Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stravarific or Stravasaster?

My two loves in life, setting aside mortal concerns such as my lovely wife and children, are beer and bikes.  I don't ever mix my beer consumption and my two wheel participation, but given free time, one of those two things will be on the top of my list.  As a result, today we are going to set aside beer and breweries for discussion of a love it or hate it topic in cycling - Strava.  Considered by some to be the magic elixir which makes them go fast and by others as the bane of the entire purpose of cycling, it tends to be polarizing.

My introduction to Strava was similar to Facebook.  I resisted as long as I could, but I was eventually forced to get a Facebook page when something I wanted to do was being organized solely on the site.  Without an account, I wouldn't know about the details and I wanted to be part of it.

Last spring, the same thing happened with Strava.  Mr. Chauvin organized an informal time trail that was cleverly run exclusively over Strava.  You just showed up on the appointed day and rode the Strava course.  Ted then pulled out the times for that day and then posted "results" of that TT.  It was a springtime training thing and I wanted to tag along to see how I fared from week to week, so I signed up for Strava on the first day I headed out for the event.

The first thing that struck me, aside from how miserable time trial efforts are, is how simple and straightforward Strava worked.  You can upload a Garmin or similar file, but even without a cycling computer, you get out your smartphone, open the app, click on "start a ride", put your phone back into your pocket, ride your bike, and when you are done - click "finish".  That's all there is to it.  Afterwards, you have an entry on Strava's website that shows your route, elevations, speed and, if you have ridden over a programmed climb or route, a comparison of your time/speed over that section compared to every other Strava-dork who has done the same thing.  And that is true whether it's just you and your neighbor Joey who have ridden up the climb to your house or whether you ride the same route as the professionals who use Strava.  You know just how you compare, which can be gratifying or humbling.

But here's the problem.  Once you know where the Strava segments are, it's hard to not think about it and then find yourself speeding up with the idea of bagging the best time or, at least, a faster time than your prior ride over that segment.  And, depending on your personality, it can turn every damn ride into one gut-busting effort after another.  Day after day, ride after ride.

It also leads to undesirable behavior like Strava-poaching, which is the act of dropping back to be the last one to start a segment, use the riders with you as a pack to save effort and then hit the front of the group as the segment ends.  Bam, they pick up the fastest time of anyone in the group and a faster time than possible by themselves.  In this and other ways, it can also lead to constant hard efforts, either in a group or by yourself, all for the sake of the Strava records.

For some folks, that is a dream-come-true.  They have a training partner on every ride urging them on, even if that partner is only the communication between their ears and the looming Strava results.  I would normally call these folks triathletes, but I'm trying to be nice, so I won't.  But this also leads to Strava-cheats.  Not just poaching, but Strava records set, not on a bike, but on a motorcycle, scooter, car or even just with a pacer.  If you are, as one Spokanite is, doing it just for the sake of entertainment and to mess with other people, that can be amusing, but if you are doing it and pretending that you are just setting a personal best, well, that is called cheating and of the variety that is stupid and sad.

I have ridden some years with no bike computer, HR monitor or other recording device.  Other years I have faithfully strapped on my HR monitor and uploaded a Garmin file regularly.  Net result - when I ride my bike more I go faster; when I ride my bike less I can't go as fast.  Since I am at such a low spot on the improvement curve, I don't really need ways to be getting that extra percentage by improving the quality of my specific training.  Maybe that's foolish and smarter training with HR zones, intervals and even a power meter would eek out more from the time on the bike, but it would also cut into the reason I ride - for fun.

And, for me, that is the bottom line on Strava - it's neither the boon nor bane of riding.  Kept in perspective, it's another thing to talk about or, even better, laugh about over post-ride coffee or beers.  Not kept in perspective, it just becomes another way for people who would otherwise already be annoying about riding to be annoying about riding.

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