Thursday, April 19, 2012
Many readers are now no doubt familiar with the social media website for athletes called Strava. I first poo-pooed the service when Davis Kitchel of Strava told me about it in 2010. Since then, it has continued to grow on me.
Strava is changing how we train, ride and behave. When cyclist get in the habit of uploading ride data to Strava, they become keenly aware that their behavior is being observed. They are being sized up by other riders that ride the same roads and climb the same mountains. Knowing your performance is being observed has peculiar effects on human behavior. We try harder. Psychologists call this social facilitation. It has been proven a very long time ago that athletes perform better when someone is watching, be it spectators, fellow cyclists on your ride, or Strava stalkers.
Could there be a down side to this? Some have tried to blame fatalities on Strava. In one case, a rider was trying to reclaim his downhill Strava record and was killed when he hit a car. In another recent case, a pedestrian was killed by a cyclist descending a hill. Could a website change riding behaviors to the point of cyclists taking deadly risks? Maybe.
I see a less sinister influence on cycling behavior. The riding community is marking many segments along popular riding routes and climbs. We know where these are. We try harder when we hit these segments to ensure we attain our rightful place in the KOM listings. This can lead to anomalous behavior in Strava.
Segments are proliferating everywhere. On some of my favorite climbs, there are several segments defined, each presumably defining the same climb. Some riders may start the climb a little earlier or later, or maybe define the summit in a slightly different place. Strava will also auto define climbs. You will sometimes see modifiers like "legit" in climb titles, meaning the rider that defined this segment saw his or her definition as the one and only correct one. So which start/finish is the right one? Only safe bet is to start hard early and let up only after you run out of climb. Unlike a downhill, about the only risk on an uphill is having a coronary.
Strava is getting a bit messy. Everybody is setting up segments for random road sections or sections of local "Tuesday Night Worlds" loops. Anybody can define a segment that they can claim KOM on, just to have a KOM to their name. Segment density hasn't nearly reached saturation yet. When I ride a new place, a slew of segments appear below my uploaded ride. Most of it is meaningless to me. Any one segment may have meaning to only a couple of people. Strava does let you hide segments, but I'm seeing this proliferation of segments more as pollution. It seems no void is being left behind. This type of use may well bring paying members to Strava. If so, kudos to them. It will be interesting to see how Stava fares once the KOM listings become stagnant and there are no more new KOMs to be defined.
There are some quality segments out there, popular local short climbs, mountain passes and and big mountain climbs. Strong riders I know head out perusing for KOMs. I now catch myself doing this. My thinking goes something like this. Warm-up heading out, but not too hard. Gotta hit Pine Hill with fresh legs to make sure I retain my KOM there. Then recover before the Rt 122 State Line climb to see if I can take a KOM there. I'm competing against people that aren't there and I've never met. This changes how I approach rides I've been hitting for over 10 years. It is fun, at least for a while, until the novelty wears off.
Mike Harris recently titled one of his rides "Strava Whoring." I pondered that for a while. Have we given up a bit of cycling tradition by becoming fixated on virtual riding partners instead of the people we're riding with? A while back at Chipotle's, I noticed four teen girls sitting at a table quietly. All four were absorbed in their smart phones and not talking with each other. Strange behavior, this social media makes. As I continue to ponder this, I may have to do some more Strava whoring myself this weekend, should foul weather make me reconsider a planned MTB race. I'd like to take a crack at Blue Hill near Boston.