The gravel bike power meter debate

Basso Palta gravel bike
(Image credit: Basso Bikes)

Gravel grinding is good for the soul but the competitive cyclist in all us still demands that every crank rotation should log data.

Power meters have proven hugely beneficial, even for recreational riders. You can improve pedal stroke, identify asymmetric issues in your riding physiology and craft a training regime with superior data accuracy.

Training by feel is a sure way to keep your cycling progression hostage to personal bias and sentiment. At the opposite end of the spectrum there is no purpose in mimicking the training regime of a professional rider you admire, but who has genetics you don’t possess.

The foundation for successful training and development is to harvest data, analyse it, and then tailor your own training system. Power meters are an indispensable element in all of this and thus far, there are more options available to the road rider.

With the gravel bike market growing apace, the first pedal off-road specification power meters have debuted. It comes as no surprise that units are produced by Stages and SRM, the latter of which - dubbed the X-Power pedal - features SPD compatibility and all the specification you’d expect from a conventional power meter pedal.

A much tougher environment 

There is a broader question concerning the suitability of power meters for off-road use and it all relates to the more punishing ride environment. Data harvesting from a power meter relies on impeccably calibrated mechatronic componentry.

On a gravel bike or mountain bike you are exposing the frame structure, cranks and pedals to a barrage of consistent high-frequency terrain vibration and bigger loads such as root and rock strikes. The question is how accurate your data harvesting is in such an environment and does it require more regular calibration of the power meter, compared to a road bike system? 

Beyond the possible issue of vibration exposure and electronic component fragility with an off-road power meter system, there is the real risk of severe pedal strikes. This raises the issue: how many severe pedal strikes can a power meter endure before its integrity is compromised?

Stages XTR dual-leg power meter

Stages now enables you to track your off-road riding efforts (Image credit: Shimano)

Gravel grinding is dirtier too

The final issue with power meters in an off-road cycling application is environmental contamination. Road cyclists rarely ride in severe weather, and when they do, the tarmac they are rolling on does not project the same volume of abrasives onto the bike's components. 

On a gravel or mountain bike, in wet or extremely dry weather, the off-road cycling environment generates an assortment of abrasives. Riding gravel roads in the wet, you risk mud particle contamination into your pedals. In the depths of summer, especially riding in a group, there will be a cloud of dust around your cranks. Ecological dust and mud sealing is therefore crucial on a gravel bike power meter.

Firms such as Quark use spider-based systems which offer more protection based on their location but then again the issue of compatibility comes to the fore. While the SRM X-Power pedal will undoubtedly offer riders an accurate data-harvesting solution, the German firm is no stranger to exorbitant pricing meaning it could be out of reach for the average rider. 

That leaves the likes Stages Cycling. Having recently catered for both the mountain biker and gravel rider, offering dual-leg power meter options for most off-road cranksets - Shimano GRX included - the Colorado-based company isn't exempt from inaccuracy and reliability issues, especially when it comes to off-road use.

There is no question that power meters are brilliant and beneficial for all disciplines. Design requirements for a gravel bike application, or even high-mileage mountain bike power meter, requires a lot more robustness. What gravel riding needs then is a dedicated power meter solution tailored to the unique and ever-changing terrain temperaments that comprise this new world of exploration and adventure racing.

Lance Branquinho
Freelance writer

Lance Branquinho is a Namibian-born journalist who graduated to mountain biking after injuries curtailed his trail running. He has a weakness for British steel hardtails, especially those which only run a single gear. As well as Bike Perfect, Lance has written for, and Cycling News.