Testing Athlete Lab’s real road-racer experience

It’s now possible for amateur road racers to gain power and efficiency using a data-driven training method introduced by Bradley Wiggins’ former coach. Graham Scott reports. Photographs by Matt Munro

A session in the Athlete Lab studio in London’s Cannon Street
A session in the Athlete Lab studio in London’s Cannon Street

With cycling days shortening, and the weather deteriorating in the months ahead, many cyclists pack up until spring. Those not prepared to lose their fitness, nor to duke it out on icy, dark roads, head to the gym. But now there are more ways than ever to not only keep fit but also keep cycle-fit.

The upcoming expansion of the Athlete Lab studios offers a “real road-racer” experience indoors, taking on the established spin bikes, Wattbikes and others. Spin bikes have had a good run, but they are aimed at keeping you generally fit, not exactly replicating a bike ride. Machines like the Keiser M3 Plus are well put together, but it’s still a spin bike; things like the flywheel effect, the lack of adjustment and basic data gathering count against it for road racers. However, the Keiser’s 2015 M3i model features Bluetooth wireless technology so that you can obtain more data and connect to any group exercise projection system. Machines like this are being rolled out in gyms and spin studios, but you can buy one (the M3i costs £1,895) for the home if you prefer riding solo.

The studio’s Adjustabikes, with real road bike specifications
The studio’s Adjustabikes, with real road bike specifications

The Wattbike, which first appeared in 2008, is a definite step up from a spin bike. For its 2015 mode it too has more improvements to the data gathering. It has been designed in partnership with British Cycling and is used by both cyclists and athletes, including Jessica Ennis-Hill at one extreme, and the 126kg Saracens and England rugby player Billy Vunipola at the other. It’s a robust machine, made by the cycling group Giant. It’s easy to get a good fit and feels rigid and strong when you hop on. Clip the pedals in and away you go. Unlike a normal spin bike, the Wattbike feels more like a bicycle – you can freewheel, ramp up the power without that flywheel effect flattening your constant effort and it generally allows you to work hard, much like a bike.

But where it scores is in the data display. Within a minute of starting to ride the Wattbike, it was obvious that I was favouring my left leg, roughly 53/47, left to right. I had no idea I did this. With the feedback loop, it was 50/50 within five minutes – hopefully my muscle memory will do its job next time I’m out on the road. Equally, another graphic showed that I wasn’t rotating as well as I could. Again, the instant feedback allowed me to improve noticeably so that the rotation became smoother and more efficient.

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The data on the 2015 model has been ramped up. It’s clearly not that there isn’t already a lot of data available – all the usual things like heart rate, cadence, watts and so on – but that the software is smarter. Operating through Bluetooth, there is now the Wattbike powerhub where you can upload data, analyse it and, if you wish, share it.  All the bikes are set at the factory to exactly the same calibration, which means any Wattbike will give you the same figures. They are available in various gyms, like Virgin Active, or you can buy one (£2,250) for the home.

But this is a machine to get you fit and is aimed at a variety of sports people. The crank is wider than on an actual bike and the same as a mountain bike, so you’re using subtly different muscles. Many of these machines are just part of a gym’s equipment, so you’re on your own in terms of operating it yourself, albeit with a lot of data to work with. But what if you want the ultimate experience aimed not at sports people but at bike riders? This is when you head to Athlete Lab.

Athlete Lab’s founders Mike Flynn (left) and Neil Franks
Athlete Lab’s founders Mike Flynn (left) and Neil Franks

Founders Mike Flynn and business partner Neil Franks spent most of their careers in Singapore, where Neil developed a love of cycling and triathlons. The first Athlete Lab was set up in Singapore in 2012, closely followed by one in Sydney. After the teething problems experienced by these two, Athlete Lab London opened in 2014. By next year more are planned across the capital to answer the question they pose on the website: “Want to become a supreme rouleur?”

The studio in Cannon Street is located in the City of London, to attract what Franks calls “a competitive demographic. We’re targeting ambitious, high-achieving people, cyclists in the City. Research shows they’ll walk a maximum of eight minutes to reach a gym, because that’s all the time they have.”

The bikes deliver large amounts of highly accurate data
The bikes deliver large amounts of highly accurate data

When you walk into the studio you see what look like road racers, but with supports instead of the front wheel and a small rolling road behind each back wheel. The bikes have proper groupsets and cranks, and no flywheel effect – it really is like sitting on a bike. Because, in effect, you are.

The advantages include using exactly the same muscles as when you’re out on a road bike. The bikes deliver extremely large amounts of data, to very high levels of accuracy – the load on the rear wheel, for example, is adjusted 100 times per second. On the huge screen at the front of the studio are individual display boxes showing your data – and everyone else’s if you’re interested – overlaid on videos of motivating stage races, such as the Tour de France.

The Wattbike 2015, £2,250
The Wattbike 2015, £2,250

Another key advantage is that there are highly trained coaches at every session; even in group events there’s a coach talking to every rider. One of the advisers for the Labs is Shane Sutton, the legendary former coach to Team Sky and Sir Bradley Wiggins, who introduced the Shane Sutton Method for training here and rates the people he works with. “These coaches are not personal trainers,” he says, “they are cycle coaches.” The team includes senior triathlon coaches, a senior biomechanics coach, a head exercise psychologist and a nutritionist. Motivating quotes line the walls, videos constantly play stage races and the atmosphere is totally committed.

At a sample class there is a mixed bag of riders, including a “newbie” at one end of the bike row and a hardened triathlete at the other. At first glance, you notice the only girl present is pedalling at 100 watts, while the triathlete is putting out 250-300 watts for the whole 45 minutes. But the power difference is not a difference in effort, since both the girl and the triathlete are working near to their individual Functional Threshold Power (FTP).

The Keiser M3i for home use, £1,895
The Keiser M3i for home use, £1,895

Every rider at the Lab is tested to find their FTP (generally by riding 20 minutes at your absolutely maximum pace), and then the target is usually to maintain 90 per cent of this figure through various training regimes. So everyone is pushing their own limits, overseen by a coach who can see what those individual limits are. If you’re “in the zone”, the various numbers in your display box stay green. Everyone in my group stays green.

The test session shows this really is like riding a bike, except you can’t fall off. The fixed front end makes things more rigid, otherwise it’s the same as on a road, minus other traffic, potholes and people cutting you up. I do a sample route, including increasing the gradients, each one counted down on the screen and visible as a route graphic. Trying to keep all my figures in the green zone (my fairly hypothetical FTP) takes concentration and effort and it’s easy to see why this works so well. Within 10 minutes sweat is pouring down my face and I’m looking at another steep climb while working to keep everything green. It feels pretty real.

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There is a wealth of data that is saved, can be shared with Strava or another app, and every session is emailed to you for analysis and comparison. As Franks remarks: “Cycling is technical. People are particular about it, they want the numbers.” As with Wattbike, Athlete Lab’s SpinScan software, in conjunction with video analysis, can measure every rotation, every movement and give you the mechanisms to improve.

The aim is to open more Athlete Labs in London and New York within the next 12 months. “We should launch at least three new branches fairly quickly,” says Franks. “We’ve got to be in Canary Wharf, Liverpool Street and the West End. We’re in discussions now.”

All of this is a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end is to get out there on your bike. You’ll be in the sunshine, seeing the countryside, meeting up with friends, stopping for coffee and just riding or, indeed, competing. But after training at an Athlete Lab you’ll be riding more efficiently, faster, with less effort and more power. And, of course, you’ll be a supreme rouleur.

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