In a nutshell, this statement sums up the turn taken by track cycling in recent years. Although a rider’s wattage has always been taken into consideration, they’ve become a major factor in the discipline since technology made more accurate calculation possible. But if this is a recurring theme among cyclists and their coaches, its important that its properly defined.
Watts are a measure of the power generated by an athlete. On the track, this translates into an equation calculated by multiplying the force by the velocity a rider applies on the pedals. But of course it’s not just the velodromes that are affected by this measurement: road cycling also takes this crucial data into account and has its own standard values.
One of the best known is that of German sprinter André Greipel who, in 2018, developed 1903 watts during the finish of stage 6 of the Tour Down Under (Australia). On that occasion, Greipel reached the dizzy speed of 76.8 km/h! Those watts are impressive, but they’re a long way from the performances achieved by the Lords of the Rings…
Dutchman Jeffrey Hoogland, Olympic team sprint champion at the 2020 Olympics and four-time world kilometre champion, pushed the limits to 2271 watts during the London round of the UCI Champions League in 2022. This mark, incredible as it is, is certainly destined to be beaten one day, given the extent to which training techniques are perfected year after year. The same applies to the women: Canadian Kelsey Mitchell improved her own record by developing 1525 watts last year in Berlin.
There’s no secret to reaching such heights. Training, always training. The champions fight tirelessly against lactic acid, which paralyses the fibres, with sprint after sprint and weight training session after weight training session. The race for watts has produced athletes with Herculean measurements, like those of British legend Chris Hoy: 1.85m, 92kg and 68.5cm wide thighs!
However, sheer power on its own is not enough and, to their full potential, a cyclist will always need to make the choice between maximum strength at less velocity, or vice versa. This choice is a matter for each champion, depending on his or her own physical characteristics. What is certain, however, is that over the last few years the best cyclists have been moving towards higher gear ratios.
Power is nothing without control
The development how riders’ train and build strength has made this evolution possible. Track cyclists now pedal more slowly, at around 130rpm (pedal revs per minute) than in the past (160 rpm), but they do so with much higher gear ratios: 60×12 (or 10.5m per pedal revolution) compared with the more traditional 48×14 of a few years ago (7.2m per revolution).
That said, this increased power is no guarantee of victory. Watts are not the alpha and omega of track cycling, and that’s just as well. Craig McLean, a multiple medallist in the world sprint championships and now a coach at the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland, says that currently, the fastest riders in his training group are those who develop the fewest watts.
“The ability to be compact and efficient on a bike, balance and tactics are also major components of success on the track,” says McLean. “Watts are a useful unit of measurement that enables us to help athletes make the most of their power. But developing as many watts as possible doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be fast.”
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