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In the (Feed)Zone
w/Mark Swartzendruber


The man asked me "Druber, how much do you train every week?"

My response was "I dunno 10-15 hours on average I guess, just like everyone else."

The man responded "Well, my genetics must suck because I do 8-10 hours and I can barely hang on in any race that I'm in. No matter what I do I just can't keep up with the good guys."

"Define good." I said which then lead into a discussion of watts and outputs and lactate thresholds. I quickly grew bored and noted that I had a 3.5 hour drive ahead of me and needed to get on the road.

Earlier in the day I had won the USCF Illinois District TT masters division with a time of 42:06 over a 20 mile course. It was a beautiful day and I felt good so I also registered for the 1, 2 category as well. My second ride of the day was: 50 slower for a 42:56, which was good for second place in the 1, 2 division behind young John Meyer (Turin), who I've noted in the (Feed)Zone as a rider to be reckoned with if he continues his steep trajectory of performance improvements. My 42:06 was the fastest time of the day and the 42:56 was the third best time behind John's 42:40.


The time trial is the race of truth. It is called such because it is the only form of bike racing in which it is impossible to scam your win to a win. You can't suck like a leech on the back of the winning break all day and then out kick your break mates at the finish. You can't take multiple free laps with 'false flats' and rest up while your competitors are going hypoxic on the course. You don't have a team to protect you and chase breaks for you while you remain in the draft of the peloton. The time trial is the only form of bike racing that regardless technological advancement, the strongest guy will always go the fastest. It's called "The System".

For as long as mankind has walked the planet, he has put great amounts of mental energy into gaining more output or currency with less work. This inherent instinct has lead to great inventions such as the cotton gin but it has also produced a great many hucksters and televangelists. As Billy notes, there is serious money to be made in the sale of buncombe to rubes.

As I peruse the cycling blogs and web sites on any given day, I find an increasing number of riders who are taking drastic measures in an attempt to cheat The System. There exists an entire world, a subculture of cycling devoted to finding a way to purchase additional wattage so to speak. It is as if watts can be obtained or given away like "Carbon Emission Credits" in the open market. I find this to be plain silly, but I'll give you examples.

- Using Veloflex Record clinchers with latex tubes (to the tune of roughly $100 per wheel) buys you 25 additional watts.

- Before an event make sure you have about 50 miles of use on your tires as a slightly used tire can buy you roughly 3 watts.

- Taking a hack saw to completely chop the bull horns off of your aero bars buys you about 10-15 watts depending on the size of the bull horns (no mention of how to steer the bike or the loss of time at starts and turn around points due to nothing to grip while you sprint up to speed)

- Tufo tubulars and tubular clinchers "cost" you roughly 25 watts.

- Butyl tubes cost you 12 watts even if they're inside of "fast" tires.

- A water bottle (even empty) on your down tube buys you 4 watts.

- Ceramic derailleur pulley bearings buy you 2 watts.

- Pedaling with your knees close to the top tube will buy you about 10 watts

- A Rudy Project helmet costs you 5 watts while a Spuik helmet buys you 5 watts but the Garneau helmet might actually purchase you 7 watts.

One can imagine the other hare brained ideas being floated. Recently I heard of one "watt trader" (a person who operates under the delusion that watts can be bought and sold like options contracts at the Chicago Board of Trade) trying a cleat position under the arch of his foot rather than under the ball of his foot. This simple move could potentially purchase 5-10 watts. Not to mention future knee problems. 'Tis but a small price to pay in the procurement of precious watts.

Much scientific experimentation, and data collection goes into the theory that watts, like stocks and bonds, can be bought and sold. And, a great deal of currency is collected by watt brokerage houses from watt traders who purchase at great expense, tools that will help monitor the flow of watts and increase the value of the watts produced. You know, sort of leveraging the watts…For only $3000 I can help you get 1.5 watts of use for every 1(one) watt produced. This is called buying watts on margin. It's all well and good until the watt trader tosses his leg across the top tube and gets a count down to start his TT. Ultimately there isn't enough fuel to power the additional watts that were purchased on margin and the watt trader faces a margin call about 5k into his TT. The entire system implodes into watt market meltdown. Rather than looking into the cause of the fuel shortage (supply), the watt trader invariably will return to futile attempts to purchase additional watts (demand) by changing tires or helmets or looking for a faster skin suit. Thereby the supply/demand equilibrium again gets upset, wattage prices spike and the market crashes again when the wattage trader again fails to break 56:00 for a 40k. Meanwhile, the wattage brokerage firms continue to disregard supply as they build hype irrational exuberance toward demand. They make money regardless of market conditions.


Alchemists selling the myth that technology can make 299 watts act like 450 watts don't like to reveal the fact that wattage in and of itself is not the final measure of the capability to make speed. I won't delve into an individuals ability to tolerate pain and the fact that lactate threshold cannot be "increased" (the body can be trained to TOLERATE effort at lactate threshold and can be trained to recover from that effort more quickly but lactate threshold cannot be physiologically "increased") and any of the other key ingredients to successfully making speed in a time trial - like not watching "The Big Lebowski" during an event. Those factors surely come into play, but the greatest indicator of whether an individual will EVER produce times able to compete at an elite level (state, national and world championships) is wattage per kilogram of body weight - not simply gross wattage.

Please review the following chart:

Table from Training and Racing with a Powermeter, by Andrew Coggan & Hunter Allen, VeloPress, 2005
5 s 1 min 5 min 20 min
World Champion/World Record Holder 23.5 11.5 7.6 6.62
23.16 11.35 7.46 6.5
22.82 11.2 7.33 6.38
22.48 11.05 7.19 6.26
World Class 22.14 10.9 7.06 6.14
21.8 10.75 6.92 6.02
21.46 10.6 6.79 5.91
21.12 10.45 6.65 5.79
UCI Div. I/II Pro 20.78 10.3 6.52 5.67
20.44 10.15 6.38 5.55
20.1 10 6.25 5.43
19.76 9.85 6.11 5.31
UCI Div. III pro 19.42 9.7 5.97 5.19
19.08 9.55 5.84 5.07
18.74 9.4 5.7 4.95
18.4 9.25 5.57 4.84
Cat. 1 18.06 9.1 5.43 4.72
17.72 8.95 5.3 4.6
17.38 8.8 5.16 4.48
17.04 8.65 5.03 4.36
Cat. 2 16.7 8.5 4.89 4.24
16.36 8.35 4.75 4.12
16.02 8.2 4.62 4
15.68 8.05 4.48 3.88
Cat. 3 15.34 7.9 4.35 3.76
15 7.75 4.21 3.64
14.66 7.6 4.08 3.53
14.32 7.45 3.94 3.41
Cat. 4 13.98 7.3 3.81 3.29
13.64 7.15 3.67 3.17
13.3 7 3.53 3.05
12.96 6.85 3.4 2.93
Cat. 5 12.62 6.7 3.26 2.81
12.28 6.55 3.13 2.69
11.94 6.4 2.99 2.57
11.6 6.25 2.86 2.46
Untrained 11.26 6.1 2.72 2.34
10.92 5.95 2.59 2.22
10.58 5.8 2.45 2.1
10.24 5.65 2.32 1.98
9.9 5.5 2.18 1.86
Note: Values are displayed in watts/kg. The weight should be the weight of the body only. Bicycle, kit, water bottles, etc… are all excluded

This chart compares power outputs in terms of watts per kilogram of body weight for cyclists in various categories ranging from Fabian Cancellara to Fred Hubbard. Of particular interest for our study today is the final column, watts per kilogram for efforts lasting 20 minutes.

In order to decipher the chart, let's use Fabian Cancellara. He weighs 81 kilos (178 lb). Thus his average wattage output for a 20 minute effort would be in the neighborhood of an astonishing 536 watts. 81k X 6.62 watts per k = 536 avg. watts.

I weigh 81.5 kilos and my best effort of measured power output over 20 minutes is 430 watts, or 5.28 watts per kilogram which puts my sustained time trialing effort in the low end of UCI div 1/11 pro or high end of UCI div. III. This is why I can make a fast time trial even when I'm not using fast tires. However, if one were too look at my 1 minute or 5 second wattages, one would find that my best efforts are roughly in the low range of Cat 2 at best. This is why I am not making a living as a bike racer. Or as Billy has noted, I have "all of the sprint of an aging greyhound on a diet of Chinese dog food".

Let's look at a theoretical 175 lb time trial guru who has for the princely sum of $20,000 (fast frame, fast tires, fast wheels, fast aero bars, wind tunnel testing, fast helmet, videotaped coaching sessions and bike fit) bought 500 watts on the open market but has an "account" of only 299 watts on his good days. At 175 lb he weighs roughly 79.5 kilos. 299 watts / 79.5 kilos = 3.76 kilos; which puts his power output at the top of the Cat 3 range. So, when the time trial aficionado shows up to compete against the likes of Thurlow Rogers at national and world championships with the wattage he has purchased and an aero position as thin as an edge wise credit card he still won't get within two minutes of Thurlow. How can this be? Because his body doesn't make the kind of watts that Thurlow's does. He lacks fuel in the very core of his mitochondria. Supply won't cover demand. Don't get me wrong. 3.76 watts per kg is not a shabby output. It's quite good. My point is that one cannot possibly buy enough watts on the open exchange to compensate for the base line power differential between elite and good. Or to put things another way…Eventually the fast guys start using better equipment too.

Enough background material. As a multiple national podium placer and state champion I have developed some "street cred" when it comes to time trialing. Given that, I have had the privilege this season to test some really tasty time trialing equipment. The items I tested will not buy you more power output, but they will help you get the most out of the power you produce. If you would like to see where this is going, please read the accompanying product review post.

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