Friday Debate: Strava

Ali Todd is a one of the local Monmouth riding crew and likes to swing his leg over a bike of any kind – XC,AM,DH – the tags make no difference to him. Having helped out on bike testing and tea making duties over at Dirt Magazine for some time now, he also knows what makes a good bike and what makes a heap. 

Ali’s going to be lending his views and opinions on products, bikes and all-manner of bike-related topics as he joins us over the coming months at BM.

Ali Todd in downhill mode. But he’s into all sorts of riding, as long as he can time it, map it and log it of course. Photo © Alex Stewart

For starters, Ali’s been weighing up the pros and cons of logging rides using Strava. Everyone has an opinion on the technological ‘leap’ that Apps have brought even our simple two-wheeled world, but Ali’s laying down the facts and leaving this one open for debate…

STRAVA: A MARMITE FLAVOURED CAN OF WORMS

Words: Ali Todd

When I first started riding, many years ago, I used to grab a small black stopwatch, ride to the red trail at the Forest of Dean and do timed laps. It was great, and the reward of seeing the minutes fall was a good incentive – and one I might re-instate, after the excesses of a Christmas where I’ve neglected the all-mountain bike and spent a bit too much time on uplifts and big, bouncy bikes. The thirty-minute-lap goal was always in the back of my mind then – to the extent that when I had an hour spare, the spectre of the timer watching over me was enough to get me on the bike, doing “just one lap”. It never ended that way though.

My stopwatch has fallen by the wayside more recently, much to my regret. Technology seems to have gone one up on my trusty old stopwatch though, with “GPS sports trackers”, namely Strava, on smart phones not only replacing the timing function, but adding a mapped route of where you’ve been, individual timed sections, goals, history… And possibly most importantly, a “GPS-based virtual racing system”. The list seems endless – and full of good things, right?

Strava is available on IPhone and Android…but won’t a good old wristwatch do the same job..?

Here’s the debate then:

While the good bits already seem evident, there are some notable negatives – hence the title. These apps seem to be love-it-or-hate-it things, which open a metaphorical can of creepy crawlies whenever the debate rises. Here’s the deal: I’ll lay out the facts and some opinions and you lot make your own minds up. Even better, stick your oar into this particularly interesting container of yeast-based spread and elongated soft-bodied invertebrate animals in the comment section below.

Timing

If you want to time yourself on Strava, you can get not only lap times, but individually timed sections. As good as this is, it throws up a few problems – firstly, there are known issues with GPS trackers, namely inaccuracy due to inconsistent marker points – especially important on the downhill sections, where differences of five or six seconds are huge. If you want timing over longer sections then the reliability gets better – but why choose Strava over a stopwatch if this is your goal?

Another issue regularly brought up is the fun vs. timing debate – do you have more fun just riding a track, finding your flow, doing the climbs at manageable pace and ripping up the descents, or do you want to be out of breath the whole way round? Obviously no-one is forcing you to use Strava, stopwatch or other, but that doesn’t stop people from disliking it.

Life is racing…now with added graphs. Bragging rights or your ultimate reality-check.

Racing

This is where things heat up. All of us have got a competitive edge, but some seemingly more than others – riding some of the official local trails, you see cut corners and cheeky lines where people are just searching for that extra ten seconds. Even worse, you’re completely unaware what the other riders are on – that “amazing” time may well be some bloke on a motocross bike, laughing at you lot trying to keep up!

Not-so-secret trails…

Here’s where the biggest issue lies. Your beloved secret trail, years in the making, has been put up on Strava by some inconsiderate rider. Within a month, it’s blown-out, rutted, the jumps have lost the edges, the hard lines knocked out. Does happiness prevail? Maybe not. Technically this isn’t the fault of the app, just the thoughtless people who follow it without second thought, but it’s still a big thing.

Forest of Dean Blue route – mapping’s fine on official routes but just don’t go trying it on anything secret…please!

Technology

The essential question here is “do you really want to be in touch with the world all the time, even on your bike?” I know I ride to escape – perhaps a bit too often – but the idea of dragging an iPhone (with work emails, texts and calls coming in) around the woods ruins something for me. Add to that the chance of falling on your beloved hub of communication, getting it wet and generally throwing it around, and you’ve got a very expensive crash.

Conclusion

So there are what I consider to be the key points. Whether you’ve not tried it at all or whether you plan your rides around “Strava-friendly segments”, we want to know what you think. Is it an obsession? A tool for motivation and training? Is it a good idea? Does it make sense only for the road bike community and their focus on split times, or is it a great tool for mountain bikes too? Jump on in.

  1. serge the seal of death

    been trying to decide the same thing at the moment, really want to map my rides, more so that i know distance and altitude, which a stadard bike computer can do, but a GPS device like the Bryton 20 with the GPS means its easily switched between bikes, and the battery is much longer then a phone, but a smart phone does this plus more. So i am really undecided what to go for, the dedicated bike computer is winning at the moment due to batttery life. as i like long rides, Or maybe i am just slow, but the cost of one with a mapping screen is alot more that a smart phone, and easy mapping would be nice for routes in unfamiliar places.
    oh and another thing for Strava, i believe that the GPS log when converted is a simple file, so for king of the mountains etc its easy to manipulate, probably more of a problem for roadies.

  2. AlasdairTodd1

    Of course you can map your rides with Strava and not publish the route – the attitude to take when riding other people’s tracks. I suppose if you’ve already got the phone then the cost of Strava is minimal… But make sure you protect it!

  3. James McKnight

    I plan on driving all the big alpine climbs in my car this summer and smashing records left, right and centre.

  4. David Jaquin

    Well then. I have been using Strava on and off for a few months now mainly for road riding to understand how I am doing on a certain ride or route.

    The information given is interesting and can be enlightening as to good or poor performance but thats about it for me. I’m training for both racing and a long distance ride so understanding my speeds and tempo of riding is useful sometimes.

    So personally I think it’s a useful tool and I think it works better on the road, accuracy is only a factor if you are comparing Strava to a non Strava device. If it’s a bit inaccurate then isn’t it the same for everyone, aside from the small nuances of different smart phones. (if they are indeed small!)

    I wouldn’t spend hours is the pub gassing about how fast or slow I ride to work, shits not given. On a personal, training and improvement level then yes, bloody useful.

    As for on MTB’s I think there needs to be a stages set around trail centres or known routes and some definition between wet and dry would be useful too. The secret track thing is annoying yes and I can see that causing some issues, but has this happened to anyone yet?

    Two-penneth spent!

    1. Paul Haysom

      Dave, as someone that gets the spade in the dirt – yes this does happen!

    2. AlasdairTodd1

      The inaccuracy over a descent could be damaging though – you could ride a one minute downhill section and get fluctuations of 5 seconds between other Strava rides – they all waymark at different places.

      On the secret trails being exposed front, it’s happening everywhere! I know a lot of track builders (not just around the Forest of Dean – Surrey, Scotland and Ireland included) who are seeing the effects of Strava races on their hard work. Not good!

  5. ajvb65

    I have a Garmin GPS & ride the road more than MTB. I upload all my rides to Garmin & Strava but mark them as private when I don’t want other people to see. I certainly think this is an issue for MTBing especially when riding unmarked trails.

    Primarily I feel it is aimed at roadies & runners where people like to see how they compare on leaderboards. Road riding is all about speed & nothing else.

    1. James McKnight

      It’d be nice if everyone marked rides as private. Guess they just can’t resist having their name top of a leader board.

  6. Lev

    I really like Strava and use to see how I’m doing against myself and others. It is also a good laugh when you are in the pub after a group ride, when the results are in!

    1. AlasdairTodd1

      Couldn’t the same effect be achieved there with a stopwatch and a forum leader board though?

      1. Lev

        My mates are liars! I do think that people are getting a bit het up about Strava. It’s a good training tool and a bit of fun. Anyone who really thinks they are the KOM of any ride must be a bit of an idiot. That is only prove by a real competition.

      2. AlasdairTodd1

        Let’s hope they don’t see this comment section then! But it’s true – only a race is really a race. Is this virtual racing thing just a gimmick then?

  7. Alan

    If you’re already a Stravanaut, you’ll probably enjoy some of these third party tools for getting more out of your Strava data
    http://www.scarletfire.co.uk/2012/06/turbo-charge-your-strava-data-with-these-third-party-api-tools/

  8. Dick Barton

    I like it for my own reference…no issues with publishing my rides but it is purely to guage if I’m improving or not…I have a number of rides that I do and each one is on the system…I upload and I can see if I’ve improved (gone faster than previously).

    I don’t get the corner cutting/’cheating’ – I didn’t do it before the GPS bang and I don’t do it now – but then I’m not recording the rides to beat anyone other than myself.

    Stopwatch stuff is all fine but you need to press buttons to start/stop – accuracy and speed don’t tend to work hand in hand with that kind of requirement and pedalling – the GPS (and Strava) marks the start/finish automatically for you – you just ride your bike.

    If the trail is well known, then I mark it public, otherwise it is private as I don’t want to publicise a little used trail that would end up getting ripped apart – seen it happen countless times over the years.

    I think it is a good thing to have in general.

  9. john south

    I love strava but NEVER publish private tracks.

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