I’ll let you in to a secret, I think I might be developing an addiction. I’m becoming a little hooked on Strava.
It’s the classic pattern, I tried it as a one off, via a friend, for a bit of a laugh and out of curiosity. I should have walked away right then but I got quite a buzz from seeing where I might be ranked on a leader-board of other users.
So I tried it again, and then once more, I thought I was still in control at this point, that I was nothing more than a casual, curious user. I was kidding myself of course, because that’s when I downloaded the App.
Just for training purposes obviously, for my big sportive, to log mileage. I’m fooling no one.
On the very first ride that clever little App knews just how to hook me in. Arriving home, sweaty, tired, before even taking my helmet off I’m logging in to see how I’ve done.
My legs of course are telling me how the ride’s been, quite a few hilly miles, but my new friend Strava seems to have the only opinion I care about. And it’s a good day, I’ve been given few little ‘Cup Icons’ which tell me I’ve done ok in the scheme of things, going a bit faster than few other people, somewhere in the vicinity.
Sadly, looking at these little pixilated cups makes me disproportionately happy. I don’t want to think too closely about the fact that my 4 year old niece looks at the stars on her homework in the same way.
Ride two and I log in again, eager for the same reward, the same electronic validation of my cycling ability only to find no little cups waiting for me. My happiness dissolves, surely I rode better than that. A series of little PB medal icons tell me I did in some places. Of course, having now ridden parts of the same route twice I am comparing my performance twofold to both myself and to other cyclists. Two ways to see if I’ve gotten faster or slower, to feel good or bad.
And so it continues. At the start of each ride of course there’s the choice whether or not to switch on my little Strava tormentor and yet already, it seems I can’t leave home without it. Why is that?
The randomness of reward
Like a veteran gambler I keep coming back because of the promise of that potential ‘reward’, a Personal Best’ or a little cup which says I’m on the top ten leader board of other Strava addicts for zooming over an arbitrarily designated stretch of tarmac somewhere.
Unlike other movement tracking Apps, Strava’s ingenuity and success is that it not only records your vital statistics i.e. speed, distance and much more but that, most crucially it also pits you against other Strava cyclists. A worldwide virtual community. This means that any Strava user whose ridden in your vicinity will clock a time over the same stretches of road that you do. These results are then pasted up for all to see (excepting the odd privacy setting) and more importantly ranked. It brings out the competitive monster in us (or certainly me).
The hallowed QOM
The gold standard for Strava users is the QOM (or KOM for men), Queen (or King) of the Mountains and the number 1 slot for a ‘segment, (random stretch of tarmac).
What a great incentive you might think, and it certainly is. Measuring improvements in performance not just against yourself but this huge, virtual community can be really motivating but can it also be something else, destructive, anti-social, deceitful even?
There have been minor scandals regarding the latter with reports of amazing feats of cheating and subterfuge to gain that hallowed QOM/KOM. It seems that people will go to great lengths to gain these virtual accolades including anything from riding E-bikes to running riders off the road to even driving the segment and recording it as a ride.
On a smaller scale, how many of us (until recently non-Strava initiated) have been on a group ride when suddenly, without warning all of your fellow riders shoot off down the road leaving you bewildered, in a cloud of dust. Half a mile later they’re all massed breathlessly in a layby, waiting for you. ‘Sorry’ someone mumbles sheepishly ‘but it was a Strava segment’!
Most fundamentally, does this form of categorization and competition actually make people better riders? Personally, probably not. After only than a handful of rides with the App I already find myself obsessively analyzing my performance. A perfectly good ride can be tainted when I get back and see that I’ve ridden slower than I’d hoped or failed to gain a PB on a section I was flying along. This is of course totally subjective and self-induced torment but I find that my enjoyment of cycling is much greater when there is no indicator of my performance. I also ride in a much more constructive and sane manner. Instead of going all out and winding myself for that early segment, non-measured rides see a much better paced effort.
The wake-up call for me came when I pushed myself to the brink of insanity on an hour long ride of intervals and recovery only to get home and find I’d forgotten to start Strava. I nearly cried, real tears. It made me take a step back.
In the rational light of day what mattered is that I’d done the ride, I’d felt good, the training miles were in my legs and I felt strong. It really really doesn’t matter if I don’t know how fast I went over Strava’s ‘wobbly bridge section’, or what my ranking may have been going up ‘gnarly hill’. The world will not end if I gained a QOM and never knew.
Strava is of course just a piece of electronic kit and can be whatever you make of it. It can be either a helpful training tool or complete liability. However, despite all of the above musings I’m embarrassed to admit that I will probably keep using it for now. Addicted, who knows, but competitive, certainly. Hopefully though this use will be tempered with a (slight) change of mindset and a pinch more sanity. It’s been a learning experience. The best things always are.