A Power Meter Taught Me Something I Didn’t Expect
I have a confession of road rage. Actually, it’s not so much road rage as much as it is road perspective. Would people drive big vehicles at high speeds if they intrinsically knew how much energy those vehicles consume?
This post is about finding that place where we as humans can appreciate what it takes to move through space/time at superhuman velocities.
Car Versus Human
I may be a triathlete, but I’m not just talking about swimming, biking and running. Imagine yourself driving down a highway in your favorite car. Chances are your car is powered by multiple pistons being forced into motion by well controlled explosions inside of a metal block that weighs a few hundred pounds. Now imagine trying to carry your car on your back as you walk the short distance from the parking lot to the chiropractor’s office. I don’t know how many people can do that, but the percentage of people on earth who can would probably fill this page with zeros (either I’m exaggerating or using a large font).
Yet this engine, with its controlled explosions, can move you, your family, some cargo, and those long forgotten McDonald’s french fries under the seat down the highway at 70+ miles per hour for thousands of miles before tune ups and oil changes. I, on the other hand, can run a five mile loop at a tenth of the speed which then requires a recovery drink and hot shower. This perspective alone might make me appreciate how hard the car works to drive me twenty five minutes to Wilmington just so I can run five miles for forty something minutes. And in my 40 minutes of running I put out less “work” than my car did to get me there.
So, when I see someone behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle, I think to myself,
“How many of you truly have an appreciation for the amount of energy it takes to move your vehicle down the road at whatever breakneck speed you can get away with?”
The question may be rhetorical, but it has serious implications for all of us humans who want more and want it now. I have no data to back up this claim, but I believe that if more people had a feel for just how much energy is required to start their cars, they would likely do more walking, running and/or cycling. I once knew a guy who lived on a remote cattle ranch in New Mexico. He would run several miles to his mailbox at the main road. I’ve also known people who would drive less than a mile on a beautiful day to the post office and then sit around the house because they had nothing to do.
The real eye-opener for me was the power meter on my bike. When I first got the power meter, I could hold about 200 watts pedaling for an hour. I thought that was pretty good because I imagined lighting two 100 watt incandescent light bulbs. But my curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to know how I compared to my car, a 2007 Toyota Yaris.
According to Wikipedia, Vincent can generate up to 89 horsepower. (Yes ,I named my car). In reality, it’s probably only using a portion of that. Let’s assume 50% (45hp). Forty five horsepower is equal to roughly 33,500 watts. Vincent, one of the smallest street legal cars in the U.S., weighs only 13 times my own weight but puts out over 167 times the energy that I do and he can do it for much longer. He can produce over seven watts per kilogram all day long. And that is on the low end. In the cycling world, you would be a top level professional cyclist if you could hold that kind of power to weight ratio for all of five minutes  “How much better are pro cyclists?”. Cyclist. https://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/539/how-much-better-are-pro-cyclists .
How many drivers truly have that appreciation? I’m sure most endurance athletes do, because they feel the pain in their legs from pushing 300 watts earlier that day. Ever since I started training for triathlon, I’ve been much nicer to my vehicles. I get the oil changed on time (almost on time). I know my mechanic on a first name basis (Nick, in case you are wondering). I also, drive more respectfully of others. Perhaps the biggest impact from this insight is that I value efficiency over speed and style (regarding my vehicles).
I don’t want to give the impression that I negatively judge anyone simply because they drive a large vehicle at 79mph on Interstate 40. I myself own a big truck/lory that I use to haul cargo and horses. The U.S. has cheap fuel, wide roads and a car culture built in to the social fabric. There are neither economic nor social incentives to drive efficient vehicles.
The point of my rambling in this post is that, because of my triathlon experiences, I have a feel for how much energy it takes to move, and because of that insight, I live my life just a little bit differently than I used to.
Until next time…
References ↑1 “How much better are pro cyclists?”. Cyclist. https://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/539/how-much-better-are-pro-cyclists