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The Wattbike Atom: Sweat the technique

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12 Sep 2018
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‘This wouldn’t have even been a conversation ten years ago,’ says Dr Barney Wainwright. ‘No one was interested. They’d say, “Cycling is cycling and there’s only one way of doing it.”

‘But our research and experience has since shown that just isn’t the case. Teaching more effective pedalling technique can lead to significant increases in rider power.’

Wainwright is an applied sports scientist, and holds roles ranging from supervising research programmes in cycling biomechanics at Leeds Beckett University to directing staff at the new Boardman Performance Centre in Worcestershire.

He’s also a key collaborator on the new Wattbike Atom, the latest training tool from Wattbike, which has been designed to unlock those extra watts. 

According to the latest sports science research, those watts are in you already, and you just need the right pedalling technique to get them out. In effect it’s free speed, and the Wattbike Atom is there to help you gain it.

Heightened innovation

The Atom’s opening gambit is a long list of evolutions that build upon the ubiquitous gold standard of home trainers, the Wattbike Pro/Trainer.

The Atom boasts interactivity with dozens of virtual training, analytical and gaming platforms including Zwift, Sufferfest and Wattbike’s own Hub; real-time simulations of famous climbs; integrated gear shifters and interchangeable bars, and power measurement accuracy at an industry-leading +/-2% all the way from 0 to 3,500W (many power meters and trainers’ quoted accuracy covers far narrower bandwidths).

However, the real game-changer for performance development is the Atom’s newest performance insight – Pedalling Effectiveness Score.

‘We have always been able to show you your pedalling technique in the form of “Polar View”, a graphical display of how much force each leg is applying throughout the pedal stroke,’ says Andy McCorkell, Wattbike’s head of digital.

‘But while Polar View is brilliant at showing your pedalling technique, we found it requires explanation. It may only take 30 seconds if you’re stood next to someone on a Wattbike, but we still wanted something more instantly intuitive.’

The solution that McCorkell, Wainwright and team came up with is Pedalling Effectiveness Score, or PES, a single number presented on the Atom’s synced peripheral device that shows how close the rider is to pedalling nirvana.

‘The Atom will still show you Polar View, representing the force each leg is putting out through the 360˚ rotation of each crank arm. But now alongside this is your Pedalling Effectiveness Score,’ continues McCorkell.

‘That makes it easier not only for a rider to see how they’re doing in real time, but also to compare pedalling technique from the beginning of one session to the end, or compare it to two weeks ago, or to last season.

‘This is crucial to making progress when learning or re-learning a skill.’

Next to the PES on the Atom’s user interface are two traffic-light colour-coded bars, one for each leg, which turn red if the rider is far from an ideal PES, then progresses through amber to green the closer the rider gets to the ideal score.

But what is that ideal number?

The scale is out of 100, but counter-intuitively, 100 is not the ‘best’. Rather, it’s 75, and this is where sports science comes in.

Going through phases

To understand pedalling technique, it’s easiest to divide each pedal rotation into four phases, and think of each as a quadrant on a two-axis graph, as per the Atom’s Polar View representation.

‘A perfect e-bike motor would develop a PES of 100,’ says Wainwright. ‘That is, 100 denotes a perfectly circular force profile in Polar View, where equal force is applied to the pedal through 360˚ of rotation.

‘Typically, a novice cyclist would have a defined figure-of-eight shape, where that circle is pinched in the middle, while a more experienced cyclist would have a bit more of a peanut shape.

‘This is because the power peak for either leg comes at a crank angle between 90˚ and 120˚, then as the pedal stroke continues the leg ceases to develop any significant force to make the bike go forward. This is what we traditionally callthe “dead spot”.’

Wainwright is keen to stress that a good bike fit, position and setup fundamentally underpins pedalling technique, but with that bedrock instated, a rider can begin to learn to be more effective.

First, the quads and glutes start pushing down from the top of the stroke sooner. Second, instead of finishing at the bottom of the stroke, at 180˚, the glutes, hip extensors and hamstrings drive the thigh backwards to create a powerful pull back on the pedal stroke.

Third is a slight lift up of the leg at the back of the stroke using the hip flexors, such that the weight of that leg isn’t opposing the direction the crank arm is spinning.

‘Finally, a good technique employs a smooth transition from one leg to the other, which PES takes into account as an average of both legs’ form,’ says Wainwright.

‘With a honed pedalling technique, that figure of eight or peanut gets blown out into more of an oval shape.

‘That’s why the ideal PES is 75; our biomechanics omit a circular force profile, but an oval shape shows a rider is applying useful force throughout as much of the pedal stroke as possible.’

This is why Wainwright’s and Wattbike’s work in conjunction with a wide variety of cyclists – from professionals through to amateurs – has typically shown significant improvements in rider performance.

Natural gains

Of course it’s one thing to understand the theory, but quite another to create the practice, which leads us – and sports scientists such as Wainwright – back to the Atom.

‘You will need some appreciation of the theory, some pedal technique drills – which Wattbike provides online and will continue to build on in the future,’ says Wainwright.

‘But I’d say if you started training on an Atom a few times a week in winter you would see significant power improvements out on the road by April.

‘That might seem astounding, but I always give the following example to explain: you’re trying to learn to throw a basketball into a hoop.

‘You watch the outcome – was it anywhere near, did it hit the ring? Depending on the outcome you do things differently next time. Now imagine if you can’t see the hoop. How are you going to develop that skill?

‘That’s what the Atom and PES does, it provides stroke-by-stroke, real-time feedback, which is fundamental to be able to learn to pedal more effectively.

‘You can go out and spend £1,500 on a set of new wheels and see instant gains, but that might be in the form of five or 10 watts. But by helping train pedalling technique, the Atom can offer riders so much more. ’

Wattbike Atom, £1,599, wattbike.com