The FTP diaries: A long, meandering relationship with training and watts

With the threat of COVID19 and the reality of my work shift both not accommodating much in the way of riding outdoors, I started training myself using a power meter in the middle of 2020. All the necessary hardware had finally gotten to a somewhat approachable price point, although I won’t deny that all of it still costs the equivalent of a new mid-range bike. I had better make it count, then.

The cornerstone of most power-based training is the FTP test. For the uninitiated, FTP, or “functional threshold power,” is a measurement, in watts, of how much power a cyclist can output for a given period of time – and the usual time benchmark is one hour. In the interest of time, most FTP testing is done over 20 minutes of the hardest sustainable effort a cyclist can muster, After that, taking 95% of that interval’s average power output results in that cyclist’s FTP.

Once FTP is known, it becomes the basis for many a training plan, with six or seven “zones” based off percentages of that FTP figure. Conventional wisdom is to repeat the FTP test after about six weeks as a barometer of progress.

Starting in July 2020, I embarked on my first FTP test with uncertainty in terms of expectations.

How correct is this value, really?

Prior to this, Strava had published an “estimated average power” with each ride I logged since 2013, and it will continue to do so for every cyclist that doesn’t use a power meter. It’s a nice figure to look at, and it could be an ego boosting thing, but emphasis has to be put on the word “estimated.” Unfortunately, if all you’re doing is running the smartphone app, Strava has zero clue of how much power you are making because it has no method of making direct measurements of torque and cadence. It’s nothing more than a wild guess.

So, after years of looking at – and deluding myself with – this “estimated average power” figure, you can imagine how chagrined I was to find out my actual FTP of 126 W, after performing a proper test on the Wahoo KICKR SNAP. At the same time, though, it was a figure I knew was undeniably correct. I rode an honest maximal 20-minute effort and I wouldn’t have been able to better it in my condition at the time. At least, it was a good foundation to start from.

Over the following months it became my objective to improve my FTP. I’m not a racer, and I don’t have interest in joining competitive cycling events. I just wanted to see how far I could push myself in improvements, and how much I could build on that initial 126 W FTP figure. With more training miles and more structured riding under my belt, I was able to make decent gains. A month later I was in the 153 W range, and by March 2021 I had pushed into 185 W.

Maybe, just maybe, I had what it took to get to 200 W?

That question kept getting a negative response for the rest of the year. I was making smaller and smaller gains per FTP test, which was fine, but there also emerged a pattern where posting new personal-best power numbers, inching ever closer to 200 W, would immediately get followed by some reason for me to stop cycling. In the closing four months of 2021, those reasons were injuries. I had a sesamoiditis scare on my left foot in September, which I found was down to incorrect cleat position and got fixed, along with ten days off the bike. More egregiously, I ended the year nursing a nasty left ankle sprain for two weeks. Unable to stand or walk properly without pain, much more ride a bike, this first-ever sprain threw a lot of uncertainty over my future as a cyclist. That put me in a funk.

Fortunately, by the first week of January 2022, the recuperation and binding of my left ankle was at a point where I could dare to get back on the bike and pedal on the trainer. Mindful of my left ankle, I just spun the pedals at a relatively light effort, but did not stop pedaling. I realized how cycling was a non-weight-bearing exercise for the most part, and I could actually do this comfortably for an hour or two.

After that first couple of rides on flat courses, I started progressively loading up my left ankle with more pedaling torque, consistent with medical advice to do more weight-bearing activities by the third week after the sprain. I started pedaling out of the saddle, pushing more torque at lower cadences. The week after, I started on the rolling hills and climbing courses on RGT, pushing more watts up 7% slopes. I even challenged the virtual Passo dello Stelvio again – that steep Italian climb with all its hairpins and slopes exceeding 12% for two hours.

By the last week of January, I was in good condition. I thought of testing myself again. What gains did I get? Had I lost any power in recuperating from the ankle sprain? The FTP test would tell.

I did the test and…I got 194 W. This was the same FTP I had at the end of November 2021. No worries; at least I didn’t lose any fitness, I thought.

But something felt off. I measured that effort perfectly; I didn’t run out of puff midway through the 20-minute test interval and I felt like I had done more than 194.

The next day, I suddenly remembered – when was the last time I checked the air pressure on Hyro’s rear training tire?

Let this be a lesson, kids. Wheel-on smart trainers need consistent rear tire air pressure.

Sure enough, it had been too long. The rear tire on Hyro’s training wheel was at 55 psi; it really should have been at 100. A dozen strokes of a track pump later, I hopped back on the trainer and did another FTP test. Never mind the sheer exhaustion an FTP test typically brings; I sabotaged the last attempt by doing it on a wheel-on smart trainer with a half-deflated rear tire. I felt like I had enough in the tank and in my legs to exact my “revenge.”

As with the previous day, the effort was spot-on. Unlike in previous FTP tests where I went too hard at the start and wheezed on empty with five minutes remaining, this day I pushed as hard as I can, for as long as I can. By the 20-minute mark I was in oxygen debt yet again, but I had done well enough in the interval that mattered.

RGT told me it detected an FTP increase to 202 W.

Would I like to update it? the prompt said.

Oh, hell yes.

The power curve from this particular FTP test, courtesy of the Elevate plugin for Strava on the Chrome web browser. 95% of 213.6 W over 20 minutes equates to 202.92 W. RGT was being conservative.

I look back at this occurrence and chuckle it off as the rolling resistance of bicycle tires being a real thing, exacerbated by low inflation pressure. It was real enough to rob me of 8 W worth of FTP, even when I was using the 4iiii Precision crank-based power meter for all the testing.

Since then, I’ve continued training with my zones based off this shiny new 202 W FTP personal best. I don’t know how much farther I can push my power gains, as I’m not exactly young any more, but I’ll keep on working on it for as long as I can. As Greg LeMond famously said, “it never gets easier – you just get faster.”

Bino’s trainer comeback, part 2: Resurrecting the Minoura LR340 trainer

For indoor trainer use, I shod my folding bike Bino with Schwalbe Kojak slicks. The next step is to introduce a few modifications to the old Minoura LR340 magnetic turbo trainer.

While I’ve screwed up the LR340 with running it one too many times with a dirty rear tire (rookie mistake), the resistance unit is still operable despite the gouged roller the rear tire will drive. The real reason why the LR340 is out of commission is the entire mechanism required to press this resistance roller against the rear tire in the first place is broken.

The T-shaped nut above is key to the operation of many of Minoura’s turbo trainers. Photo credit: Steve Tan of the Hands On Bike blog.

That mechanism is made up simply of the resistance knob, which is attached to a threaded rod, which then threads into a nut with a special flange that make it T-shaped. Over time, this nut’s threads stripped out completely, and it is very hard to look for a direct replacement from Minoura unless you order one from, say, Amazon Japan.

Fortunately I came across this review on Amazon which pointed me in the right direction towards a possible fix. (DISCLAIMER AND WARNING: This post is purely for demonstration purposes only. If you decide to follow its instructions to modify your Minoura turbo trainer, proceed at your own risk. I will not be liable for any injury or warranty loss that may arise from you following these instructions.)

If it meant salvaging the LR340 trainer I had and having a shot at making it usable again for minimal cost…why not?

I ended up ordering the brad hole type T-nut and fluted knob with male stud, in both 5/16″ threading, from Amazon. Try as I might, I could not find any suitable equivalents on Lazada or Shopee. Amazon sells these in bulk, so I ended up with 12 of these T-nuts and 10 of these fluted knobs with male studs – way more than I’d need, strictly speaking, but they may have some other use.

The fluted knobs seem like a good replacement for the Minoura resistance knob. The knob itself is slightly smaller in diameter compared to the original, but the points are much more prominent and easier to grip and turn.

These brad hole type T-nuts are pretty beefy things, each made of steel with a base about 2.5 mm thick. As they are, though, they will not fit on the LR340. They will need a bit of work to replicate Minoura’s BF-11 T-nut, and that involves turning that round base plate into something more rectangular. As mentioned in the review, the reshaped T-nut will resist rotating while the knob itself is being turned.

After placing them in a vise and taking a metal hacksaw to them, two of the T-nuts now have a more rectangular shape to their base flanges.

The final bit of modification is to the LR340 resistance unit itself.

The threaded portion of the T-nut measures 11.8 mm in diameter, which is quite a bit bigger than the hole the original BF-11 T-nut used to inhabit, at around 10.2 mm. Using a drill and a stepped bit, I will need to enlarge the hole to an even 12 mm so that the new T-nut fits.

I had to remove the two pins that pivot the resistance unit on the frame so I could drill the hole out evenly from both sides. After reaming out the hole to 12.1 mm with my drill, I tried the new T-nut.

The new T-nut went pretty cleanly into its new home. Now I had to reassemble the pivot pins of the resistance unit, and reintroduce the small wheel adapter while I’m at it, as Bino is going to be using the LR340 almost exclusively now.

The final step is to drive the matching fluted knob into the new T-nut and the original conical spring. Before that, though, I measured the original metric-thread Minoura resistance knob and compered it with the new knob. The original Minoura unit was slightly too short to sufficiently push the resistance roller against Bino’s 20″ x 1.75″ (47-406 mm) rear tire without the aid of a cap nut jammed at the end. I wanted to see if this was still going to be a problem with the new setup.

The new knob’s threaded rod is longer than the old one by almost exactly 10 mm (39.4 vs 49.5 mm). If this is still too short to contact Bino’s 20″ x 1.35″ (35-406 mm) Schwalbe Kojak slicks, there may be much less of a gap to bridge. With all the modification work completed on the LR340, I decided to mount Bino and see.

As it turns out, the new resistance knob and T-nut combo is capable of pushing the resistance roller against the tire to a deflection of about 3 mm just before it runs out of thread. This is a decent result, but could be better. The pictures don’t show it, but I ended up removing the conical spring and adding a cap nut at the end to extend the threaded rod’s reach further. This way, there is just under 5 mm of rear tire deflection at the very end of the knob’s travel. More would have been good, but this is okay for now.

Cat Eye ISC-12 speed/cadence sensor. The cadence magnet is stuck magnetically to the pedal spindle.

To round out the changes, I transferred the Cat Eye Padrone Digital and its ISC-12 speed/cadence sensor over to Bino’s handlebars so that he gains cadence monitoring. The Bluetooth functionality also means support for a heart rate monitor strap is easy to add for real-time pulse data, although perhaps not the most reliable in connection.

My favorite bit about this hack is that I literally have a box full of spare T-nuts and resistance knobs in case these give out or strip their threads. Sure, the T-nuts and fluted knobs had to be bought online, and the T-nuts’ bases have to be cut to be usable on the trainer. Otherwise, if you’ve got the tools, this is a simple and very cost-effective way of bringing an out-of-commission turbo trainer back to life. I will gladly stand by this hack until Minoura make their small parts easier to procure for its users outside Japan.

Virtual riding on real roads? RGT Cycling review

Even without the threat of COVID19 and the country’s lackluster handling of the pandemic, 2020 was always going to have an axe to grind against me and my desire to go cycling outdoors. The biggest roadblock so far has been my current work assignment. While I am grateful to remain gainfully employed during these hard times, one thing I’m not so enthused about is my current shift, which starts late in the afternoon and ends past midnight. It has its perks, but it also means I no longer have a good chance of sneaking in a Sunday morning long ride until the end of the year.

This situation has led to me doubling down on indoor cycling to get my exercise. With my Minoura LR340 turbo trainer currently inoperable after spending half the year on it, I switched over to the Wahoo KICKR SNAP, which brought quite the raft of improvements.

This doesn’t change the fact that I’m still missing riding in the great outdoors, though.

One major benefit to a smart trainer like the KICKR SNAP is that, via Bluetooth or ANT+, its resistance can be controlled by third-party applications. For example, an application could ramp up the KICKR SNAP’s resistance emulating the effort increase needed to climb a hill. Zwift has been the 800-pound gorilla of this particular virtual cycling segment since 2016, promoting the gamification of indoor cycling training by offering various routes around the virtual island of Watopia, and combining it with a huge online community, which you can either train with or race against.

It’s also US$15 per month.

While Zwift has rightly enjoyed its popularity and first-mover advantage, it is no longer the only game in the virtual cycling town. This is where the subject of today’s post comes in.

Road Grand Tours, alternatively called RGT Cycling, is one of the newer players in the virtual indoor cycling arena. Their main claim to fame is their “Real Roads” catalog of routes based on real-life locations around the world, unlike Zwift with its virtual island of Watopia hosting almost everything. As of this writing, it’s also got free membership with some features blocked off, but with all the Real Roads routes available:

  • Cap Formentor, Palma de Mallorca, Spain
  • Mont Ventoux, France
  • Paterberg, Belgium
  • Passo della Stelvio, Italy
  • Pienza, Italy
  • 8bar Criterium course, Germany
  • Borrego Springs, USA
  • Canary Wharf, UK

To get into RGT Cycling, you will need a power meter and two separate apps. The main RGT Cycling app has all the controls, user details, and device communication with your smart trainer, cadence sensor, and heart rate sensor – and it runs on an Android or iOS smartphone. A separate “RGT Screen” app – available on iOS, Windows, Mac OS, or Apple TV – then handles all the visuals for the immersion, including camera angle switching and visual quality.

So how is it like?

Pairing the Wahoo KICKR SNAP to the RGT Cycling app via Bluetooth. You can disconnect here and connect to the Wahoo Cycling app if you need to do a spindown test mid-ride.

Pairing the KICKR SNAP, my Cat Eye ISC-12 speed/cadence sensor, and my Stages heart rate strap to the RGT Cycling app via Bluetooth was fast, easy, and done after selecting a course.

RGT Cycling’s integration with Strava works, but could be greatly improved.

By contrast, making the RGT Cycling app talk to Strava is somewhat imperfect. After a dozen failed attempts, I got it to work by removing the Strava app from my phone to force it to link up via the web browser, which finally stuck. And even then, activities don’t always automatically upload to Strava on their own.

One of those lucky times when RGT Cycling auto-uploads to Strava without hiccups.

RGT Cycling does generate .FIT and .GPX files of your workouts. You can send a request to send them to your email address through the app, and those can then be uploaded directly into Strava…as a workaround.

I’ve done a lot of riding on Borrego Springs. It may seem flat and boring but it’s harder than it looks.

Once past that, though, the RGT Cycling experience has been pretty sweet. All eight Real Roads courses are available right off the bat, unlike Zwift, which forces you into level-grinding, RPG-style, to access its version of Mont Ventoux or its long-climb Alpe du Zwift route. Also unlike Zwift and its bright and cheery motifs, RGT Cycling aims for realism in its environments, much like a simulation racing game does. It doesn’t always get there, as the graphical fidelity hovers around PlayStation 2 levels of quality with a slightly slower frame rate, but I do like its quieter, less game-like ambience.

The routes I’ve tried are the following:

  • 8bar Crit: Emulates a fixed-gear criterium course set on an airport in Berlin. Totally flat, but has lots of indicated turns. I use this primarily for warming up.
  • Canary Wharf: A simple rectangular night course set in the UK, home to a short sprint segment and a short, abrupt 6% gradient climb.
  • Borrego Springs: A simple but long desert time-trial course in San Diego. Most of my time on RGT Cycling has been spent here, as it’s a good venue for interval work. It’s also harder than advertised. Just drafting behind stronger riders can be a chore already.
  • Paterberg: This Flemish climbing route is short, sweet, and brutal. While there are a lot of downhill sections, they’re followed up by some steep ascents of 12% to 16%. Great for hill repeats.
  • Cap Formentor: After some flats, this is three climbs in one. The first 3 km rises by an average of 6.2%, then a twisty downhill leads you to a gentler 3.3 km of 2.8% average gradient. Past the tunnel, the final kilometer punishes you with 6.6% gradient. I’ll need at least 90 minutes to complete this.
The RGT Screen app shows a real-time list of online riders and activity while you pick a course.

The following features are hidden away behind the subscription fee paywall:

  • Structured training workout mode: At first glance, they remind me of what TrainerRoad offers. They’ve got quite a selection. (FYI – TrainerRoad integration is available on free accounts.)
  • RGT’s structured workout library and sync-up for daily workouts.
  • Magic Roads: RGT’s neatest party trick is it can supposedly take a .GPX file of your favorite cycling route, which it will then attempt to recreate inside the game. I understand the main caveat here (apart from the subscription) is that it has to be either a race or a group ride event. Magic Roads currently do not support standalone, solo rides.
  • Customizable event bots.
  • Event creation on either standard roads or Magic Roads.

RGT Cycling has its work cut out for it in the community stakes, but that’s to be expected given Zwift has had a four-year head start. I’m not interested in racing, so the relative lack of community activity isn’t a deal-breaker – although they do host a Facebook community group where you can meet riders and organize group rides, if that’s your jam.

Grinding away on the Paterberg’s steepest bit, with an indicated 16.8% gradient. I took this with a cellphone camera with no stabilization.
A screenshot of Cap Formentor. The visual variety makes this a beautiful, but painful prison of climbing.

All this…still doesn’t change the fact that I miss riding in the great outdoors. At the end of the day, cynically speaking, and to borrow a line from DC Rainmaker, I’m still staring at a wall while pedaling my bike and going nowhere. The challenge and effort brought by RGT Cycling feels pretty darn real to my legs, though, and I think such virtual cycling is a good way to break the monotony of indoor training and make it a little more fun.