MWCC Review: Stages Power Meter

It seems that a rider can not go on a ride these days without going for a Strava PB or talking about how many watts that are pushing out. It is all about power. With more power meters coming onto the market and the prices continuing to come down, MWCC thought it might be worth investigating one of the new models on the market , the Stages Power Meter. Will this be the game changer?

There are plenty of power meters on the market, with the SRM Power meter being the gold standard of which all others are measured, however with this comes the gold standard pricing and some even complain about the weight and installation. Other competitors such as Quarq have brought the price point down, however they are mainly limited to SRAM bikes. Powertap was a wheel based version and they have recently dropped their prices to compete with the new competition. Garmin have released the new Vector pedals and now Stages have released the crank based power meter. In this review MWCC equivalent of DC Rainmaker provides his review of the Stages.

StagesONE – Could this be the perfect Power Meter?

So firstly, why do you want a power meter?  Doesn’t heart rate do it for you? Or even just your ordinary speedo?  Well yes, and no. Power is all about what your legs are pushing into the pedals, while HR is all about how much your cardio system is suffering.  While they are closely related Power is immediate but HR takes a while to show a change.  So for example if you do a quick 30sec sprint you would see the effort immediately on Power but only 30 or so seconds later would your HR start to rise.

Why is this important?  Well, for me I use it for TT and training primarily to make sure I stick to a power level and don’t blow up. Some days I feel slow, but my power levels are telling me that I am actually doing a good job or when doing intervals, the power will tell me to push that extra 2%. In a race scenario, I can monitor my efforts, while I can’t control the overall race tempo, I do know if what I am doing is sustainable or will soon have me exploding out the back.

I’m sure there are many more advanced ways of using it but that’s about it for me and my current level of cycling. It’s certainly not life changing – I could live with HR just fine but Power is great to know.

So why did I choose the Stages?

A power meter that can be fitted in 5 mins?  That you can swap between bikes?  That allows you to keep your choice of crankset and wheels?  That you can upgrade the software from your iPhone? Half or less than the price of the competition? Weighs only 20g! Gotta be like-totally-awesome-dude right?  Well, yes and no.

Enough rhetorical questions – this is what it looks like from the inside of a crank…

Main Pic

and this is from the outside…

Outside Crank

Nice I hear you saying. Yes that’s right – that really is a standard Shimano Ultegra crank.  From the outside the only difference is the Stages logo.  From the top all you see is a small plastic unit glued to the inside of the crank. 

This is the brains.   Neat and smart.

The Brains

I’ve been waiting for this for about a year and over that time there’s been a lot of good and bad reviews been thrown around about the Stages.  An early concern was around the power response time which appeared to be significantly slower that Quarq or the gold-standard SRM.  Unreliable Power is useless so as a result I became less interested in the Stages and started to drift back to saving my pennies for a Quarq.

People also started freaking out that it only measures power for your left leg and extrapolates to create a complete picture for both.  So it doesn’t do left/right leg I hear you cry?  Like the Vector, or the Brim Bros? Who cares?  I don’t. L/R comparison is not important to me.  I use Power simply as a accurate measure on  training rides and for TT’s.  I would never use it to correct some L/R imbalance.  Incidently for the record barring some significant leg injury,  most people’s L/R is within 2% of each other.   I measured my L/R off my coaches Computrainer at almost 50% deadon and I bet you’ll be roughly the same. So for me, L/R is a non-issue. If I am putting the power down, I am often not concerned if it is coming from the left or the right leg – as long as the power is there.

Anyway I digress – a new release of software appeared which addressed the response time concerns and I became more interested in the Stages again.  And then Boom! In November Stages became available in Australia.  Throwing caution to the wind I stumped up my $899 (Quarq from about $1,800) and picked up my new Ultegra crank from the Giant store in Sydney two days later.

Fifteen minutes later I had installed the device, paired to my Garmin and calibrated. All working.  AWESOME!  First ride.  All working.  Can it be this easy?  Hmmm. Read on dear reader…

The purchase was just in time for my 3 month lactate test so I rocked up to Coaches secret underground lair and we kicked off the test on his Computrainer.  This is a perfect test of the Stages as we can compare the power reading from the Stages against the well-regarded CompuTrainer.  This is a very good test of both accuracy and drift over the test.   The Stages seemed to be both very accurate, and did not drift.  At least as good as the Quarq my coach commented.  I am most pleased.

Now the bad stuff…  

Battery Cover

This is the evil offending item

Issue one – the battery cover. A couple of days after my lactate test setting off on a ride the Garmin can’t find the PM.  I have a fiddle around and discover the battery cover is hanging off. Two of the three tabs in the picture have come off and I have no idea how this could possibly have happened.  No crash, no fiddling, nothing!  I am distraught! 

Went straight back to Giant store the next day who promptly gave me a new cover.  I installed the new cover like I was defusing a bomb – very gently!  A few days later though the same thing happened – I have bought a lemon.

Like a man possessed I ring Giant and email Stages.  Stages come back overnight.  Apparently the battery cover is rubbish and they’ve engaged a new supplier to design a new one.  New covers will be arriving soon. 

So in a few days I go back into Giant and get a new one (with new o-ring) and install.  This was followed up with a backup cover sent from Stages.  This one is the one in the photo and seems to have survived a few weeks now.  PM working again.  Heart rate back to normal and life is all good again.

Issue two – the battery.  Now I have had this device for about a month and replaced the battery at least three times.  I assumed that most of the problems being experienced were largely to do with the inferior cover and so I didn’t worry about the battery constantly dying.  Then while on holidays I upgraded the Stages firmware via my phone.  The new release offers a measure of pedalling smoothness and battery monitoring.  However the upgrade doesn’t work and 10 minutes into next day’s ride all Power and Cadence disappears from the Garmin – it was like I was cycling in 1995.

At this point any good-will towards the Stages had evaporated.  When we got back home I stuck another battery in and lo-and-behold it was fine, and the firmware upgraded successfully.  Emailed Stages about this and again they came back to me overnight confirming they’d had a battery bug in an earlier version of software which is now fixed.

So at the moment, it’s all working just fine and has been for a couple of weeks.  But my fingers are still crossed. It appears that being an early adopter of this model has had its early teething problems. However with Team Sky just announcing that they will now be using Stages as opposed to SRM, will this see further improvements to Stages?

So in summary what do I think?

GOOD

  • The device, when working, is awesome.
  • Customer support is great
  • Can install and move easily to any bike.  You can use the crankset of your choice and swap wheels.
  • Firmware upgrade from iPhone is great (iPhone 4S or newer)
  • Does cadence too so you can get rid of that Speed/Cadence sensor
  • Weighs 20g
  • Can replace the battery yourself – as opposed to many power meters that require you to send the unit away.
  • Does ANT+ (Garmin) and Bluetooth (non-Garmin)

BAD

  • Battery cover really lets it down.  It appears to be fixed now but my current one currently feels loose.  I am watching this.
  • Short battery life, although the recent firmware update appears to have solved this.
  • Catastrophic if it’s not there as you don’t have power or cadence.  Useless for training if it’s not reliable.

SUMMARY

The Stages is definitely the next generation power meter.  It does everything I need in a neat package.  The power metering is excellent and as good as Quarq.  It doesn’t sample at SRM’s rate but I don’t need that. You can get it in any crank you want and it does both ANT+ and Bluetooth.  Once the battery cover is sorted any major negatives will be removed.

However would I recommend this to an MWCC Club Member? 

At this stage (pardon the pun) I could only recommend this to you when I’m convinced that the teething troubles with the capsule are sorted and it is reliable, when you switch your Garmin on and the PM wakes up first time, everytime. 

I think we are now very very close, but still a few months away. Your bank balance is safe…. for now…

Next Up: Review of the Quarq Powermeter

3 Comments

  1. Robin Vandekreeke

    Great review. Sounds like you’ve had some bad luck. I’ve had my Stages for almost a year now. Have never had any issues with it. At the same time was using a Quarq on another bike and both of them read about the same. The bonus is I can easily move the Stages from one bike to another that has the same crankset.

  2. chrishedley

    Fabulous review. Agree with Robin that you sound like you’ve been unlucky. I’ve had a similar experience with mine to be honest but the problems seem to have been sorted now.

  3. mitch

    I’ve got a newer one and no battery cover or battery issues after 2 months. It just works which is want you want. I also agree it was really easy to install.

    Other positive is that the unit is easy to calibrate before each ride. Also has temperature compensation during rides.

    There is a slight lag between applying force to the pedals and getting a reading but this isn’t a issue for pacing or analysis.

    Downside is you can’t get a carbon version for anyone with carbon cranks.

    The new garmin firmware update (3.0) is also really useful for the extra metrics you can now get (NP, IF, TSS). It also lets you adjust FTP on the head unit itself rather than via the updater.

    It’s just a matter of working out which of the 18 power data fields you want to look at.

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