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Strava - Cycling friend or foe?

If it is not in Strava then did it actually happen…

I once cycled up the Hebrides of Scotland with a good friend. Nine days of epic cycling fueled mostly by beer. Our cycling and drinking efforts peaked all the way up north in Inverness.

As a side note the original plan was to cycle back from Inverness to Glasgow but we ended up staying in Inverness for three days of partying. We were 27 years old. It made sense. Anyway, I took a few photos on the trip and reminisce often with my cycling partner but since it was back in the day of the very infancy of the smartphone, it bothers me that the ride was not logged on Strava. It bothers me that I can't relive the climbing or delve into the stats of what is to this day my most epic cycling trip.

But despite this regret, it got me thinking of a bigger question; is Strava a force for good in the cycling community?

For any cyclist (or athlete for that matter) not aware of Strava then let me fill you in. It is basically a social network app dedicated to tracking cycling and running activities using predominantly GPS. Around 8 million activities are logged each day on the app. As an activity tracking app it is extremely useful but its uniqueness is the ability to compete against other athletes on so-called Segments. These segments can be created by any user and you can then see how you rank against other efforts across that same segment. On a very basic level it can give the casual cyclist the fleeting feeling of being a pro and there is no doubt that obtaining a King of the Mountain (KOM) on a segment is a pure hit of endorphins.

I don't participate in actual cycling races mostly because I don't have the time nor the inclination to remove large chunks of my skin but that doesn't mean that I am not competitive. This is where Strava comes into its own and manages to be much more than just a distance logger.

Such is the ubiquity of the app in cycling circles, you can pretty much guarantee that any hill you happen to be climbing up will have an associated segment. You start to build an intuition of what is a segment and what is not (or if you have a fancy garmin then it will automatically alert you). In the local area you tend to see the same names cropping up in the top ten of segments and getting the top spot is much coveted.

Records are there to be broken but this offers no solace when a notification pops up on your phone to inform you that you have just lost a KOM. It must be some sort of mistake you think, no one could possibly beat my time so you quickly check that their effort was valid. A quick look outside confirms it is blowing a gale and there may have been some “wind-doping” going on. No one has ever won a KOM with a headwind to be fair.

If you ever need insight into why athletes dope to win then Strava gives you that. If ordinary people are willing to win KOM’s on Strava by attacking a segment in their car then you begin to understand the reasons why an athlete might turn to doping. A KOM on Strava is essentially meaningless but still people cheat to win. Drafting is a very much a grey area when it comes to KOM hunting.

But could you also make an argument that all of this data is actually detrimental to our enjoyment of cycling? In the pursuit of KOM’s are we missing out on the real joy of cycling.

Think back to those childhood days on the bike. The bikes weighed approximately the same as as a small yet well-fed elephant but it was the most important thing I had. During the long summer holidays the bike meant freedom. Suddenly we could explore far and wide and break free from the cul-de-sac. Girls that lived three miles away now became cause for concern. No one cared about aerodynamics, power-to-weight ratios or average speeds. At the very most we cared about how high a jump we could do on the bike or who had the best crash. In this sense it was always Smurph and Joe respectively.

But nowadays, as soon as I attached the Garmin, suddenly I lose the ability to enjoy just exploring or aimless riding. I remember a couple of months ago I was doing some hill intervals and I saw the most incredible rainbow stretching from the sea and right across the city. I should have stopped to enjoy the moment, fleeting as it was, but that would have meant, well, stopping and that was blasphemy to me. I pressed on, unwilling to sacrifice time or speed.

Rightly or wrongly I self-identify now as a road cyclists and it is probably true that by boxing myself into such a narrow definition that it becomes a self-fulfilling philosophy. I am a road cyclists therefore all I care about is speed. Nothing else is relevant. A great ride is a fast ride. The use of Strava has played a key role in that mindset.

We can call it what we want but at its base level and the reason that it is such a ubiquitous app is that it is another form of social media. To my mind it cannot be compared to the toxicity of the more traditional social media platforms but it still draws you into the world of over-sharing and under-caring.

Like all forms of social media the pretense of doing something now outweighs the actual doing of something. Our psyche has been so altered that the very thought of not documenting something is criminal.

After reading some frankly terrifying and dystopian things about social media recently I decided to completely delete my Facebook page. On the one hand I wasn’t comfortable with the way Facebook wielded its influence and on the other hand I could see the ways that being on social media had adversely affected my life. Truthfully, any benefits of Facebook were vastly outweighed by the drawbacks.

To be clear, I was not addicted to Facebook but I would find myself idly flicking through it in bed or on the couch or in a queue. It was a comfort blanket in a sense but what was I missing. I was looking down when I should have been looking up. Up is where life happens. Up is where people talk and listen and discuss. As John Lennon said; “Life is what happens when you are busy making plans”. As the ultimate distraction, social media is not life but a rough outline of a life.

I digress completely from the central topic of this blog but bear with me. I deleted my account and almost instantly I felt better and I wasn’t even a user who posted constantly in a more and more desperate attempt for attention.

So has Strava enhanced or detracted from my enjoyment of cycling. Probably a bit of both. My competitive nature loves the idea of Strava and the fact that I can track and push myself to get better on the bike. My soul however hates Strava. I have came home from some cycles and I literally could not tell you where I had been or what the scenery was like. I followed a line on my Garmin and I tried to keep my speed up. This is all great for training but is it actually fun? Like I said at the very start of this post, I didn't use Strava on my most epic of cycling trips and yet it still happened and it was fun, although this may have more to do with the volumes of beer consumed along the way.

Having said all of that, I still use Strava and I will continue to use it to track my rides and my progress (or lack thereof). Used as a simple tool for keeping a training diary then it is fairly innocuous.

I am contemplating getting a winter commuting bike that can double as a gravel bike and even thinking about it makes me genuinely excited that I might rekindle a love of exploring off-road and forgetting all about average speeds and angry drivers.

I think I would enjoy such pootling and my body might even thank me for it. I plan to put the Garmin in the back pocket on a ride soon and head out the door with no particular plan. The real litmus test will come when I see another cyclist ahead of me and my natural and profound competitive nature comes to the surface. I will have to exercise zen like control of will power.

Don’t even get me started on Instagram cyclists!



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