Should you Strava?

By Cailey Nickerson

“It’s not a race,” my mother says to me as I gear up for my morning commute. “Be careful.”

“I always am,” I mumble as I swing a leg over the saddle of my mixte road bike. I started biking a year ago as a green and endorphin-yielding form of transportation. Plus, two wheels are all I can actually afford as a recent college grad. As a commuter, the only time I really push myself is if I’m running late or if I want a hill to end as quickly as possible. I’ve never recorded times, I’ve never paid attention to heart rate, and I’ve never compared myself against others; that is, until I caught wind of Strava.

Strava, or “to strive,” as it translates in Swedish, is a social networking site that utilizes GPS to track and record rides. Users mark specific segments and compete for King or Queen of the Mountain status on leaderboards. A KOM or QOM goes to the fastest runner or cyclist on a specific segment. Turns out, my morning commute contains one or two of the more popular segments in the greater Seattle area.

According to their website, Strava designed their brand around what they call “social fitness.” The goal is to unite athletes and “put workouts and races into context.”

As a commuter, I downloaded Strava with the understanding that I would probably be on the lower rung of the ranking. I also suspected to be the only one of my kind using the application. Au contraire.

Not unlike Facebook, Strava has hundreds of different clubs users can join. This includes cycling clubs, race teams, and to my surprise, commuters. With a quick search I found some pros in the area and noticed that even they are recording their point A to point B rides, titling them “Morning Commute” or “Work to Home.” I also noticed that I ranked 55 out of 137 women on one of the segments of my route to work. Strava even took the liberty of granting me a virtual trophy for reaching a personal best. Needless to say, I had new incentive to pedal hard on my commute the next day.

The application is free and anyone with a Garmin or smart phone can sign up. A Premium membership is also available. Costing $6 per month or $59 per year, Premium level gives users leaderboard stats filtered by weight and age, detailed heart rate and “suffer score” analysis, and pace power zone analysis. Basically, by coughing up a little cash users get a training profile recorded onto their Garmin or smart phone. A basic, free subscription still qualifies users for leaderboards and permits them to create and mark segments wherever a GPS signal can be reached. The beauty of the app for cyclists with a day job: time trial races can take place all over the world free of travel, time commitment and monetary strain.

With Strava technology, any workout, as long as it is tracked, can be a race. Such ability also means it can take place anywhere, including in areas of heavy traffic or on illegal trails. Users can also make a ride private, meaning only they can see it, or flag segments they consider unsafe. However, this also means cyclists are on the honor system for avoiding and marking dangerous routes. With this in mind, questions arise of whether the sense of competition Strava encourages has the potential to compromise safety. Lately, some argue this is more often the case.

Two years ago, Kim Flint Jr. was killed in an accident while trying to defend his KOM status just outside of Berkeley, Calif., in Tilden Park. Flint’s parents are now suing Strava for negligence on the grounds that the website encourages reckless behavior. Mark Riedy, the press media liaison for the company, issued a statement earlier this year commenting on the validity of the case.

“The death of Kim Flint was a tragic accident, and we expressed our sincere condolences when it occurred in 2010. Based on the facts involved in the accident and the law, there is no merit to this lawsuit.”

As of October, Strava is countersuing the Flint family on the basis that the deceased’s fatality was due to his own negligence. Kim Flint Jr., however, has not been the only casualty associated with Strava. Also in San Francisco, where the company is headquartered, 35 year-old Chris Bucchere hit and killed an elderly pedestrian while riding through a yellow light. Bucchere was said to be using Strava at the time to record his ride and is now facing felony charges. Strava is not involved in the case.

A screenshot of Cailey's accomplishments.

A screenshot of Cailey's accomplishments.

So does the company have an obligation to discourage reckless behavior? Reidy says yes, noting that dangerous cycling hasn’t been a real issue. He also says the application relies 100% on the accountability of users, which he maintains is made up of a very specific demographic: training athletes. Strava, he says, is not for everyone.

Co-founder Michael Horvath says on an Australian cycling website that Strava was designed specifically for the “top third athlete.” Riedy reiterated this notion in our interview, stating, “Strava is for core athletes who really understand the value of monitoring progress and need inspiration; not for someone running their first 10k.”

In a blog post titled, “Confessions of a Strava Addict,” on the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s (IMBA) website, spokesperson Mark Eller discusses some of the issues and social concerns in the community surrounding Strava. He argues that while the app may bring out the “demon” in some cyclists, competition and safety issues were around long before the application existed.

“It’s understandable that folks might be getting concerned about an emerging technology platform that makes every trail ride into a potential full-bore time trial... The technology has raised/lowered the bar a few notches, but hammering trail rides dates back to the first time two mountain bikers discovered they’d ridden the same stretch of singletrack.”

Glenn Glover, executive director of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance in Washington, has similar things to say regarding Strava on trails, however, he predicts that its trend will eventually fade.

“I don’t think [Strava] will remain as popular as it is now. Most of us mountain bike for the experience — we’re not on the trail to suffer or compete outside of a race. We’re there to be outdoors and because we love biking.”

Glover also mentioned that Strava has revealed some poaching issues in western Washington, as users have taken to recording rides on some illegal trails. He does not personally use Strava.

While the degree of accountability the company has in regards to bicycling safety is still a hot debate, the website has taken measures to stress the importance of user responsibility. Initially after downloading the application, a blue screen pops up with a warning stating that the company is not liable for reckless and dangerous riding. Reidy is uncertain as to whether the warning is a recent development following some of the above mentioned fatalities. Regardless, agreement to the terms outlined in the warning apparently serves as a waiver, which designates users as responsible for their own safety. This in turn is intended to exempt Strava from all related legal claims.

Evidently, self-quantifying services are changing the nature of solo riding. While Strava connects people in the same manner as every other social networking site, it is unique in that it does so through competition. Such a means gives it the capacity to bring out both the Hercules and Narcissus in even the innocent commuter, or serve as an enabler for the demon in the athlete. Consequently, with this new platform for competition may come a need for a new set of guidelines; or at least a keener sense of awareness.

Since this article’s inception, and although the company’s spokespeople confirm the application is for training athletes, my use of Strava has surpassed investigative purposes. Despite myself, I’ve taken to turning on the app wherever I cycle, and have accumulated a few QOMs. That is, I’m the QOM on a segment with three participating women, while the rest I was granted out of default, being the only woman to ride on that specific route. On other segments I’ve placed in the top ten, and as such have taken to pushing myself while riding them, knowing that top five is only a few suffering seconds away.

Do I curse slower cyclists and red lights? Yes, but never out loud. Do I pedal through yellow lights? Very rarely, and more from a consistent habit of running late. Will I yell “Strava” on the road and expect others to dive out of my way? Not a chance. Yes, the application has helped me push myself and understand my cycling trends, and I say that almost snidely considering I am a lowly commuter riding a '70s model road bike I got for $100 on Craigslist. From what I gather, the best approach while Strava-ing is a balanced one. Relish the confidence gained from reaching a personal best, but realize that the Achilles heel for any athlete, Strava or no Strava, is an arrogance that prioritizes winning over safety.

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