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First ride review: Stages Dash bike computer and Stages Link training software

Stages is only five-years-old but in that short time has firmly established itself in the power meter market, even becoming official power meter supplier to Team Sky[1]. Rumours and occasional prototype sightings on pro bikes hinted for some time a dedicated head unit may soon be in the offing from the Boulder, Colorado based brand, and now the Stages Dash is officially here, with a lot more on offer than might first meets the eye. ‘It was never in our plan to start with,’ David Walker, Stages Global Sales and Marketing Manager, tells Cyclist.

‘We wanted to focus 100% on the power meter, but the category has definitely changed, and now we realise having our own head unit gives us much more control, rather than relying on third parties who have many other agendas.’ Read into that what you will, but anyone who has experienced the frustrations of getting products from different brands to work seamlessly together will appreciate having your power meter, head unit and training software (we’ll come back to that in a moment) all from one source is surely advantageous.

The Stages Dash bike computer is fully customisable

The screen of the Stages Dash has been made fully customisable to meet the user’s specific needs. Up to 16 fields of data can be viewed on any one screen, plus there are multiple screens too, so even the most fervent data junkie will not be left wanting.

Personally I found that much beyond six or possibly seven on a single screen became a bit too busy – not to mention the numbers become so small they are hard to read at a glance. Being able to customise the size of the data fields too is a great feature, so some data fields (the ones you care about most) can be displayed larger than others. I found the optimal set-up was to have several screens active, as it’s really easy (one button press) to switch between them on the fly.

As a side note, whilst it’s possible to set the screens up directly from the head unit it’s much easier to do it when its synced to the Stages Link software, as it’s more intuitive on a larger computer monitor (I’ll come back to that shortly). On the whole learning to navigate the various menus and functionality on the head unit was a little tricky at first – it’s definitely no iPhone – but it only took a few rides to start to get the hang of it, and soon after it ceased to be an issue. The screen has a slightly dated feel compared to what we’ve come to expect from Smartphones, the latest Garmin units and the like.

There’s no colour and no touchscreen, but when all is said and done, those I would consider ‘fluffy features’ in a tool geared for actual training, for which the screen is perfectly functional. Stages says it has worked hard to keep the bulk of the unit to a minimum to reduce its impact on aerodynamics (significant due to its position out in front of the bike), whilst the aluminium mount, it claims, is sturdy enough for MTB downhill use. Without my own wind tunnel, it’s hard to say just how well the unit performs compared to its competitors aerodynamically, but what I can say for sure is it looks neat in situ, plus the aluminium reinforced body and bracket click together with a solidity that’s very reassuring.

It feels like there’s no chance of it falling off the bars no matter how bumpy the terrain, and even if it did fall, I dare say it would survive practically unscathed. It’s a solid build quality that I unintentionally tested by dropping it on the patio as I teetered, slightly deliriously after one particularly tough turbo session, back from the garage. Most head units would have probably exploded on impact but the Stages Dash bounced without a mark.

Battery life as stated is equally impressive. I’ve not needed to use it continuously for much more than 4 hours, but Stages claims 24-30 hours run time is possible, depending on how much you use the backlight. This is a significant improvement over its competitors, most of which struggle to reach double figures.

This is thanks in part to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) data transfer, although Ant+ is also supported. Taking an open-minded approach, the Stages Dash fully supports competitors’ power meters, so can be used as a stand alone product, or simply as a GPS, although there is no mapping at this time. But none of that is really the best part.

Stages Link software

Here’s where things get really interesting.

Far beyond launching just a head unit, Stages has also created its own training software package, called Stages Link. Developed in conjunction with Today’s Plan, Stages wanted to create a system that will be a gateway for beginners, as much as elite level athletes. ‘Education and helping users to understand why they are measuring their power output in the first place is a big part of our plan,’ says Walker, loosely making the point Stages is not just out to bamboozle users with reams of data, as by his own admission, Walker feels that on the whole there are too many power meters out there with users who have no understanding about what the data means and what to do with it.

Stages is keen to make power a functional part of making real improvements in fitness and form, not just selling units as a fashion accessory for bikes, which is admirable. In a way not too dissimilar to Strava[2], Stages Link will have a free of charge version of the software offering basic a data analysis, but a monthly fee of £20 (or an annual subscription of £200) gets you access to the full functionality (you also get free access for two months when you purchase the Stages Dash).

On-board coach with Stages Link

It’s not just a case of getting a few more pretty graphs and a heap more numbers to decipher. Stages Link has the capacity, through a very user friendly but highly detailed questionnaire (that helps to build up a picture of you as an individual and how many hours per week and per day you have to dedicate to training etc.), plus gathering data about functional threshold values (FTP) and so on, to create custom training plans for a given event or fitness goal.

It will automatically populate your calendar, with a periodised plan based on peaks and troughs to build your form around the key events you want to be at your best for, just like a coach. Also as a coach would, it’ll email you every day to remind you of your daily goals, and the training session can also be sent directly to the Stages Dash head unit to run you through (with on screen prompts) exactly what’s expected of you. What’s more it’s adaptive to your training progression.

As you download more and more sessions from the Dash, the software builds a picture based on tracking several training metrics, (such as new improved FTP values, plus critical training load, acute training load and training stress balance) to basically assess how ‘fresh’ you are for upcoming training sessions and your zones and prescribed sessions will adjust accordingly. If all that sounds wildly confusing, it’s not, because the software is doing all the thinking for you.

Following the on screen prompts on the head unit for a session is really easy too. A text box pops up with a concise message explaining what the next interval or segment is e.g. ride 3 x 5 minutes at 260-275W, with 2 min rest between each effort.

All you need to do is hit the lap button after the allotted time/interval is complete, and it will move onto the next instruction. It’s that simple. Stages has a lot of proprietary stuff in its systems but it says it’s not about to try and hand-tie users to only its products and software, so data can be shared to other packages too, such as Training Peaks, Strava and so on.

However, from my experience of playing around with the Stages Link software it’s really good, and user friendly too, so if you’ve made the investment in the Stages system, you’ll likely not need anything else. You don’t need to be a sports scientist or coach to use and understand it, and besides even if you didn’t fully understand all the metrics, it’s still extremely good as an online training diary. The stages Dash does not come with a heart rate strap, but Stages does offer its own Bluetooth version for ?50 and additional out-front mounts are priced at ?30.

UK distributor: saddleback.co.uk[3]

References

  1. ^ Team Sky (www.cyclist.co.uk)
  2. ^ Strava (www.cyclist.co.uk)
  3. ^ saddleback.co.uk (www.saddleback.co.uk)

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