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Do Mountain Bikes NEED Power Meters?

Racers and fitness freaks love having power meters on their road and gravel bikes. But does it make sense to put a power meter on a mountain bike? A lot of pros do it. What can the average XC, trail, or enduro rider gain from power data?

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:MTB

I’m the type of rider who always has power data displayed on my head unit, otherwise, I feel a bit naked. I’ve had a power meter on nearly every road and gravel bike I’ve owned over the last 8 years. These days, I consider it an essential component and the cost or ease of adding a power meter is now a major consideration with every new bike purchase. 

Historically, my mountain bikes have been different though. I only decided to add power meters to my XC and enduro bike in the last 2 years. At first, it felt good to finally have power data on every bike and for every ride. But I’ve personally found that I don’t pay as much attention to power on the mountain bike as I thought I would. How useful are power meters for off-road riding? Do mountain bikes and mountain bike riders even need power meters?

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What Are Power Meters Good For?

Tom Pidcock MTB SRM power meterCurrent men's XCO world champion, Tom Pidcock, uses an SRM power meter for road, cyclocross, and XC MTB. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Let’s state the obvious first: no bike NEEDS a power meter.

People have ridden and raced bikes for decades without power meters. I’d venture to say that the majority of recreational cyclists aren’t using power meters and probably don’t have much interest in them. That’s okay. If you want to improve as a cyclist, riding consistently and being in tune with your perceived exertion (RPE) are really all you need. 

But if you’re a performance-oriented and data-driven rider who wants to maximize your potential, then a power meter is an essential tool. Power meters make it easy to set concrete targets, do structured workouts, and accurately track your progress. Pretty much every pro racer uses power data to train. Even if you aren’t a racer or a fitness fiend, power meters are fun gadgets that help you develop an awareness of how much power you’re capable of producing (though they’re likely not worth the money if that’s all you use them for).  

Do mountain bikes need power metersI added a Race Face Cinch power meter to my old Canyon Neuron CF for marathon and 12-hour races. 

As an amateur who loves to compete and feel fit, I’ve found a lot of value in adding power meters to my road and gravel bikes. I love using them to pace my efforts, especially up climbs and during hard group rides and races. When building fitness for a target event, I rely on power meters to do my workouts and track my progress. 

I think of using a power meter a bit like using a tachometer on a car with a manual transmission. Sure, you can feel where it makes sense to shift or when the car is redlining. But if you want to maximize fuel efficiency or ¼ mile times, having a readout that tells you exactly how hard your engine is working makes nailing it a lot easier and more repeatable. Using RPE and being familiar with how certain efforts feel is fine and effective. But backing it up with numbers will help take you to the next level. 

Do Power Meters Make Sense on MTBs?

Should you put a power meter on your mountain bike?It's hard to watch your power numbers when you're busy trying not to crash.

In general, power meters are far less common on mountain bikes than they are on road and gravel bikes. I’d say that about half or more of my riding partners have power meters on their road and gravel bikes. But almost none of them have power meters on their mountain bikes. Among the 50+ mountain bikers here at TPC, I can only think of three riders, including myself, who currently have power meters on their mountain bikes.  

So why don’t more mountain bikers use power meters? There’s one very obvious reason: it’s hard to watch your power data while riding singletrack trails. On pavement and gravel roads, it’s easier to regularly peek at your head unit and keep tabs on your power output. But once you’re riding singletrack, you need to keep your eyes focused on the trail. On my mountain bike, I can really only keep an eye on power during smooth climbs or fire road sections. 

There’s a second issue too: your power numbers jump all over the place when riding technical singletrack. You don’t get the nice, consistent power output you get on the road or on gravel. There are usually bursts of high power punctuated by sections with zero power where you’re coasting.

On particularly steep, hard, and technical trails, pacing yourself using power numbers and staying within your threshold power isn’t really possible. You have to regularly go all out to clear a feature or steep section and then soft pedal to recover. In my experience, the stochastic nature of pedaling on technical trails just makes paying attention to your real-time power data fairly pointless. 

Of course, the usefulness of a power meter will depend a lot on your terrain and riding style. Unlike me, you might be able to watch your power and use it effectively on your local trails. I've just found that when riding my local trails or racing local mountain bike races, I almost never look at the power numbers on my head unit for more than a second. Unlike on the road or gravel, I rely a lot more on my RPE to pace efforts.   

Why Do Pro Mountain Bikers Use Power Meters?

Nino Schurter Quarq power metersThe XC G.O.A.T., Nino Schurter, has been using a Quarq power meter for years. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool

While most regular riders don’t have power meters on their mountain bikes, power meters are a lot more common once you start looking at the bikes of elite and pro racers. They are more often seen on the cross-country side of the spectrum, where they've become much more popular over the last few years. 

Looking at a bike check from 6 years ago featuring World Cup XC race bikes from big-name riders, only 1 out of 7 bikes had a power meter fitted. But in a similar bike check from this year, 5 out 5 bikes have power meters (Avancini’s is hard to see but he has a power meter crank arm on the non-drive side): 

These days, it’s rare to see a World Cup XC racer without a power meter on their bike. 

In the gravity world, there are a few high-profile enduro racers who like to use power meters on their bikes too: Richie Rude, Jack Moir, and Jesse Melamed. If you’re familiar with the sport, then you’ll know that these three are all Enduro World Series/World Cup race winners and have been overall champions. They are among the fastest enduro racers in the world.  

In World Cup XC racing, there are flat sections and smooth climbs where monitoring power could help racers pace themselves and strategize their recovery or attacks. In enduro, racers can use their power numbers to meter their efforts during long transfers between stages to make time cuts while saving energy for future stages. 

But like everyone else, pro racers probably don’t (or can't) actually pay much attention to their power once they’re riding at race pace on singletrack trails. So why do all these pro mountain bikers race with power meters? The main benefit of having a power meter on a mountain bike is being able to look back at power data AFTER races and training rides

In his detailed bike check, Jesse Melamed explains: “It’s good to see what I’m actually doing in a race stage and what I need to train for.” 

Your power data can be extrapolated into a power curve, which helps you determine how much power you can feasibly hold for certain durations. This helps you assess your strengths and weaknesses and figure out where you need to improve to become faster and more competitive. 

MTB power meter power curveIn elite-level racing, power is very useful for training and tracking improvement. Personally, I know I need to work on my 5 minute and 10 minute power to improve my results in XC races. 

Tracking power data from training rides and races does a few more useful things. Power numbers are used to calculate important stats like NP (normalized power), IF (intensity factor), TSS (training stress score), and CTL (chronic training load). These numbers help athletes make sure that they’re staying on track with their training, and perhaps more importantly, they help prevent overtraining.

A final point to mention is that elite mountain bike racers do a lot of their training on their mountain bikes. At the highest levels of the sport, specificity is the key to success. So of course, it makes sense to put a power meter on the same bike that you will do the majority of your training rides, workouts, and races on. 

So Should You Put a Power Meter on YOUR Mountain Bike

I'm currently using a Power2Max NG eco power meter on my XC bike.

The honest truth is that most mountain bikers aren't going to get much out of adding a power meter to their bike. If you're still curious though, here are some potentially good reasons to put a power meter on your mountain bike:

  • You ride a lot of smooth terrain where power is consistent and easy to monitor
  • You do structured workouts on your mountain bike
  • You are data-driven and like to track all of your numbers using training software
  • You can afford it and think it’s fun/cool

I've become so enamored with power data that, in 2021, I added power meters to both my XC and enduro mountain bike. I still do any and all structured workouts on my road and gravel bikes, and as I said earlier, I don’t really look at my power while riding singletrack. (However, if I ever do a less technical race like Leadville, it will be invaluable on the long climbs.)

My main purpose for adding power meters to my mountain bikes is to track nerdy details like TSS and CTL. Right now, all of my rides on any bike are recorded on Strava, which is then uploaded to TrainingPeaks, where my coach can see my numbers, provide recommendations, and build a structured training plan.

By putting a power meter on every bike I own, my performance on every single ride is quantified and tracked. I love it. I’m the type who wears a fitness tracker religiously to monitor my heart rate, steps, sleep, and recovery. I’m just that nerdy. If you are too, then maybe a power meter on your mountain bike is right for you. 

What Are the Best MTB Power Meters?

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If you use SPD pedals (or are willing to switch to them), then the power meter system I’ve recommended more than any other is Garmin’s Rally pedals. Power meter pedals are the easiest way to add a power meter to any bike, and if you have multiple bikes, it can be more cost-effective to swap pedals between them. 

Personally, I think the single-sided XC100 pedals are perfect for most riders. They’re accurate, consistent, and tough. I’ve bashed the set on my trail bike on plenty of rocks and they haven’t skipped a beat. I expect them to last through several bikes, but if I do manage to destroy a pedal, the electronics are well protected in the spindle and the pedal body itself is replaceable. 

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For Shimano riders, 4iiii left crank arms are a great and relatively affordable option. They’re super easy to install and they don’t add too much weight. The “pod” in the crank arm does stick out, so you will need to check your frame clearance to make sure a 4iiii power meter will fit.   

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If you ride SRAM Eagle, Eagle AXS, or Transmission, then you can use a Quarq power meter. I use Quarqs on my road and gravel bikes, and I consider them to be the benchmark power meter for accuracy and reliability. The downside is that the latest version requires a newer Eagle XX1 or T-Type crank designed for 8-bolt direct-mount spiders and chainrings. Most older SRAM Eagle cranksets use the 3-bolt chainring standard. 

Instead of buying a new crank arm on my Specialized Epic Evo, or going crazy and getting SRAM’s XX-SL T-Type Transmission, I opted to try a Power2Max NG eco because it works with the older SRAM 3-bolt chainring standard. TPC doesn’t carry Power2Max products (yet), but so far it has compared favorably to the Quarq power meters on my road and gravel bike. 

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