SRAM's Acquisition of PowerTap

SRAM bought PowerTap. Let’s talk about this.

Saris owned three product brands, its eponymous bike rack company; CycleOps, the stationary trainer company; and PowerTap, a power meter company.

PowerTap has been around since the 1990s, developed by some propellerheads at MIT, and as a power meter it was second to SRM chronologically, and esteemed highly by those who’ve been in the game for a long time. Saris bought PowerTap in 2001 and has been a great curator of that brand. The Hub was its product for north of a decade and a half, before putting PMs into chain rings and pedals.

Why am I even talking about the Hub, you might ask. It’s the pedal! The pedal-based power meter that PowerTap makes! That’s why SRAM bought it!

I can see why you’d think this, for two reasons. Because half of all Slowtwitchers want their power meters in the pedal; and because the pedal has been the SRAM’s Great White Whale: It has the rest of the groupkit, but the only pedal that ever made sense – that was SRAM material – was Speedplay, and Speedplay wouldn’t sell.

Now SRAM has a pedal! Well… no. It doesn’t. SRAM now has a power meter masquerading as a pedal. I know almost no serious, component-woke, long term cyclist who rides with a pedal based power meter. Why? Because pedals do things. They’re just as critical to the riding experience as derailleurs. The better idea is to bury the PM in a place that doesn’t interrupt the function of the bike. Like a crank spider, or a crank, or in some cases a well-made chain ring, all of which Quarq does.

Or the hub. I’ve had a lot of disappointing conversations with PowerTap over the last couple of years, hoping that the Hub would progress. But Saris is not a hub company. So, the changes required to keep hubs up to date are outside Saris’, ahem, wheelhouse. As in, with the PowerTap Hub, you must use PowerTap’s disc brake rotor. It’s not Centerlock. It’s only made in 160mm. It’s not, as far as I know, capable of an XD or XDR driver (not ready for 12sp or 10t). Progress was painfully slow.

But SRAM does make hubs or, more precisely, Zipp makes them. I’ll be disappointed if, within a year, we don’t see Zipp Cognition technology invading the PowerTap Hub. If Hub pricing remains similar – in the $500 or $600 range – then this gives you a power meter at very little upcharge, if the PT Hub replaces an otherwise top quality hub. And, if you liked the pedals because you could move them from bike to bike, I submit that you’re more likely to move your wheels than your pedals (do you take your Garmins or Assiomas gravel bike riding?).

I have zero guidance from SRAM or Quarq on my opinions (though believe me I tried). I suspect SRAM will keep the pedals because they sell. But SRAM will, I think, privately hold more admiration for the Hubs. I’ll receive all sorts of comments about how wrong I am about this, and those comments may prove right. Maybe in a year SRAM will have dropped the Hubs from the line altogether. Just, I think we’ve seen the high mark in power pedal enthusiasm. There are too many reasons for power meters to be elsewhere, both technical, and market-based: power meters are edging toward commodity pricing, where they’ll just start showing up original equipment on the bikes you purchase.

If and when commoditization happens, a PM built into a so-so pedal won't be quite so sexy.

Whatever SRAM does it’s going to do it well, because whatever else you like about SRAM, or don’t like, it does an exceptional job of integrating its acquisitions. SRAM began its life with a twist shifter, acquired an up-and-coming crank maker, Truvativ, and hit the jackpot when it picked up Sachs-Huret for peanuts. With Sachs it got a factory and a product line, but what it really got were engineers who could keep pace with the engineering talent at Shimano. With Zipp it got wheels and handlebars, And Rockshox gave it suspension. Avid was also more than just a category; that brake company was instrumental in ushering SRAM into the road disc brake groupset era. Without all these acquisitions SRAM would not be a groupset maker.

And then there’s Quarq, and there is more going on up in Spearfish, South Dakota, than some eggheads playing with power. The AXS app, the ecosystem, which SRAM lacked, which Shimano had (with e-Tube Project), Quarq took the lead on that. A lot of Quarq’s brainpower makes its way into SRAM’s groupset.

But if Quarq feels as I do, then the pedals are like Chinese food: tastes good, but you’re hungry in an hour. The Hubs! They will sustain you.

What SRAM did not buy from Saris is CycleOps, and that means SRAM is still shut out of the hottest trend in cycling today – stationary – except that their parts are on your bike that sits on some other company’s trainer. While another power pedal maker – Garmin – bought Tacx, and so is into the stationary game, SRAM still isn’t a player. Except for the one acquisition I didn’t write about above, Velotron, but that is really a thought experiment. Velotron is also curated by Quarq, and Velotron teaches Quarq yet more about power in cycling. My point is that SRAM is still not in stationary, but with Quarq, Velotron, Powertap, Zipp, it could almost make a smart direct drive trainer out of spare parts.

SRAM intends to keep PowerTap a discrete brand – not fold it into Quarq – and for the long term. If you’re hearing about this acquisition for the first time in what I’m writing today, PowerTap will continue to sell and service its products for some time until SRAM is ready to take all that over, and really it’s Quarq that’ll take it over, as all the PowerTap business will be run out of Spearfish.