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Frivolous Distraction, or Useful Social Platform and Training Tool?

Road cycling has always been fraught with technical controversy, for as long as I can remember. Back when we all rode 5-speed freewheels (not cassettes, mind you), the newfangled 6-speeds came out. Riders were divided and highly opinionated as to the efficacy of this new “gimmick.” Soon after, some of us embraced heart rate monitors, while the purists mocked us. Cycling computers were introduced, and many riders derided them (clever intentional wordplay) while other riders saw them for the useful tool they were. We lived through Biopaced chainrings, high-profile wheels, disc brakes, clipless pedals; always something new. And sometime after 2010 came Strava, and we had something new to disagree about.

Strava may be the richest, most feature-laden sports app on the interwebs. At times, it’s even intrusive, taking your data from a crappy ride and putting it out there for all your friends to scorn and laugh at. (You know who you are, and retribution shall be mine.) At the beginning, Strava seemed like a nice, tight way to track your miles and some other essentials such as average and maximum heartrate and average and max speed. But Strava soon became more than that. And with that, for some riders, came Strava obsession.


For some, Strava is a platform for following their cycling friends’ activities, a social network of cyclists, and a training tool. What has emerged as the most dominant feature of Strava, though, is the “segment” feature. Users can enter segments of a ride anywhere from 1/10ths of a mile up to dozens of miles. When you ride a segment, your time is ranked with all other Strava riders who also rode this segment, and your time can be collated by age group, weight group, sex, or time span, including all-time, current year, or even day. For example, years ago I made a segment called “Shivwitz neighborhood to Kayenta entrance.” (Pro tip: When naming a segment, make sure your description is clear. Avoid segment names that are a non sequitur, like the famous “Miss Lippy’s Car is Green” segment on Utah Hill.) Fifteen Strava users rode the Shivwitz segment today at various times this morning, and all their times are recorded. Strava tells me that for the 1.3-mile segment (which I’ve done 605 times since 2012) I averaged 25.1 mph, averaged 109 bpm heartrate, and averaged 121 watts. That’s a lot of data that tells me that I wasn’t riding very hard.


Other than the ability to leave messages for your Strava friends, gleefully blurting out inanities like “GOOD JOB!” there’s a lot of data to be harvested and archived on Strava, and that is appealing to me. I use it to measure my own performance and to an extent to compare with my friends. Having this plethora (or cornucopia, if you will) of data is a great resource and it allows a cyclist to really dig into their workouts on the bike.

Strava can be misused, though. Probably the most annoying misuse of Strava is the act of “segment hunting.” This is when you plod into a 40 mph headwind for five miles, turn around, and get a KOM coming back by virtue of a ginormous tailwind. Seriously? And if you average 43 mph for seven miles of climbing with your heartrate averaging 71 bpm, I have to assume you have Strava on while you’re climbing Utah Hill in your ’09 Subaru Forester. Show some class, will you?? Delete that “workout” that resulted in a KOM.


Also keep in mind that Strava is not a race, although using it in a real race allows you to do a good post-ride analysis. You may compare your efforts to other riders on different days under different conditions, and while that can be interesting, there are too many variables for the results to be a fair competition, unless my segment time is better than yours, and then I like totally beat you. Variables include temperature, wind speed and direction, and drafting. And not only drafting, but the number of riders you’re drafting, you shameless, sandbagging wheel-sucker. And don’t even talk to me if you ride your E-bike and then act like you rode your Roubaix that day.

One good use of Strava is monitoring intervals on a segment on the same day, when conditions are consistent. One excellent segment for this is the “Mile-to-Go Hill” on the road to the Gunlock Reservoir. It’s .4-mile long and averages 5%, and any time under 2:00 is pretty good. Brook Mickelson is Queen of the Mountain (QOM) with a ridiculous time of 1:33. If you hammer up this hill, turn around after the crest, roll down past the bottom (WHEE!!), and repeat a half dozen times, you will have had a good workout, and Strava will have captured each effort up the hill, down to the gory details. Your second time up the hill will most likely be your fastest, but the last few slower trips up the hill will do you the most good as you overstress yourself. If you’ve accurately entered your personal information and the combined weight of you and your bike, Strava can even extrapolate power in watts, although that is an inaccurate Strava function. A real power meter is far better.

So, basically, Strava is a social app as well as a training app. I enjoy getting comments on my efforts, and making comments to my friends, or sometimes to strangers. I like seeing that a 73 year old friend completed a 130-mile solo ride. The social part of Strava brings riders together, but the allure of Strava is really in the oodles of raw data and the great benefit that all that information can be in your training. If you haven’t signed up yet, consider it. The basic app is free, and it allows you to see what your friends are up to, as well as documenting your rides. The Premium version of Strava is $59 a year, and it opens up more training analysis than you could ever use; heat maps, time in your five heartrate zones, the “fly-by” feature, your “suffer score,” power meter analysis, and much more. Totally worth it. Or, you can be a truculent purist and ride without a heartrate monitor, computer, GPS, or any other electronic device. Heck, don’t even take your phone with you. Ride a fixie. Like I care! But if you embrace Strava, you can document and mine data that can make you a better rider. And gosh darn it….it’s fun.


Ride fast, kids, and maybe you can be the next one to beat me on the “Sipapu to Big Soldier Sprint” segment, although one guy already did. I messaged him on Strava to express my displeasure. (Confession: I had a tailwind, and so did he)

Written by Paul Scarpelli




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