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In praise of data

Trevor Ward
7 Jul 2016

Focusing on data is fine, but in looking at the specifics of what you’re doing, you should never lose sight of why you’re doing it.

Should my wife ever ask how my ride was, which admittedly is as likely as me asking her which denier of hosiery she prefers, there are two ways I could go about answering.

Option one: ‘It was beautiful, a bit windy on the way back, but the views were stunning from the top of the Cairn. My legs felt great and I stopped for a haggis panini on the way home.’

Or I could say: ‘I beat my personal best up the Cairn, averaged 300 watts. My average speed was 30kmh at a cadence of 92rpm. And I kept my HR average to 80%. How was Saturday Kitchen?’

Both answers contain data, it’s just that the data in the first is more qualitative than quantitative. Data is great, but for us recreational cyclists, it should really be more about quality than quantity, if only to make conversation with non-cyclists more of a sociable encounter between sentient adults as opposed to a one-sided torrent of gibberish from a slightly intense-looking character fingering their Garmin.

There’s a lot of quantitative data about these days, thanks to computers, heart rate monitors, cadence sensors, power meters and all the other hi-tech gizmos you can attach to yourself or your bike before you set out on a ride. And if that’s not enough for you, you can climb on a Wattbike and check your ‘peak angle force’ and whether your pedalling efficiency graph is shaped like a peanut or a sausage. Then there are online video games such as Zwift and tracking apps like Strava. Riding your bike used to be a primeval pleasure. Now it can feel like a scientific experiment. 

The unwary rider can all too easily become a hostage to data. Chasing down that fastest time or KoM can become an obsession, just another set of figures with which to validate our existence alongside the number of our Facebook friends, Twitter followers or Instagram likes. Don’t get me wrong, I like a set of numbers as much as the next cyclist, but I’m happy with confining mine to the bare minimum: distance travelled and average speed. If I clock a KoM along the way, that’s a bonus, but not as big a bonus as it not raining.

I don’t need to know my FTP, because no one has yet been so suspicious of my performances that they’ve demanded I publish my data to scotch rumours of doping or hanging on to the back of passing tractors. I’ve often wondered whether this makes me an imposter in this brave new world of Mamils riding £10,000 Pinarellos, so I spoke to John Osburg who, as well as being a cyclist, is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester in New York. Cycling’s newfound obsession with the minutiae of data is part of a wider phenomenon, he says.

‘There is a broader societal fixation on evaluating, measuring and quantifying every experience, referred to by some as an “audit culture”,’ Osburg says. ‘The danger in quantifying every aspect of every ride is that it devalues the qualitative – inherently unquantifiable – aspects of being on the bike: the scenery, the feeling of freedom, the sheer pleasure of it, and so on. 

‘While theoretically putting up good power numbers might enhance an otherwise ordinary ride, my experience with quantification is that the opposite is more likely: a perfectly good ride gets devalued by knowiedge of a poor average speed or lacklustre power numbers.’

His view is shared to a degree by British Cycling coach John Bremner, whose bread and butter is the volumes of information in the form of graphs, charts and numbers pumped out by the computer attached to his Wattbike. 

‘The key is not giving my clients too many numbers to remember,’ he says. ‘I’d rather give them “easy”, “medium” or “hard” because they can’t remember their watts-per-kilo average or cadence out on the road. Some get overloaded, so I say, “Don’t look at your Garmin, don’t look at any figures, just enjoy the ride,” because their heads will burst with numbers otherwise.’

Admittedly Bremner is telling me this as I try to keep my cadence to 95rpm and raise my HR to 160 on the Wattbike in his lab at HPV Coaching in Angus, Scotland. But that’s only because I want to see what it’s like to have the exertions of my body – from the speed and force of my pedalling to my heart rate and V02 max – translated into raw data.

I’m curious to see whether this could become addictive. I once became so obsessed with Strava that I'd check weekly leaderboards on a Sunday night and consider going out in the darkness if I thought I had the chance of claiming top spot. Bremner’s heard it all before.

‘Without a coach you can become a prisoner to the data, chasing high numbers all the time. The majority of sessions should be spent in the low numbers, or the danger is clients will work too hard – or not work as hard as they think they are – and they become prisoners in this grey, middle area where they don’t progress.’

Bremner suggests that if I don’t have aspirations beyond the odd sportive and weekend club run, I should be happy with confining myself to logging my distance and average speed. Because in doing so I’ll actually be logging more than that. I’ll be logging the sensation of swooping down a hill with the sun on my back, or the drumbeat of my heart on the 16% of the Cairn O’ Mount, or the pleasure of being blown home by a generous tailwind.

Or to put it in data terms: ‘50% pleasure + 50% suffering = 100% happiness’.

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