Gravel riding is having a moment right now. It’s far and away the most talked about genre of riding in the industry currently, and I get why. People are tired of the intensity often associated with road cycling, and gravel bikes offer a more comfortable, less fragile, go anywhere alternative to most road bikes. For me personally, I added a gravel bike to my collection of bikes because I wanted the ability to race without being bunched in a fast moving peloton and the associated risk of crashing. Before I touched my new gravel bike, though, I knew I needed a power meter solution. I needed something that would allow me to ride with off-road oriented pedals, and I needed something that was going to stand up to the borderline abuse that a gravel bike is subjected to. Ultimately, for me, the solution was a Stages single sided power meter.
When I started deciding on a power meter, I first looked at where I would install it. Pedals were out because I did not want to be hiking through mud in expensive, ill-suited, road shoes. In theory, I like the Powertap C1 chainrings, but being limited to a minimum 36 tooth chainring just isn’t viable for a gravel bike. I have the power to handle the hills with a 36 tooth chainring, but it’s often necessary to stay seated for traction when climbing off-road. A rear hub is another option, but I didn’t love the idea of rebuilding a wheel and being subsequently limited to that wheel. That leaves the crank, and I considered it to be the ideal solution for gravel riding. Stages is the market leader in this approach.
One of the biggest advantages that Stages offers is compatibility. Many power meter manufacturers offer very narrow crank compatibility, but stages has a ton of options. One of their guiding principles is more options for more people, and this means it is not only cheaper, but you can side step the whole bottom bracket compatibility minefield.
In my case, I am using it on a Cannondale Slate with a Cannondale Hollogram SI crankset, and sure enough, they had something that worked for my application. Because Cannondale requires a proprietary tool to remove their left side crank arm, I did have to bring the bike to a Cannondale dealer, but the whole install took only a few minutes and cost $5. If you are using a more user-friendly crank system, you can likely do it in your home with simple tools and a few minutes of time.
I went with a left side only power meter, but if your particular application doesn’t have adequate clearance on the left side, Stages now offers right side single leg options. Of course, if you have the clearance and you want dual sided power, Stages now offers that option as well. “Any bike, any drivetrain, any rider.” It’s prominently displayed on the website, and I think they’ve pretty much nailed it.
So, what’s it like to actually use the Stages left side power meter? Having used both Garmin and Powertap options, the Stages system is a breath of fresh air. The app that Stages offers is absolutely amazing. I mean, it’s actually fairly simple, but it not only works well, it does what I need without hassle. Basically, it just works and other manufacturers should take notes.
If you want to change the crank length or update the firmware with Powertap, you’ve got to rely on your bike computer. Personally, I never managed to make it work with my Wahoo computer. Garmin does have an app available for OSX, however, it is far from polished and actually using it can be a somewhat frustrating experience. Because of that, I actually carry backup batteries with me.
By contrast, the Stages app installs on my phone and is super easy to use. There’s no need to change crank length since it’s fixed, but it’s easy to upgrade the firmware, and most importantly, it’s easy to check the battery before a ride. It’s not fancy, but it works in the way you need it to. Aside from the app, the rest of the experience is very similar. It might not be flashy, but it works well and in the ways I need it to. The battery life has been great and the unit has survived all the rain, mud, and hose washing I’ve thrown its way. The power data and cadence is consistent and inline with what I expect to see. The Stages power meter just works.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m not a super intense road cyclist, and so for me there was no question that I wanted a power meter on my gravel bike. The only real question was what was the best option, and would it work the way it is supposed to. Stages absolutely hits it out of the park in that regard. For those in the gravel scene, it’s not such a clear-cut choice, though.
Lots of people in the gravel scene like to revel in the romanticism of riding in the great outdoors, and they don’t see the need for power when they are just having fun. The thing about that is that proper pacing can make things a whole lot more fun. Go too hard in the beginning of the ride, and getting to those post ride beers is going to be a lot less fun. Power data can provide a fuel gauge for your body and using that information to properly pace yourself is going to mean having a lot more fun even if you aren’t in any particular hurry.
When I talk about the importance of a power meter, I often talk about how there is nothing else you can buy for your bike that will make you faster than a power meter. Road cyclists love to drool over the latest deep carbon wheels, but with prices starting at $529 for a left side power meter, a Stages product will cost less than new wheels, by a wide margin, and make you a lot faster. For some people, though, it’s not all about getting there the fastest. In that case, consider a Stages power meter an easy way to make sure you spend more time having fun and less time praying for the end of a hard ride.