An Introduction to Cyclist Testing

As cycling technology and science advances at an amazing rate and more and more trickles down from the cycling pro to the cycling enthusiast it has become increasingly difficult to keep track of what are the best products to spend your money on and what are the best methods to train by. Included in this array of science, technology and training “trickle down”, is the vast amount of tests now available to cyclists. In most regions of the country you can now do the same tests the pros do. With this testing often comes a cost in the form of time and money- things that are valuable to all of us. Unfortunately, since many of these tests are being sold for a profit and marketed only as beneficial, it can be difficult to get an unbiased review of how relevant to your performance they can be. In this series of blogs I’ll be discussing many of the tests available to cyclists and their relative importance to improving cyclists’ performance, along with discussing some cost/benefit analyses.

When discussing testing for cyclists, I think it is important to address the purpose of testing cyclists, which is, speaking in the generalist of terms, to provide an objective measurement. This measurement serves the purpose of comparing the person being tested to, not only to the rest of the population, but the individual’s past results. The results of tests, ideally, give us quality information that will help us improve our cycling abilities. The quality of a test is assessed by its validity and reliability.

Validity is the test’s ability to reflect reality, or measure what it is supposed to measure. In cycling we want tests that measure attributes that best represent performance during competition, fitness of an athlete, and/or potential of the athlete. There are multiple components to validity. These are: face validity, content validity, and criterion-referenced validity. Face validity deals with whether or not the test appears to measure what it is supposed to as judged by the athlete. Content validity deals with the actual validity of a test as determined by experts in the field. Criterion-referenced validity refers to a test’s ability to associate with other tests measuring similar metrics or performance during competition. An example of this would be tests that measure body composition. The skin-fold test, bioelectrical impedance, and underwater weighing are all methods used to measure body composition, but of these tests the underwater weighing method is considered to be better due to its accuracy.

Reliability deals with the repeatability and consistency of a test. A test with perfect reliability will show the exact same results for an athlete when tested and then retested. In order for a test to be considered valid it must have a high degree of reliability. If a test has low repeatability and consistency then it is said to have a high incidence of error. Error can be introduced through multiple ways: intrasubject (from the subject) variability, interrater (between observers) variability, intrarater (within observer) variability, and error from the test method itself.

If we look at a common cycling test, the 20-minute power test, we can see where each one of these types of errors can be introduce in a real life example. Intrasubject variability can be introduced into this test by a subject’s motivation, testing experience, warm-up, freshness vs. fatigue factor, etc. A lack of motivation, test experience, warm-up and the presence of fatigue can cause numbers to be lower than what the subject’s actual fitness is. Interrater variability is difficult to introduce in a 20-minute test, but if one observer looks at the “best 20 minutes” of the test file, while another observer looks at the lap segment for the test, discrepancies can be introduced. Intrarater variability may occur in a 20-minute test when an observer is eager to see improved results, but ignores potential reasons for better test results that are not fitness related (such as calibration errors, better testing conditions, or athletes simply getting better at pacing themselves through the test). In the case of the 20-minute test, error introduced from the test can come from the power meter. Even with a properly calibrated power meter a certain percent error is expected.

For the blog posts to come I have divided cycling tests into two main categories: performance based tests and non-performance based tests. Performance based tests are what most people think of the when the idea of testing cyclists comes to mind. These tests require the athlete to perform a physical activity that is similar to what they do during competition. For cyclists, these tests are: power tests, lactate threshold tests, VO2 max tests, Wingates, etc. In contrast, non-performance tests are tests where cyclists do not have to perform a measured exercise. These often consist of some type of anthropometric measurement. An example of this kind of test is a body composition test. There are many more tests for cyclists than what I will be able to cover in this series of blogs, but I hope to touch on the primary ones along with some others that are intriguing and controversial.

Baechle, T.R., Earle, R. W., (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Lucas Wall- colleague and friend.

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