Thursday, April 19, 2012

Strava Whoring

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.


mkr said...

Excellent observations and thoughts that many of us have also been considering. "Strava, make every ride a race!" It's novel for the time being. That said, my Garmin 305's slow record rate has hosed me a few times now on KOMs, including last night and once on the front of the tandem where Cathy's 305 beat mine by 10 seconds :) So unfair. The 500 is much better. Should just use that.

Mookie said...

We've got it made compared to the West Coast. You could go on a 50mi ride and have 100 segments. I suppose it's motivating to a certain degree so long as every ride doesn't turn into attempting to KOM a climb. I personally enjoy doing a ride with a few people and then interacting with them after the fact; I'm not so much into the Strava cock-sizing, but to each their own I guess.

Cyclists are an interesting lot. You've got guys that like to broadcast what they're doing and then there are those that operate under the radar, so called stealth trainers (You know who you are.) There are guys that AREN'T on Strava because of this, but will set up accounts in other cities to monitor everyone else. I remember once asking a strong masters roadie what his FTP was. His response, "I can't tell you that." Really?! I'm not asking for your SSN for crissakes. At the amateur level, what is the advantage of knowing exactly how strong someone is anyway? I don't get it. I never encountered the ego I've seen in cycling when I was a competitive runner.

Cathy said...

Yeah - thanks to Strava, I earned a QOM on my recovery ride Sunday. It hurt - a lot :)

CB2 said...

If you tell me your SSN I'll make up a number for my FTP Mookie.

solobreak said...

Since they setup the King of the Downhill on Blue Hill, I'm a little worried when going up... But I'm most concerned that there will be an incident that gets bikes kicked off the hill entirely. Let me know if you're riding down here this weekend.

Third try on the captcha coming up...

the bully said...

I just plugged this Strava thing in early this month and yes there are too many segments. Perhaps Strava can police it somehow but for now I'll continue to try to take your's, Suprenaughts, and Carlsons KOM's. You're right in that it makes you go harder when you know a segment is starting. It's changing the way we train. This weekend I'm heading to Fort Mountain and there will be yet another segment established! One more KOM for you to take. Great write up!