Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.
Training and racing with power is a given on the road at the elite level, but what about for gravel? Do you need a power meter for gravel racing? Or is this one more sign of roadies ‘ruining’ gravel? I checked in with my friends the Legans, who know gravel as well as anybody. Kristen runs a power meter; Nick does not.
Obviously, there is a spectrum of racing in gravel; a big part of the format’s popularity stems from its wide-open, inclusive nature. Like a running marathon, you often have ‘mullet racing’: business at the front, party at the back. Or to borrow a phrase from Selene Yeager, you have both competers and completers out there, each with their own goals.
But this being VeloNews, we pay attention to what happens at the front of the race, even though we very much enjoy often being in the middle of the field ourselves. So, do you need a power meter?
For context, Kristen Legan is a former professional athlete and current head coach at Rambleur Coaching, which specializes in gravel. She been on the podium at events like the race formerly known as Dirty Kanza (in both the 200-mile version and the 350-mile XL), Almanzo, and Bleeding Kansas.
Nick Legan literally wrote the book on Gravel Cycling. He has a unique perspective, having been a mechanic for everyone from gold medalists at the Olympic Games to riders in the Tour de France, and he has been doing long-distance gravel since well before it was trendy. He’s now the road marketing manager for Shimano, where has played a driving role in the component company’s GRX gravel group.
VeloNews: Nick, you recently pulled power meters off your bikes. What’s your history with them?
Nick Legan: I had a PowerTap back in the day, in what, 2002? And I rode consistently with power from 2013 until recently. I used it a lot in training, especially when I was being specific about intervals in preparation for certain events. But lately I have not been paying attention as much, partially because I have not been focused on short events.
I used it as tool to learn myself. Now I know what hard is, I know what really hard is. And sometimes it’s nice to shut that off, and not focus on things like TSS. When you have power, you focus on the work you’re doing, not focusing on the recovery that you need.
Another reason is just logistics: We [Shimano] don’t make a GRX meter, and I’ve been experimenting with running shorter cranks recently.
VN: Kristen, what about you? When did you start riding with power?
Kristen Legan: First of all, Nick has been looking at my notes, talking about a power meter as a tool to learn yourself. So I want to call him out on that. But I have had power the whole time I have ridden and raced bikes, back to 2009, when I first started in triathlon.
The way I think about it, power is a tool. It lends a lot of efficiency to your training, and it’s a great way to measure your progress as you get faster, fitter, stronger, more powerful. How you use that tool comes down to what your goals and intentions are.
There are times like now, at the end of October during this COVID year, when it’s great to just go out and ride for fun and not be staring at your computer, just ride on feel. Especially if, like Nick said, you have already learned from your power meter what the different zones feel like. The hardest thing I run into as a coach with newer riders is that they go too hard, thinking they are going easy when they are not.
Also with gravel, as terrain and conditions vary so much, you can’t measure by speed as much.
NL: I disagree with that. The goal is always speed. People get stuck on the idea of a steady power number, but whether it’s Taylor Phinney or Graham Obree, these guys would tell you, the goal is speed. Power doesn’t teach you how to ride a section of road efficiently, or the right lines to take through a technical section, or how to recover in a group. Cycling has been reduced to this numbers game, this equation. There is a lot more to it.
KL: Power can be that tool that makes those observations even more powerful. In a group, for instance, you can see things like, when I’m at this angle to this rider in this crosswind, my power goes down for the same speed. You can learn to maximize your power for the same speed.
NL: I had a power meter on for the Tour Divide, and looking back, that is valuable data. I don’t need to use it in the race, but to record it during the race.
VN: Kristen, do you look at your data while racing?
KL: Somewhat, but mostly I am paying attention to the other racers and the course.
NL: Gravel racing has this perception as a steady state effort, but if you are racing at the front, it’s anything but. That’s why gravel coaches have their athletes do intervals, not just for the power production, but also for the recovery adaptations.
VN: Okay, last question: Favorite gravel race?
KL: Bleeding Kansas.
NL: Trans Iowa.