How Data Changed Cycling

How Data Changed Cycling

The sport of cycling is packed with contention between “purists” and advocates of new technologies. The introduction of derailleurs, race radios, and, most recently, disc brakes have all spurred heated debates on racing fairness, tactical advantages, and the crux of cycling. 

Digital data is no different. Some even say pro cyclists are so concerned with their power meter they have lost the instinct of racing. While scientists explore the veracity of this claim, one thing remains clear: data is revolutionizing cycling. It is helping pros and amateurs improve performance, build communities, empower new riders, and keep cyclists safer.

Do it like the pros

Professional cyclists collect stupendous amounts of data. Power output, cadence, speed, heart rate, nutrition intake, and even sleep data are all captured to help improve rider performance. 

“Every second of training, we gather data,” said Mathieu Heijboer, head of performance for Team Jumbo-Visma, one of the world’s top racing teams. In a video interview, Heijboer explains how Team Jumbo-Visma uses Garmin cycling computers to gather training data and build pacing strategies for the world’s toughest climbs.

“[We can] see how long the climb is still going and how much we have to push”

Cycling computers are small devices that connect to a cyclist’s handlebar. They can display and store a range of real-time information such as speed, distance, and trip time. High-end models offer advanced GPS navigation and previews of elevation gains. Having this wealth of insight at hand has made cycling computers soar in popularity, and it has changed the cycling experience for pros and amateurs alike.

Anyone can crunch numbers

Garmin was the first company to bring GPS to the cycling computer market. “When a cyclist buys an Edge cycling computer from Garmin, we want to give them the performance insight they need to stay motivated and improve while giving them the bike-specific navigation intelligence to help them ride like a local,” said Andy Silver, lead product manager at Garmin.

Collage of photographs of a cyclist in the bay area
Russell Ruben, the global automotive segment marketing director at Western Digital and an avid cyclist

For amateurs, cycling’s long distances have made progress hard to track. “When I started cycling, we had no way to tell how fast we were riding or how far,” said Russell Ruben, the global automotive segment marketing director at Western Digital.

Ruben is an avid cyclist and an embedded flash storage expert. Data is where his two worlds meet. “I get excited about being able to track what I’m doing [on my bike] because it helps to motivate me,” said Ruben. “And I also know that none of this would even be possible without the small form factor of NAND flash or the seemingly endless capacity of the cloud,” he said.  

Cycling technology has evolved to be much more than just real-time data. Dozens of different cloud-based apps allow cyclists to log ride data, extract insights, and connect to millions of riders around the world. “Following my biking friends thousands of miles away helps us encourage each other and gives a sense of community,” said Ruben.

Cycling around the world

Dr. Ann Lau, a dentist from Berlin, estimates that she has already ridden 125,000 miles. “That’s 5 times around the Earth, just using my two legs,” she said.

“I start at 3 a.m. in Hamburg and arrive in Berlin in time for dinner”

Lau is a long-distance rider. She spends her weekends cycling and her vacations crossing the country, or the alps, with just a tent and a sleeping bag on her bike. “For me, cycling is about experiencing nature, the open fields, and the horizon,” said Lau. “It’s about finding strength within myself to get through instead of giving up,” she said.

But as romantic as the thought of riding into the sunset is, it requires a lot of planning. Lau used to rely on copying pages of a world atlas and notes she’d tape to her handlebar. But after one trip ended early with her getting terribly lost, she moved from the purist camp to the GPS-assisted one. 

Today, Lau looks to online tools to get insights on route difficulty, quality, and surface type. She could even plan her 800-mile cross-country tour around artisan bakeries. “One of the best things about cycling is the cake break,” she said. 

Collage of photographs of cyclist in the Alps
Dr. Ann Lau, an amateur cyclist, has ridden more than 125,000 miles

Keeping rubber on the asphalt

Both Lau and Ruben cycle early to avoid traffic. “Safety is a huge concern,” said Ruben. His work focuses on storage technologies that power the next generation of smart cars and he’s hopeful there will be change. “Sensors and real-time data will be key to improving road safety,” he said.

Companies like Garmin are also trying to find solutions. “We want to help cyclists – whatever type of rider they are – feel confident by giving them a suite of safety-focused features and accessories that help them see and be seen,” said Silver of Garmin. 

For Lau, new tools like Garmin’s bike radars, which help cyclists detect approaching cars, have a special meaning. Three years ago, a member of her amateur women’s cycling team had a head-on collision with a vehicle, leaving her in a persistent coma. Lau’s teammate is hard of hearing and was one of Europe’s top deaf cyclists. “I can’t help but wonder if these new technologies could have helped her, and other hard of hearing riders, to steer safe,” said Lau. 

As cities look to encourage more cycling, safety is a rising issue. The massive datasets collected by cyclists and stored in the cloud can offer insights into how cyclists use roads and how to make them safer.  But it’s going to take efforts from everyone – cyclists, city planners, and drivers – to make the much-needed change.

A pure experience

Data has changed cycling. Whether training, exploring, or commuting, data’s impact on cycling is undeniably positive. And while it’s packed with the cutting-edge tech of NAND chips, sensors, and touch-screen devices, it’s ultimately empowering more people to enjoy the simple and pure experience of riding a bike.