Wattage (A-Z Day 23)

Posted by on Sep 20, 2012 in Bike | 3 Comments

A-Z Day 23


Baseball is a game driven by numbers. Numbers are more than statistical records. They are more than scores or averages. Numbers are scripture. And today, they allow fans of the game to delve into baseball’s history in ways never imagined before. Metrics like OPS+, WAR, and wOBA, among many others, can tell us more about a player’s true ability than the more common bubblegum-card numbers that we all grew up reading.

Baseball is a better game because of these metrics. It’s more enjoyable, deeper, and layered. The combination of advanced statistical metrics and random luck make baseball the beloved game that it is. I’ve loved baseball for as long as I can remember. My discovery of sabermetrics enhanced that love. Because of the numbers, everyone in the game is smarter—fans, GMs, and players. Advanced statistical analysis has changed the way teams are built, and even the way that players, historically apathetic to statistics, are playing the game.

No other sport has anything like the numbers baseball does.

Except cycling.

But instead of obscurities like Wins Above Replacement, or weighted On Base Average, cycling uses just one number to determine the abilities of a rider: wattage.

Wattage is the baseline of every major cycling metric. Heart rate, VO2 Max, speed, and time are all understood better when wattage is a part of the equation. Maybe the most important, or at least the most talked about, metric in cycling is the power-to-weight ratio. How much power can you produce (at various lengths of time and terrain) at your given body weight? P/W is a little bit like OPS+ in baseball*, which is a standardized number (with 100 being the average) to help determine the ability of players across different eras.

For example, Babe Ruth is the all-time career leader in OPS+, at 206. Barry Bonds had a single-season record OPS+ of 268 during his steroid-fueled 2002 season. The league leader this year is Miguel Cabrera, at 170. Not coincidentally, Cabrera is a leading candidate (along with rookie Mike Trout) for the American League MVP. A career OPS+ of 140 is considered Hall of Fame worthy.

*OPS = On base % + slugging %. OPS+ is the same, but adjusted for park and league.

How is P/W like OPS+? P/W gives us a standardized number that accurately reflects performance, despite the differences in terrain. Variation is a hallmark of bike racing. Different courses, different weather conditions, different pelotons, tactics, and strategies can alter the speeds of races. Some courses are flat, others are mountainous, and still others, someplace in between. Using time and speed to determine performance over a set of varied courses and events is meaningless. But P/W eliminates those variables, and like OPS+ gives us an idea of how strong (or not) an athlete was riding, despite the given variables.

We know that world class riders can produce a P/W ratio of about 6.0 for 20 minutes.

In the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Professional Challenge Bike Race for Professionals (aka, the Tour of Colorado) Rory Sutherland averaged 6.2 w/kg for 14 minutes en route to a signature victory on Flagstaff Mountain. Lance Armstrong rode Alp d’ Huez in 2004 with a P/W ratio of 6.97.

Power is power. Watts are watts. And using the various metrics that power meters make possible, we can learn more and more about athletic performance. As the technology trickles down to you and me, we can (depressingly compare ourselves to world class pros) learn more about our bodies, and how we can maximize our strengths, and eliminate our weaknesses. Training with power is complex. It takes time to learn what all the different data means, and how it can be used to actuate improvement. But for anyone who wants to race at a higher level, power is a necessary ingredient.

All these numbers are changing the way athletes (at every level) train. And they are making cycling more interesting, and more enjoyable.

But don’t forget the primal reason that we started riding. All the numbers and all the ratios won’t mean anything if riding a bike is drudgery.

Train hard. Learn, study, analyze.


But have fun doing it!

Baseball players play in parks, which is really nice. But we get to play in mountains, deserts, and forests.

And that’s a lot better than mere parks.

singlespeed mountain bike


  1. Mark
    September 20, 2012

    Bear in mind that just as OPS+ is of little value when evaluating pitchers, so too is P/W when evaluating a classics rider, a sprinter, a time trialist, and even a cyclocross or MTB racer. In those cases, maximum wattage, tactics, functional threshold power, bike handling skills, and team support are typically more decisive than P/W. P/W is useful for guessing who will climb a hill the fastest, but it is by no means the definitive statistic.

    • Grizzly Adam
      September 20, 2012

      Which is why we play the game. Or race the bike. Numbers are useful for training, and improvement, but once the gun goes off, they disappear into the fog of war. The best P/W numbers don’t do much for anyone who doesn’t have the cold-blooded instinct of Cavendish or Armstrong.*

      *As much as I despise LA, I won’t deny his superior ability to crush people. It was pretty impressive, actually. Dope will help the numbers, but it can’t really help the killer-instinct.

      BTW, ERA+ is the pitching equivalent of OPS+. Career leader: Mariano Rivera at 206.

  2. mark
    September 27, 2012

    Not to belabor the point, but I will. My point was more taking issue with P/W being as useful as you portrayed it. A guy with a really good P/W will kick the ass of a guy with cold-blooded instinct but my P/W on a hill climb every time. And probably in a time trial.

    My point was more that Cav’s P/W is terrible, and it doesn’t matter, because P/W has little to do with the type of racer he is. P/W is a statistic that’s useful for estimating how one will do in an event that spans a broader period of time, like a stage race. It’s more analogous in baseball to on base percentage.

    Cav is more of a total HR kind of guy–doesn’t hit for average, so to speak, but when he makes contact, it usually goes over the fence. Cancellara, on the other hand, is like a sub .300 hitter with a ton of RBI. Wiggins is like vintage Ichiro–very few home runs, but gets on base a lot and scores a bunch of runs as a result (did you notice that he won two TTs and zero road stages en route to yellow?). Contador is probably the best embodiment of your OPS+ analogy, capable of winning the GC, but will also win road stages en route. Not coincidentally, Contador’s P/W is probably the best of those I mentioned.

    Good cyclocross racers are probably most analogous to a guy like Ken Brett, a pitcher that still managed to hit close to .300, and for whom a useful statistical measure has not yet been invented.

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