The Web Monkey Speaks: Strava—for Better and for Worse

StravaWebMonkey
By Vernon Felton

Strava is good. Strava is evil. Or, for me at least, Strava is a bit of both. It’s complicated.

Human beings are all about the binary: You know…good and bad, black and white, chocolate and vanilla. The funny thing is, we don’t live in a binary world. We live in a pistachio-flavored world of greys, populated by people who are capable of great heroism one moment and epic douchebaggery the next.

So why do we humans try and reduce things to two choices? Because it simplifies things. It makes the confusing and messy seem straightforward and tidy.

I was reminded of this the other day after I nearly torpedo’d someone who was climbing up the trail I was attempting to descend and my first thought wasn’t, “Oops” or “I’m sorry”, but rather, “Crap! I am never, never going to crack the top 10 on Three Pigs Downhill now. “

This, of course, is problematic for a number of reasons. When you nearly run someone over, your first response shouldn’t be to vex about how that near-accident is going to ruin your Strava rankings, but here I was doing just that. I was, to put a finer point on it, being an absolute dick. To my parents’ credit, I realized this and managed to mumble an apology, dismount my bike and wave the person on up the trail. Right about then, I hated what I was letting Strava do to me.

THE BAD
I don’t think of myself as Strava’s target demographic. I don’t ride a bike with an eye toward being ‘fast.’ I ride a bike because it’s fun. I ride because it’s the polar opposite of doing my taxes, clubbing baby seals or calling you up during dinner and trying to sell you insurance. And, if I’m going to be honest, I ride bikes because I need to. I’m not the most jovial, glass half-full kind of person in the world. I suppose I could see a therapist about this, but ever since I was 13 or so, I’ve ridden bikes instead. Riding to the point of exhaustion and careening down hills at unsafe speeds has always filled me with a serenity I’ve never found anywhere else. I’m guessing there’s a chemical imbalance at play somewhere in that story, but I’d rather turn pedals than swallow medicine or talk about my childhood, so here I am.

Winning races or being ‘better than you,’ it’s safe to say, has never been my motivation. I ride to get away from competition and stress. Racing, and I’ve done my share, always feels like the life I’m trying to escape, condensed into a couple hours of pain and nausea.

That’s why I never thought I’d join Strava.

How fast are you? How slow am I? Am I faster than you?

Who gives a damn? The answers are transient and meaningless. Or they are… right up until the moment you log into Strava and realize that if you just pushed a little harder on that one steep pitch or picked a smarter line through that one rock garden, you could totally destroy your buddy’s time on Porcupine Rim or Severed Dick or Kessel Run or…just go ahead and insert the name of your favorite trail. If you’ve dabbled with Strava, you know what I mean.

THE GOOD
Look, Strava is brilliant. It absolutely is. People who simply badmouth Strava or dismiss it out of hand aren’t being honest with themselves. Hell, I hate competition and I wake up some nights angry that I didn’t think of Strava first because Strava’s designers understood and capitalized on one very important thing: Humans are competitive.

There’s no use denying it. Even the most pony-tailed, pot-smoking, Kombucha-drinking, hippiest of us has an inner triathlete buried somewhere deep inside. Dig deep enough and you’ll find a corner of your id that shaves its legs, rocks a team-issue Lycra body condom and actually gives a damn about the race results in VeloNews.

I discovered that dark corner of my soul the moment I joined Strava. True, I only remember to open the damn app every once in a blue moon before a ride (like any addict, I can quit any time), but when I do tap into Strava, a part of me hunches down and digs a little deeper.

Is that really a bad thing? Not at all. Being fit. Being strong. Being faster than you thought possible…it feels good. No, screw that—it feels like shotgunning a gallon of adrenaline and chasing it with an all-night orgy aboard a burning Viking boat. It’s like you’ve time-traveled back to 1978 and have suddenly become Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley all rolled into one (Peter Criss sang “Beth” and thus doesn’t count). When I jump ahead 20 spots on a Strava segment, I get a taste of the dragon’s blood and, oh damn….it tastes really, really good.

HANDLE WITH CARE
I get asked about Strava a lot. Strava is, let’s face it, an interesting phenomenon. It’s a product that blends the desire to crush your rivals with the desire to scream about it at the top of your lungs. Strava has the power to transform a solitary suffer fest into a heralded triumph of the human spirit. Someone might even look at your 10,000 feet of climbing in a single day and buy you a beer. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but it seems plausible and I keep hoping.

I can tell you this, though: Strava is neither good nor evil. It’s just a manner of how you use it. It’s like the Force—there’s a dark side and a light side to it and whether or not you wind up rocking the scuba respirator, black cape and red light-saber combo is simply a question of how you choose to use Strava. So use it responsibly.

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  • Jamie

    Vernon – great article. However you overlooked one of the bigger issues of strava pertaining to its use on illegal trails – curious of your thoughts with respect to this? I have mixed thoughts on this aspect. Ignoring the uber secret trails and focusing on the illegal trails that most folks ride with the risk of a ticket realizing the ranger kind looks the other way. Strava provides statistics of the trail use, which could be used for making it legal. However on the side, “the look at me using your strava on an illegal trails” can be interpreted as giving the ranger and others – the middle finger.

  • Patrick

    Vernon, you nailed it. I know the same feelings you mentioned, with another slightly disconcerting one. It’s all well and good to track your progress on your favorite trail and see one’s improvement. It’s a quantification of getting more fit and in shape, faster, and better technique. But another downside to that quantification is when you don’t log any PRs, 2nd, or 3rd bests on your after-work ride and you feel…let down in a way. Like despite that descent being a blast, the ride wasn’t all that it could have been. It’s easy to think that you can be improving all the time, but it’s also human to have to take a few steps back and let the competitive nature, whether it’s against ourselves or our friends, take a break.

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