The Soapbox: Strava's Pleasant Surprises

We at Flow always welcome diverse opinions.  Flow regular, Kath Bicknell, took the time to shine light on a different view from Jared Rando on the subject of Strava.
It’s a fair bet that if the road goes upward you’ll learn about a leaderboard when you get home.

Strava brings out the worst in some people. The online documentation of times over terrain it collects has people quite animated about the negative impacts of turning every ride into a race (link to Rando’s).

And fair enough. As virtual sprint points are layered over favourite trails this can certainly disrupt the social character a lot of us seek on the rides we enjoy.

But don’t blame a computer program for your own behaviour, or that of those around you. The actions and attitudes Strava exaggerates start with the riders who use it.

Many users who are unfashionably competitive about segment performance are well aware of their behaviour. Some don’t care, some choose to self-police; they only take the Garmin out sometimes, wait months between uploading rides, or save segment chasing antics for solo sessions (on a time trail bike when the wind is right). Some just keep those competitive thoughts quietly to themselves.

As pro-Strava behaviour becomes normalised on the trails I see it becoming another way individuals filter the people they enjoy riding with. In this respect, it’s not much different to groups of riding mates evolving over a shared sensibility on other topics. These include the length, duration and skill level of the ride, flow and interest factor of conversation, punctuality at pre-ride meeting places and the frequency of things like bike maintenance (or lack of) disrupting the ride for everyone else.

Still, the vocal nature of anti-Strava arguments makes sticking up for the phenomenon a difficult position to take. But I feel compelled to write about some of Strava’s pleasant surprises – useful additions to my riding experiences that I might not have discovered had I only listened to the hype.

Firstly, I like that Strava only points out nice things about the rides you log: personal achievements, top three performances, and cumulative distances and times for the week.

If Strava has nothing good to say, it says nothing at all. Negative interpretations are up to you.

I also like the fact that the program keeps a log of your performance on regular rides. Seeing if you’re improving on a favourite hill climb, commute to work, or a fun, skilful singletrack loop is undeniably motivating. Meanwhile, looking back at the type of riding you were doing last time you were ‘feeling fit’ is helpful too.

Meanwhile, the program also tracks the kilometres ridden on different bikes, which takes the questioning out of debates on usage vs wear and tear. (My local bike shop are well sick of me saying I’ve hardly ridden when it’s time for a new chain.)

Thanks to Strava I learned how much quicker I would have been had I ridden a road bike to the top of the Col du Galibier in France. It’s nice to fantasise sometimes.

The social aspect is interesting too. If you ‘follow’ a few people, you get a different sense of the places and distances your friends are exploring. It’s not always as much, as hard or as varied as you think.

My Garmin and I went on a popular Sydney road ride recently. It’s called the ‘Three Gorges’ as the highlights are three stunning climbs that follow three exciting descents. One of them involves a ferry.

On both rides, a month apart, I struggled until I couldn’t see straight, wished I could ride as fast as the people in front of me, felt like lying on the grass after climb number one, and ate a double egg roll before climb number three.

Strava told me later that despite having a nearly identical ‘I think I’m about to die’ heart rate average on both attempts, I reached the top of each climb about a minute faster than a month before.

I could have checked my watch at the top and bottom of the road the way people have for years to learn this. But I didn’t. I plugged in. And I was really glad I did.

I also enjoy what Strava has highlighted to me as a female in this sport.

Having collected an embarrassing number of ‘QOMs’ simply because no one else of my gender has uploaded a ride from a particular section of trail, I find topping a ‘leaderboard’ somewhat overrated. Not to mention the number of riders I know who could blitz the same sections with their eyes closed and their pedals missing.

One unexpected pick-me-up from sandbagging segments is the number of notifications I get when someone’s smashed my time. I find I get really excited knowing how many chicks are riding bikes and riding them well. The female riding community, while small, is growing a much faster rate than most people think.

When I scroll through pages to see how many women are using a particular trail network I get more excited still. It’s much more heartening than looking at the number of women lining up at the start line for a race. Also, as a female, this gives you perspective on your own abilities that you rarely get on the trails or at an event.

When we head out on a ride, we’re after certain types of experiences. And there are many factors that go into making that experience what it is. I find the mass of information that Strava neatly catalogues helps me to reflect on these things in some pleasantly surprising ways.

As far as all the negatives it brings out in people, maybe it’s our own behaviour we should look at. In instances like these, Strava’s just acting as a scapegoat. Maybe that’s the biggest surprise of all.

Standing still doesn’t win you segments. But sometimes it’s important to slow down and appreciate the moment.



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