these between bikes.

Price: $1200

Manufacturer website: http://www.powertap.com/product/powertap-p1-pedals

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2015/08/powertap-p1-pedals-review.html

PowerTap C1 Chainring

Another new release from PowerTap is the C1 chainring, a power meter that’s attached to an FSA-made, one-piece chainring. It mounts onto the existing crankset on your bike; it’s compatible with a wide range of alloy and carbon cranks. It’s available in 53/39, 52/36 and 50/36 chainring tooth configurations for 5 bolt, 110 BCD cranks.

It’s capable of left/right power and offers both dual band ANT+ and Bluetooth SMART connectivity. It comes calibrated from the factory and is an easy install for the home mechanic.

When the chainrings wear out and need replaced, the replacement cost is $199 (plus they also recommend sending in your power meter unit for re-calibration).

Price: $700

Manufacturer website: http://www.powertap.com/product/powertap-c1-chainrings

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2015/05/powertap-pedals-chainringjoule.html

SRM

SRM has been in the power meter game for over 25 years! Over the years, they have developed a reputation as the industry leader, and for good reason. They make an excellent product.

This power meter uses strain gauges embedded in the spider to measure torque. Data can be transmitted to any head unit supporting ANT+.

Unfortunately, the unit is prohibitively expensive, especially these days when so many lower-priced options are very, very good.

Price: $1800 (power meter only)

Plan on about $4000 to build up a full crankset with one.

Manufacturer website: www.srm.de/product/powermeters/

Garmin Vector 2

Now in its second edition, the Garmin Vector is a pedal-based power system that uses pedals plus attached power pods. Dedicated left/right power measurement is available with the Vector 2S. Pairs to any ANT+ head unit (but works best with Garmin’s Edge GPS cycling computers).

It’s fairly easy to swap these pedals between bikes, but the power meter must be calibrated each time it’s installed, so it takes some time and special tools to do the job.

Note that these use Look Keo cleats, but it’s not a Look Keo pedal.

Price: $1,500 (Vector 2)

Or save some money by going with the $900 Vector 2S (left-side-only).

Manufacturer website: garmin.com/en-US/vector/

Buy online: www.REI.com

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2013/09/garmin-vector-review.html

Polar/Look Kéo Power Pedals

Polar partnered with Look for this pedal-based system which has been around for a number of years, but never really caught on, despite being based on the most popular road pedal platform. Why? It used to be compatible only with Polar head units; if you used a Garmin Edge, you were out of luck. But it now transmits data via Bluetooth Smart, with ANT+ compatibility coming sometime in 2016.

The set includes two pedals and two power transmitter pods. It’s easy to attach and switch between bikes; similar to the Garmin Vector, not as sleek at PowerTap P1.

Price: $1,700 (full version)

Save money by choosing the $1,000 Kéo Power Essential (left-side only).

Manufacturer website: http://www.polar.com/us-en/products/accessories/keo_power_bluetooth_smart

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2012/07/polar-look-keo-power-systempedal-based.html

Pioneer Pedaling Monitor

Yes, the same Pioneer that makes car audio equipment is also selling a power meter for cyclists. It’s a crank-based system, compatible only with Shimano Ultegra 6800 and Dura-Ace 9000 cranksets, requiring installation by pros at a Pioneer partner shop.

It measures power output on each crankarm, and records copious amounts of information – so much of it that even the most savvy coaches don’t know what to make of it all! It does work with ANT+ head units; however, to get all the fancy data, it requires the Pioneer SGX-CA500 head unit (sold separately for $300).

Price: $1,850 (full Dura Ace crankset)

Save money by choosing an Ultegra crankset for $1,550. Or send in your own cranks, and have the power meter installed by them, for $999.

There is also a new, left side only unit; here the Dura Ace crank costs $900, Ultegra $800.

Manufacturer website: www.pioneerelectronics.com/PUSA/Cycle+Sports/Our+System

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2015/05/pioneer-system-review.html

Stages Power Meter

Another crank-based system, this one is compatible with most popular cranksets, both alloy and carbon. This means it’s available to riders of all disciplines – road, mountain bike, BMX, cyclocross, and track!

Installation is fairly simple, requiring only swapping out your left-side crankarm. Calibration is easy with the free Stages Power mobile app.

This is a value-oriented power meter, offering left-side only measurement, but it was used by Team Sky in the 2015 Tour de France!

You can purchase the power meter built into a left-side crank arm or purchase a full crankset, with prices ranging from $530 up to $1100.

Price: $530 (power meter + Shimano 105 crank arm)

Manufacturer website: www.stagescycling.com/

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2013/06/stages-review-update.html

Quarq Riken

This Quarq power meter is a “chassis-based” system; it’s sort of like a spider-based system with the unit built into the spider, but with more to it. It is sold with crank arms, but chainrings are sold separately. Uses common, user-serviceable CR2032 coin-style batteries with a claimed 300 hours of riding time. Compatible with ANT+ head units.

Installation is approximately equivalent to installing a regular crankset and cadence sensor.

Price: $1100

Manufacturer website: http://www.quarq.com/

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2013/09/meter-depth-review.html

Power2Max Type S

This is a spider-based system, sold with crank arms. Available in road, track, and MTB configurations. Chainrings sold separately.

Uses the ANT+ standard to transmit data wirelessly to your bike computer.

No calibration required upon installation.

Price: $610 (with FSA Gossamer crank arms)

Manufacturer website: www.power2max.com

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2015/03/the-power2max-type-s-power-meter-in-depth-review.html

Verve InfoCrank

The InfoCrank is a crank-based power meter; it’s unique in that everything is enclosed within the custom-designed crank arms. It contains strain gauges in both crank arms, for true left/right measurements. And it’s factory-calibrated for life, so you don’t have a thing to worry about.

Data is transmitted via the industry-standard ANT+ wireless protocol to a head unit of your choice.

Price: $1750

Manufacturer website: www.vervecycling.com/infocrank/

ROTOR Power Cranks

Based on ROTOR’s 3D+ crank, the Dual Power Cranks use two separate power meters – one left, one right – to provide individual left and right “power balance” measurement. There are actually four strain gauges per crank arm!

ANT+ compatibility means it will pair nicely with most popular head units. Easy battery replacement.

Price: $1559

Manufacturer website: http://power.rotorbike.com/

ROTOR InPower

This new offering from ROTOR is totally different from their power cranks. The power meter is mostly located within the BB spindle. All you see is the battery door, where you can slide in the AA battery that’s claimed to last for 300 hours of ride time.

This is excellent for mountain bikers and cyclo-cross racers looking to shield their power meter from the elements.

It uses left-only power measurement, but it offers constant rotational measurement, which allows you to see your entire pedal stroke. This shows where in the pedal stroke you’re generating maximum power (along with dead spots).

ANT+ compatible.

Price: $939 (cranks and BB; no chainrings)

Manufacturer website: http://inpower.rotorbike.com/

4iiii Precision Power Meter

This is a crank-based power meter which works with aluminum crank arms. It’s available through their factory install program, which means you send them your crank arm, they install and calibrate the power meter, and then they ship the arm back to you. All you have to do is re-install the crank arm on your bike.

Compatible with both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart head units.

Price: $400

Manufacturer website: http://4iiii.com/product/precision/

Recent DC Rainmaker review: http://www.dcrainmaker.com/2014/09/4iiiis-introduces-precision.html

iBike Newton

The iBike power meter has always been considered a faux-power meter. What that means is, it measures everything but the torque you’re applying (speed, cadence, wind, elevation, etc.) and then calculates power based on that. This latest version is reported to be far more accurate than earlier renditions, but it takes quite a bit of effort to get it set up and calibrated, and that causes problems for many people. The problem that remains, in my eyes, is that the more measures it has to take, the more room for error.

On the plus side, it is easily switched from bike to bike since it’s just a head unit. Unfortunately, as a head unit, it’s not even worthy of being compared to a Garmin Edge.

And now there are other, superior units which actually cost less than this! If the iBike was $200, that would be one thing, but it’s not.

Price: $499

Manufacturer website: http://www.ibikesports.com/

That’s a lot of power meters! How could you possibly choose just one…

The Best Power Meter for ______

It’s 2016. Pretty much every power meter is accurate and reliable these days. Now, the challenge becomes choosing the one that’s right for you.

Here are some suggestions!

Best power meter for mountain bikers

When it comes to power meters for mountain bikers, there are plenty of options.

In years past, the PowerTap hub-based system was the only viable option. Today, the PowerTap G3 hub is still one of the best options.

But there are also crank-based power meters that will work on your mountain bike – both the Stages and the 4iiii power meters are compatible with a variety of MTB cranks from Shimano, SRAM, and Cannondale. These units are less expensive than the PowerTap hub.

Best power meter for the rider on a budget

If you’re looking for the best value, the crank-based systems can’t be beat.

You have the 4iiii Precision Power Meter for $400 (if you provide the crank arm,) and the Stages Power Meter for $530 (which gets you the power meter pre-installed on a Shimano 105 left-side crank arm).

Both systems offer low prices and easy installations.

Best power meter if you have a knee injury

If you have a history of knee injuries as I do, you’re going to want a power meter that tracks both left- and right-side power, so that you can see if your legs are pedaling at an even-strength. It’s possible that one leg is going to be compensating for the other, and you’ll want to correct that sooner rather than later.

Ideally, you’ll find a system that will analyze the details of your entire pedal stroke.

The ROTOR Power Cranks and Verve InfoCrank systems employ gauges in both crank arms; if you have $1700 to spend, these are excellent options.

At $1500, the Garmin Vector pedals are an option. Especially interesting is their Cycling Dynamics software that could help analyze your pedal stroke.

At $1200, you could choose the PowerTap P1 pedals.

Finally, there are the PowerTap C1 Chainrings – the only one doing left/right power at the $700 price point!

Best power meter for a data junkie

If you want to collect and analyze tons of data, more than most people could imagine, then the Pioneer Pedaling Monitor (with Pioneer head unit) is your top choice. The Pioneer system is going to set you back at least $1300 ($1000 to have it installed on your existing cranks + $300 for the head unit).

Alternatively, the Garmin Vector pedals are a good choice because of their compatibility with Garmin’s new Cycling Dynamics metrics.

Best power meter for BMX

The SRM Power Meter is available on Shimano DRX crank arms, specific to BMX.

For less than half that price, you could get a Stages Power Meter mated to Shimano XT crank arms. (Currently, the Stages power meter pre-installed on a Shimano XT crank arm is $580.)

Best power meter for cyclocross

Again, the Stages and 4iiii crank-based power meters are excellent choices, thanks to their low prices and compatibility with most aluminum cranksets you might be using.

Another good choice is the ROTOR InPower crankset, which houses the power meter within the BB shell, so it’s hidden from the dangers of sand pits and barriers.

Best power meter for multiple bikes

If you own multiple bikes, you’re probably going to want a power meter you can swap between bikes.

If you have a stable of road bikes, the PowerTap P1 pedals are the easy answer. They can be swapped between bikes quickly and easily, using only an 8mm hex wrench. No extra calibration is required.

For mountain bikes, it’s not so simple. The PowerTap G3 hub is an option, assuming one style or rear wheel is applicable to all your mountain bikes. I’d say the best option these days is the Stages or 4iiii crank arm setups. Either one would require swapping the left-side crank arm, which requires more tools than doing a wheel swap, but it allows you to run different styles of wheel.

Final Words of Advice

It’s a great time to be buying a power meter! There are so many good power meters on the market, and the recent introductions of high-quality yet low-price power meters have forced price drops on the more expensive units.

Personally, I am most interested in the PowerTap P1 Pedals for their ease-of-use and versatility, and the Stages and 4iiii offerings due to the low price and ability to go on my mountain bike.

 

What power meter are you looking at?

Please share your opinions in the comments!

 

Also, if you hear of any news or price drops, please notify me below! Thanks!

 

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2 Comments
  1. Thanks for a well articulated article on a not so easy topic to understand.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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