Friday, March 21, 2014

Garmin Vector Review

Bicycling is expensive. Stating the obvious is only necessary in this context because we're talking about one of the most expensive gadgets you can buy in this sport.  Other than the bikes and the wheels, the powermeter is the most ridiculous option you can add to your bike.

First and foremost, for the most ridiculous and in-depth product reviews on the internet, point your mouse over to DC Rainmaker's review of the Vector Pedals and all his other reviews; you will not be disappointed. I cannot offer that kind of detailed perspective and analysis that he can.  It's pretty incredible.

Why should you want to train with power, you ask? Well, there are a myriad of reasons.  Any time you are NOT training with power, you are simply guessing.  If you use heart rate you are still mostly guessing. If you are using rate of perceived exertion (RPE) you are still just guessing.  If you want to DIRECTLY measure effort, the powermeter is the only way to fly.  Being able to, through testing and accumulated training, exactly determine your power capabilities over varying lengths of time (for example, knowing what you can sustain for 2.5hrs for when you are planning a 70.3 race plan) is invaluable when it comes to racing.  As Brian says, proper pacing is racing.

I've also encountered some people who TRAIN with power (i.e. computrainer programs but JUST indoor training or powertap for training but no race wheel setup or option) but do not race with power.  That is like brushing your teeth but with no toothpaste.  It is like making a sandwich but with no filling.  It's like having wheat without the germ. It is like a pen with no ink. It just doesn't make sense.  What is the point of such precise training without being able to prescribe it to your racing?

Well, for a lot of people they don't have that many options.  Crank-based power "seems" too expensive (and you have to buy a whole new crankset), crankarm based power readings seem suspect (Stages, looking at you), hub options mean racing wheels are "compromised."  So the Garmin Vector pedals have long been awaited with much anticipation.

A pedal system seems like an ideal solution to many issues.

1) Easy to swap between bikes
2) Lightweight
3) Can use whatever crank (with one or two exceptions) and wheels desired
4) A Garmin product, so must be legit
5) TRUE left/right balance (not calculated)

There is also the possibility of other cool things due to the nature of being able to apply updates:

1) Being able to apply firmware updates as they are released

This is pretty huge.  Garmin updates firmware for its various products on a relatively consistent basis and for the most part dramatically improves the user interface and analysis metrics.  For example, earlier this month Garmin released a big update for the Vector pedals and created, among other things, two new power metrics:

1) Torque Effectiveness
2) Pedal smoothness

Whether or not those are useful metrics is relatively irrelevant to the VALUE of the pedals, it is relevant to the fact that as Garmin Software Developers continue to create new and better ways of using the pedals (or anything Garmin related, i.e. head units and Garmin Connect software) the users can actually take advantage of that in-house.  No sending in of the powermeter is necessary as with (as far as I know) all other power options.

All that is hypothetical however.  What really matters is whether or not they WORK.  Before the pedals were actually released and as I watched the first couple of pairs get installed for customers at Inside Out Sports I was a bit apprehensive as to the aforementioned workability/livability/usability.  I worried that the average customer/user would be overwhelmed by the "swappability" of pedals and assume that it was as "easy" as swapping a normal set of pedals between bikes.  It is imperative to the function of the powermeter IN the pedals that torque be applied evenly and appropriately to the pedal tightening.  In doing so, one must also have the correct number of pedal washers installed, such that the pedal pod does not contact any part of the crankarm.

The slightly dirty crankarm/pod/spindle interface

 So while that sounds somewhat complicated (it isn't) and intimidating (it isn't in reality) if the user follows the great step-by-step directions in the user manual and/or references helpful videos online the process is extremely simple and straightforward.

I have become more mechanically inclined over the past two years.  I used the Powertap system for 2 years (swapping between bikes, installed disc covers, removing and installing cassettes), and a Quarq system currently for ~16 months (swapping crankset between road and tri bikes with different bottom bracket standards, become more familiar with adapter products and proper install procedures).  I have built my own bikes and worked on them for the past couple of years as well.  So I am fairly familiar with modern bicycles and their mechanics (to a degree).  The Garmin Vector pedal set is NOT difficult to install.  Be careful, follow directions, and swapping between bikes is a cinch.

Once installed (and assuming you have a nearly ubiquitous Garmin head unit) set up and calibration is very simple.  It is similar to other powermeters and is completely straightforward.  Following on-screen prompts (and again, reading the manual!) makes it quick and you are very rapidly on your way.

Now the important part: does it work for its intended use?

The short answer is yes.

The long(er) answer is to suggest heading over to DC Rainmaker's full on review to get an idea of EXACTLY why it works.  All I can provide is a little more user experience than the average power user and a willingness to blog about it...

You're basically going to have a couple of different ways of looking at this.  The Vector pedals are MOST similar in terms of watt number to a crank-based system.  A powertap is going to read a bit lower than both.  This is simply because the powertap (hub) is further "downstream."  It is reading power at the hub versus power at the crank versus power at the pedals.  This makes sense then, that the Vector PEDALS and the Quarq CRANK (spider) will read extremely close.  They are both the "nearest" to the actual source of the power (your legs).  What the Vector offers that the Quarq cannot is the ability to truly MEASURE both sides of your power production.  The Quarq basically divides the pedal stroke into halves and assumes that one half is due to your left leg and one half is due to your right.  This CAN be correct, but it can also not be correct.

As you can see, it provides a scatter plot representation of your L/R balance over the duration of the ride. According to this chart, I slightly bias my pedal stroke to the left (it also gives it to you as a % i.e. L/R 52%/48%).  What do I do with this information? To be honest, nothing really.  I am not going to change the way I pedal to try and get 50/50 or do one-legged drills to "bring my other leg up to strength." That is simply not going to change no matter how hard you work.  But that's bringing in a whole other argument.  Do your one-legged drills if you want or your big gear work; it doesn't really help you physiologically.

Is it reliable?

Yes, yes it is. Other than changing the batteries (which, like the Quarq, is extremely simple; I had the older version of the PT and it was definitely more involved - 5mins vs 2mins haha) I have had zero issues over 6+ weeks of use.  The pedals have been consistently recognized (the pods, basically) by the head unit, the pedals have transmitted properly to the head unit, the head unit has read what seem to be "correct" wattages.
I haven't had any issues with dropouts and if I didn't tell you (or, for example, coach Brian), nobody would know I am using a different power measurement device than my Quarq).  Readings are steady and reliable and the data has been completely perfect.  Well, I'd like to have MORE watts but hey, it's March!

Another great thing about the Vector pedals is the fact that they are, by and large, replaceable.  In any crash, the things most likely to hit the ground and suffer the result of an impact are:

1) You (expensive)
2) Handlebars (can be expensive, can be cheap)
3) Pedals (not expensive with Shimanos...)
4) Skewers (not expensive)
5) Rear Derailleur (can be expensive, can be cheap)

Now, in the context of this review, we want to focus on #3.  Pedals. Garmin Vector pedals are expensive; there is no doubt about that.  At $1699 they represent the "middle of the road" in terms of powermeter price spectrum.  A lot of potential users balked at the idea of a pedal based power system because of # 3 mentioned above.

First, lettuce go to the Vector page on Garmin's website.  As you can see, they are already changing the way you buy the pedals.  The drop-down menu only has one option (for now) of what has heretofore been the sole option from a crankarm thickness standpoint.  But soon they will offer two options that should encompass ALL crankarm thicknesses (Specialized, Rotor Flow, etc).

You may worry that you will hit your pedal.  Well, not to worry, the pedal body is replaceable! Any Look pedal system would suffer the same risk and be replaced at roughly the same cost.

You may worry that you will hit your pod.  Well, if you installed them wrong this is a much bigger risk than it has to be.  But if you installed them right and STILL hit it and/or crack it upon assembly...GUESS WHAT!? Replaceable!!

You worry that your cleats will wear out...REPLACEABLE! Plus, they are Look system compatible.

I have done "normal" riding with the pedals and have also done some bike racing with the pedals.  In both situations the pedals performed flawlessly and I experienced no issues with "clipping" (racing leads to more aggressive situations and less attention to detail) as some have been worried about...

In the end, the Vector pedal system IS expensive.  But to me, it is the NORM for powermeter systems.  Insofar as you are concerned with an ACCURATE AND RELIABLE powermeter anyway, they are the norm (from an expense standpoint).

From a cost to benefit ratio, I would rank them very highly.  I only have experience with 3 systems so far in my career, but I really like these.  Ultimately, weighing the pros and cons of each system is imperative before making your choice.

Sram Quarq (Riken/Elsa/Red) $1599 - $2045

1) Crank-based
2) Limited crank arm length options (Riken model only goes to 170, no shorter)
3) Entirely new crankset
4) Use any wheels
5) Fits any bike

Garmin Vector Pedal System $1699

1) Pedal based
2) Any crank arm length (pending crankset choice...)
3) New pedals, only LOOK compatible
4) Use any wheels
5) Fits MOST bikes (fits ALL bikes soon)

Powertap (hub only/wheelset) $789 - $999

1) Hub based
2) Any crank arm length (pending crankset choice)
3) New rear wheel/wheelset
4) Must train AND race on rear wheel OR have a race PT rear wheel (if you want to actually have useful data)
5) Fits all bikes

There are other options out there.  SRM has been the "gold standard" for decades (two decades yet?) but is extremely expensive (and massively over-priced and over-valued in my opinion). Power2Max is a relative newcomer to the NA distribution network but has proven to be a good option (although no dealer sells them, which is a bit of a con in my biased opinion).  Stages is another option, but I would never personally consider it to be in league with any of the other aforementioned systems.

I would definitely purchase a Vector power pedal set.  I think it is a great option. I love the future-proof nature of its update system.  I love that various parts are replaceable. I love that it's accurate.  I love that it's consistent. I love that it's reliable. If you already have a good crankset (or are happy with your crankarm length) I think it's a fantastic option.

If you have any questions that I can try and answer, don't hesitate to ask them!

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