Train With Gizmos The Pros Use

Bikers get a performance boost with devices that track their pace and heart rate

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As a cyclist, i have met my match. I've been training for a 150-mile, two-day ride in early September north of my Seattle home. As hard as I push myself to go up hills, there's always another cyclist just a bit ahead of me. It's hard to get too frustrated, though, because I've created the monster -- a virtual rider that I programmed to appear on the screen of Garmin's Edge 305 ($433), a cyclometer that I've been testing.

Slick software allows me to set the amount of time it will take for the rider to cover a specific distance. Then I race against him. The Edge shows how far ahead or behind I am, and it even has two icons zooming along, illustrating who's in the lead. My rider always seemed to inch ahead of me up the hills. Garmin calls him a Virtual Partner. I've dubbed him the Butt-Kicker.

Today's technology allows recreational riders like me to train like the pros. The Edge 305, which also allows you to track 32 data points, including speed, distance, pedaling cadence, and heart rate, was my favorite of four gadgets I recently tested. But all four motivated me to work harder and pedal more efficiently.

Each device comes with software applications that give you the tools to track performance by downloading data to a PC. I could chart my times to see how my speed improved over the same course or measure the watts of power I produced pedaling. Even little bits of data during a ride, such as pedaling cadence or elevation gain, provided mental motivation and gave me clues on how to improve my training regimen.

Like all the gadgets I tested, the Edge 305 comes with a strap that goes around the chest and sends heart rate information wirelessly to the receiver. Its sumptuous screen, nearly 2 inches diagonally, mounts on handlebars and allows you to customize up to eight different fields for on-display viewing.

The Edge 305 benefits from Garmin's expertise in making global positioning satellite devices. With GPS data, it's easier to navigate routes and track performance over the same course so you can measure improvement. It can even tell you the approximate time of sunrise or sunset based on your location.

If you want more from your training, CycleOps offers the $1,200 PowerTap SL. In addition to tracking speed, distance, heart rate, and the like, the PowerTap measures the amount of power, in watts, that you generate as you pedal along. The device is embedded in the hub on the back wheel, and comes with a display that is mounted on the handlebars.

Power measurement is a fairly new tool, increasingly used by elite riders. That's because it's the purest performance gauge: a calculation of the amount of energy expended in a given time. The idea behind the PowerTap is to get riders to find their current maximum power output, then train to generate even more. For what it's worth, 2006 Tour de France champion Floyd Landis used a PowerTap during his training and his now disputed victory.

The PowerTap is really beyond my level of riding. I averaged around 150 watts of power. Compare that with the 280 watts that Landis averaged during his controversial Stage 17 ride in the Tour, including an astounding 544 watts in the first 30 seconds of his initial acceleration away from the pack. To be fair, I got only a few weeks of training with PowerTap. I'm sure that, after several more weeks of dedicated use, I would start to crank up the power. But it requires hard-core training to move the needle.

For those who run as well as ride, a pair of heart-rate monitors connected to watches can help push performance. Both can be worn on your wrist for running or mounted on a bike's handlebars during a ride.

Polar's $350 S725X is a great heart- rate monitor, and with the quick installation of a sensor to the front fork of a bike and a magnet to a spoke on the wheel, the watch can gather speed and distance information as well. Suunto's $400 T6 watch, with its $70 Bike Pod adapter, has a nifty altimeter to track elevation that's much easier to use than Polar's version. The drawback to the T6: Riders have to navigate among various screens to find the elevation, time of day, and heart rate. It would be nice to customize a screen to include the specific data fields that a rider wants, something the Polar does well.

With both watches, runners can shell out a few more dollars for foot pods that attach to sneakers and measure the distance covered. My biggest gripe about the watches was their small displays. They just didn't have enough digital real estate to provide all the information I wanted on one screen. Instead, I had to fumble with various buttons as I was riding.

No one's going to confuse me with a world-class cyclist. But these gadgets will help me finish my 150-mile ride more efficiently. As for the Butt-Kicker, I could just reprogram him to slow down. But it's more fun trying to catch him.

By Jay Greene

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