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Power in numbers: The story of Wattbike

In-depth
6 Jul 2020
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Wattbike took cycling science from the lab to the living room. Now the Nottingham-based firm is moving into the virtual world

Words Joe Delves Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

When machinist Arthur Seaton rode out of the Raleigh factory at the beginning of Karel Reisz’s 1961 film Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, he did so at the very peak of British bicycle manufacturing.

Back then the UK industry employed thousands of workers and for a time was the largest exporter of bikes in the world. Seaton, however, was less interested in acknowledging the significance of his historical moment, and more concerned with not letting the bastards in management grind him down ahead of a weekend boozing and mucking about with his colleagues’ wives.

Skip forward 60 or so years, and the last vestiges of Raleigh’s handsome Nottingham factory have long been demolished or converted into flats. But that hasn’t signalled the end of Nottingham’s association with cycling, as the city is now home to Wattbike, whose CEO, Richard Baker, recently lived in one of the flats that were once part of the old Raleigh factory.

Unlike the machines formerly made in Nottingham, a Wattbike won’t transport you from work or to the pub, but its hi-tech products could help you win races – in both the real and virtual worlds. It could even secure you a pro team contract with a squad on the other side of the planet.

The power of power

The idea of using power output as a metric for training cyclists was first popularised by the experts working at British Cycling.

‘In the year 2000, Wattbike’s founders met with Peter Keen, performance director at British Cycling,’ Baker explains to Cyclist when we visit the Wattbike offices.

A former coach to the notoriously meticulous Chris Boardman, Keen was a pioneer of taking a science-based approach to training and was instrumental in British riders ditching their traditional high-volume, low-intensity regime in favour of something more targeted.

‘We wanted to know what Keen and British Cycling would want from a cycling ergometer. He came out with a long list, with the key requirements being that it should be a credible and accurate product that could be used for both talent spotting and training.’

The initial aim was to create something that would allow elite athletes to pursue the 1% performance gains British Cycling was chasing, while also introducing the niche science of power training to a consumer audience. It was around another four years before the project took off in earnest.

‘The Wattbike was always intended as a mass market product that would be credible at the elite level,’ says Baker. ‘At the time you had top-end ergometers that cost $30,000, but nothing that a rider could take home.’

Cramming everything they had learned from their lab-based forefathers into an affordable and portable package, the makers of the first Wattbike used air pressure to generate resistance, and the machine was able to measure users’ power with extreme accuracy.

It became the first and only product of its kind to be endorsed by British Cycling, and it launched at the Track Cycling World Championships in 2008.

Since then, Wattbike’s fortunes have risen in line with the growth of interest in power training among ordinary cyclists.

‘I think we helped grow awareness,’ says Baker. ‘When we first started talking about power, the market didn’t see the value in it. We knew we had a great product in terms of accuracy and ride feel, but until we could educate people about the training benefits we could only grow so far.’

The success of Team Sky’s famously data-driven approach no doubt helped in this endeavour. As the wins rolled in for the British super-team, ‘power’ joined ‘marginal gains’ as the buzzwords of the era.

South of the equator, a similar attitude at the Australian Institute of Sport was yielding results at Orica-GreenEdge (now Mitchelton-Scott), with whom Wattbike has also worked. Yet even today some of the more staid WorldTour outfits are only just coming around to the importance of power.

‘As recently as the past few years, some pro teams were still training like they did 30 years ago, refusing to take on new methods,’ says Baker. ‘The sport has so much history that there has always been this attitude of just going out and doing the miles.’

Despite being widely used by pros, Wattbike as a brand has avoided sponsoring squads or athletes (except for the Huub-Wattbike track team). Instead, Wattbike works with many national bodies including the British, Australian, German, French, Dutch and US federations. It also supports the Keirin Association in Japan and is the default system the UCI employs in its talent spotting programme. 

Scouting for talent

This relationship has led to Wattbikes being installed in the governing body’s satellite centres, which aim to help recruit promising cyclists from underrepresented parts of the world. Using a Power Profile Test designed by Wattbike, this simple protocol takes 30 minutes to complete and determines a rider’s six-second, 30-second, and four-minute power figures. The ability of the Wattbike to create replicable results then allows the UCI to accurately compare data from people anywhere in the world.

In 2016, for instance, despite being from a country with few cycling facilities, Mongolian athlete Tegsh-Bayar Batsaikhan’s potential was identified using this method at a centre in Korea.

After just five months of intensive training back at the UCI headquarters in Switzerland, Batsaikhan won the Junior Scratch Race at the World Track Championships. Now a pro riding for the Ukranian Ferei Pro Cycling Team, he’s being coached towards a potential medal at the 2024 Olympics.

South African Nic Dlamini, who rides for NTT Pro Cycling, followed a similar course, having used the numbers he obtained at a satellite testing centre to earn the tryout that led to his WorldTour career. Like women’s team Canyon/Sram, his squad has also recently used open-call virtual competitions to recruit new riders.

Half an hour might seem like a short time to judge something as complex as a rider’s potential, but the increasing use of indoor cycling has also shrunk the time many pros spend training.

‘It started with people realising that riding outside is what we all want, but getting faster happens when you train indoors because it’s such quality training,’ says Baker. Now widely accepted, this short and sharp approach to conditioning owes a lot to Keen, the coach whose ideas helped steer the development of the Wattbike in the first place.

Outside of cycling, a similar vogue for high-intensity training has also helped the company build a strong base in other sports. This is partly because on a static trainer you can thrash yourself to the point of collapse while sustaining fairly low impact on your muscles and joints. This has made Wattbikes increasingly popular with athletes from a diverse range of disciplines.

‘We work with British Rugby, the Springboks and the All Blacks,’ says Baker. ‘Almost all the Premiership teams now also use the Wattbike.’ England football manager Gareth Southgate even took to one of the brand’s machines to recuperate after dislocating his shoulder during the 2018 World Cup. In the US, meanwhile, Wattbikes are popular with athletes in the National Basketball Association and National Football League.

Pedalling data

Back among dedicated cyclists, apart from offering an insight into the previously esoteric world of power-based training, the Wattbike’s other big trick was to allow riders an insight into their pedalling efficiency.

‘Our early displays were analogue. We realised there was a huge amount of data locked into this little box,’ says Baker. By 2015, GPS technology was well established and Strava had become massive.

By this point Wattbike had already developed what it called ‘Polar View’, a four-axis diagram that showed the rider’s pedalling efficiency in real-time. The addition of ANT+ and Bluetooth to the updated Wattbike allowed riders to access their data more easily through the brand’s training and analysis platform, before being able to share it onwards.

This avalanche of data also gave the company an accurate picture of the habits, strengths and deficiencies of its users, allowing it to develop a pedalling effectiveness score – PES for short – that showed riders exactly how efficiently they were converting their efforts into power.

‘We realised people had no idea what good pedalling looked like,’ says Baker. ‘At the elite level you could overlay the profile of a sprinter and an endurance rider, and although the magnitudes would be different the shape would be the same.’

By that, he means pro riders may differ in their cycling styles but are all pretty similar when it comes to pedalling efficiency.

‘By comparison, the power profile of an amateur – even a highly trained amateur – would invariably pinch. We realised there was a possibility to make people better.’

Since then, the company has gone on to develop a host of tools allowing users to explore more elements of their performance, including how to understand the intricacies of the relationship between power and cadence.

A new type of bike maker

From its early days, Wattbike as a business has expanded tenfold and now employs around 70 people at its Nottingham HQ. Working in a city so closely entwined with Britain’s cycling history isn’t lost on Baker.

‘At the time, Raleigh’s manufacturing was scaling down, but if you look at when we launched, there’s not such a gap between. It’s nice to think we’re adding to that heritage.’

When Cyclist visits in the days before lockdown, Wattbike’s scientists and designers are busy scribbling formulae on a whiteboard and spinning virtual 3D models on powerful computers, while the rest of the team busy themselves with the regular hustle and bustle of sales and servicing.

Design and prototyping are done in-house in the UK, but production of the Wattbike has always been taken care of by Giant, a Taiwanese firm that long ago overtook Raleigh to become the world’s largest bicycle producer.

‘We work closely with them on the manufacturing but do all our own design,’ says Baker. ‘Our R&D team creates the industrial design, along with the electronics, measuring and resistance systems.’

For a machine that doesn’t actually go anywhere, the brand’s newest Atom bike looks surprisingly aerodynamic, and the swooping aluminium profile of this latest-generation Wattbike wouldn’t look out of place in the swankiest of apartments or fitness centres.

The contact points, including aero extensions for honing your time-trial position, now include virtual shifters for altering the bike’s simulated gearing ratios. But if this Wattbike looks and feels like a real bike, so increasingly do the places you can ride it, thanks to the new generation of virtual training apps such as Zwift.

‘We’re now reaching a far wider audience,’ says Baker. Linked to a tablet or screen, the combination of Zwift’s immersive visuals and Wattbike’s natural-feeling resistance makes indoor riding feel as close to the outdoors as possible.

Last year even saw the inaugural British Cycling eRacing Championship, with a very real National Champion’s jersey handed to the winner of the virtual competition.

Although no doubt influenced by the wedge of sponsorship money sent its way by Zwift, the support of the UCI means the idea of eRacing appearing at the Olympics some time soon isn’t all that far-fetched. After all, indoor roller racing was insanely popular during the 1940s and 50s.

‘There’s no doubt it’s coming,’ says Baker. ‘I’d now be more surprised if we don’t see eRacing at the 2028 Olympics than if we do. I don’t think we’ll ever see the Tour de France replaced, but I do think it will become a sport in its own right.’

Rules for virtual worlds

Before any of this happens, however, Baker reckons the next stage is for power itself to become more closely regulated.

‘This has to happen for several reasons,’ he says. ‘First, we’re now getting into racing for national jerseys in a virtual world. Secondly, pro riders are already being hired and fired based on their power files.’ And while a deviation in accuracy of a percent or two is unlikely to bother many consumers, it’s easily the difference between a winner and an also-ran at elite level.

‘There’s no Kitemark for power,’ says Baker. ‘I think the UCI will have to come in and do something about that.’

Either way, for now Wattbike’s users remain primarily focused on real-world goals: ‘Our customers are typically cash-rich but time-poor. Many of them will be racing criteriums, triathlons or sportives. If someone is investing time in training for an event, that signifies it means something to them, and that person is likely to look for a tool to make the most of it.’

This split between elite athletes and amateur fitness seems to vindicate Wattbike’s original aim of making a mass-market product that’s smart and accurate enough for elite athletes.

‘We’re not fixing all the world’s problems, but we are helping people get into the sport of cycling or recover from injury, to get fit or win an Olympic medal,’ says Baker. ‘Whatever people’s goals are, we’re part of that journey.’

For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb.

Also, check out our series of Wattbike Training Sessions:

Interval training: how to improve your fitness with Wattbike – How to structure your indoor training sessions to beat boredom and stay motivated. Click here...

Endurance training with Wattbike – Leave the five-hour rides to the pros and build your endurance even when time is limited. Click here...

Gain speed fast with cycling sprint training – Sprint training isn’t just for sprinters – it will help you improve other areas of your cycling too. Click here...

Cycling hill training: Get fit for the mountains with Wattbike Atom – If you don't have big climbs to train on the Wattbike Atom helps you prepare for Alpine cols at home. Click here...

Cycling HIIT: Get fitter faster – Watch our three minute video on maximising your indoor training sessions with HIIT. Click here...

FTP test: What is it and how do I measure it? Watch our 3 minute video with everything you need to know about the FTP test. Click here...