Has Strava Jumped the Shark?

Just for the 2 people out there that don't know, Strava is a free app/internet sit that cyclists and runners can use to track their routes using a GPS system or a smartphone. Workouts are then uploaded to the internet and shared with the world. Users create "segments" of rides (such as a hill, a loop or a section or road that a lot of people ride) and compare times, which add a "pseudo-social"dimension to solo workouts. The top performance on a segment is given the title "KOM" (or QOM for the top female performance).

Last season, I used Strava almost every day for a while. Before I had a Garmin 800 it was a good way to record my rides (using my iPhone), especially when I was mountain biking and didn't have anything recording speed or power. I thought that it was a fun way to see what my friends were doing and have some friendly competitions over certain segments. It was a way to show my athletes that I was willing to go out and work hard too. I also thought (and still think) that it was a great way to find new places to ride, especially if I was traveling somewhere and didn't know the roads. I also had a few days when I wanted to do some hill repeats but I couldn't get up the nerve to do something really structured, so instead I just went out and tried to win a few Strava KOMs instead. As it turned out, racing against a virtual competitor can be very good motivation to push yourself a little harder, which we all need sometimes.

 A team of Strava engineers fights tirelessly against Stava terrorism

A team of Strava engineers fights tirelessly against Stava terrorism

Needless to say, I wasn't the first or the only one to become a "Strava addict". Since it's founding in 2010 Strava has grown tremendously. They have received over $16 million in funding and employ over 50 people, with usership estimated to be over 50,000. Strava "clubs" were formed, offering prizes for KOMs. Competition for "virtual bragging rights" on certain segments became intense. Riders would win a KOM one day and lose it the next day because people would get so obsessed with defending their KOMs. Others would create obscure segments (e.g. "Up my driveway") so they could earn at least one KOM. Many would end up breaking from their intended training and going for KOMs on their recovery days. My first response to this was to shake my head, the same way I shake my head at riders that "race" the MS150 or the 5 boro bike tour. After all, if you really want to compete, why don't you do a race? But then I remind myself that not everyone is a bike racer. Not everyone is able to get to races or even wants to. Not everyone has the resources. Not everyone has the time. Not everyone wants to take the added risks involved in racing. If those people get more enjoyment out of this sport because of Strava it is a good thing for the sport. The more people on bikes the better, the more people that take it seriously the better and the more people that can make some sort of social connection (even if it is a virtual social connection) through cycling the better.

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But as you can imagine, some people took it too far. First, there were the risk-takers. Downhill segments and segments created in heavy traffic areas led a lot of riders to break the law and put themselves as well as others in danger. So far Strava has been blamed for the death of one pedestrian and sued over the death of a cyclist that was trying to win a downhill segment and plowed into the back of a car. There are also reports of riders yelling "Strava!" to pedestrians, vehicles and other riders so they will clear the road for them as if it gives them the right of way. And then there are the cheaters. Now, it's important to recognize that most of the time when you see someone miraculously going 45 mph up a hill, it's because they drove to a ride and then forgot to turn off their GPS on the drive home. These rides can be either deleted or edited before or after the fact by the athlete themselves or by Strava if someone "flags" the ride. But you can't always assume that all Strava users are following the same code of ethics. Workout files can be modified after the fact. Determined users can hang on to a car or motorcycle up a climb or if they are really patient they can drive a route and as long as they don't go too far above the speed that a bike could be expected to travel or drive on any highways they won't arouse too much suspicion.

 Advice to all owners of Strava stock: Sell! Sell! Sell!

Advice to all owners of Strava stock: Sell! Sell! Sell!

And then came the backlash. A whole Strava vocabulary has been created, mainly consisting of sarcastic terms. Poking fun at the ridiculousness of all of this, "Strava Terrorists" and Strava Terrorism Facebook Pages have appeared. Suddenly, being competitive about Strava segments has become less cool than trying to hijack them, or at least making fun of the whole "Strava Culture". Another factor here that people don't talk about is that even if everyone plays by the "rules", eventually a pro cyclist or someone motorpacing or riding on a day with a 30 mph tailwind comes along and smashes their KOM, putting it out of reach for most "regular" people. What happens when all your KOMs are overtaken? Will most people just lose interest, or maybe start making fun of the KOM winners in the same way that obese people often call athletes "obsessed"? My guess is yes. After all it's very important for us competitors to feel like we are competitive. That's why there are different racing categories, that's why a lot of guys would rather beat up on their buddies in the local Saturday morning group ride than pin on a number in a race, and that's why a lot of people use Strava.

  Sometimes it's hard to believe that the general public doesn't find cycling cooler

Sometimes it's hard to believe that the general public doesn't find cycling cooler

Cycling has been fighting an image problem for a long time, and I'm not talking about doping. I'm talking about what people think about our sport when they see cyclists like these, these , these , this, these or (oh God), this or anyone but Cipollini wearing this. Every time someone does something that makes the sport seem a little bit cooler, whether it's clothing designers like Assos or Rapha, riders like Cipo, Liz Hatch, Cavendish, Jens Voigt or these ladies, or new innovations like the mountain bike, Carbon Fiber, Power Meters or Strava, it isn't long before the haters quickly weigh in and help whatever or whoever it was that just seemed so cool a minute ago seem totally out of style. In the information/internet/social media age, the whole process happens really quickly (Strava was only created in 2010!)

 

 Some styles never go out of fashion

Some styles never go out of fashion

The sport of Cycling is not unique in the way that it is caught in a paradox of trying to be both inclusive and exclusive. For something to seem cool, it has to be popular enough that people don't think you're a freak but not so popular that people think you are a sheep. I don't envy the marketing experts that constantly have to come up with new ways of finding that balance in order to sell their products in a world where what's in style can take a 180 degree turn in a split second. What I can say is this: some things never go out of style, like quiet confidence, being genuine, showing respect to others without condescension, doing what you want without worrying about whether or not it's fashionable. And of course, mustaches.

What do you think?