The history of professional cycling has been one long march towards trying to find the most interesting, spectator-friendly way to present what is, at its core, kind of a boring sport. Over one hundred years ago, a French newspaper created the Tour de France as the ultimate endurance competition and covered it extensively in order to sell papers. In recent years, race organizers have tried to craft antagonistic course full of cobbles and steep climbs in order to make races as hard as possible. Here’s another step cycling could take to make racing more fun: ban power meters.
Bike racing is primarily a fitness contest, and the most meaningful fitness metric is watts per kilogram, or W/Kg, which measures a rider’s power per unit weight. Up a climb, having pure power doesn’t matter if you’re a (relatively) bulky sprinter, the same way that being a tiny bird-man doesn’t matter if you can’t turn that gear over with meaning. If you measure W/Kg and manage to optimize it over a 7-hour race, you can race a perfect race. The way you measure W/Kg is with a power meter, an expensive gizmo that several teams use during races.
You can imagine the effects that they have on racing. Team Sky, the best and richest team out there, have become infamous for their near-absolute reliance on power meters and data-driven cycling. If you watched any meaningful stage at the Tour de France, you saw Chris Froome and his black-clad domestiques staring down at their stems, modulating their power, and treating the race like a video game. It was boring as dirt. Thankfully, one of the best cyclists in the world is fed up and has called for them to be banned from the peloton.
Nairo Quintana, who’s finished on the podium behind Chris Froome three times at the Tour, and his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde declared in a press conference at the Vuelta a España that they were sick and tired of power meters. Quintana said, “They take away a lot of spectacle and make you race more cautiously. I’d be the first in line to say they should be banned.” Valverde added, “In competition you should be racing on feelings.”
Their declaration came a day after Quintana took a decisive win atop the Lagos de Covadonga to consolidate his race lead. This morning, Froome pegged six seconds back from Quintana, and it appears that the race will go deep into its third week before a clear winner emerges.
The Movistar riders are right. Sky can afford to pay for the best riders, strap them into the best machines, and turn a bike race into an Excel spreadsheet. Nobody wants to watch that. Banning power meters wouldn’t turn bike racing back into the Wild Wild West of the doping-ass 1990's, where every climb was packed full of insane attacks, but it would make Grand Tours less boring.
However, seeing as how professional bike racing is propped up by the bike gear industry, there won’t be any external pressure to remove them. Power meters aren’t particularly affordable, but they will be sooner rather than later, and as the Great Disc Brake Controversy of 2016 showed, cycling will never pass up a chance to sell more gear.