Can cycling app Strava change the way we ride?

A madly addictive app has cyclists battling to be virtual king of the road. Simon Usborne discovers how Strava is changing the way we ride

It's half seven on Monday night and I'm behaving strangely. After my usual ride home from work, I've changed into Lycra, grabbed my proper bike and entered a race against more than 2,000 cyclists. My goal: to be crowned "king" of my local "mountain" in an attempt to understand the booming popularity of a social network transforming a sport. I don't know any of my opponents, nor will I even see them, but later, while sweating in front of my laptop, I will discover if I have beaten them.

Strava, a website and app, has brilliantly tapped the power of GPS and egos of (mostly) men such as me to change the way millions ride. There has been criticism, too, that it promotes reckless or even deadly riding, and turns a beautiful sport into a computer game. But its success is now so great a cheats' site has emerged called Digital EPO (it might appeal to Lance Armstrong, one of Strava's better-known users).

Strava works by allowing cyclists to upload rides recorded via its smartphone app or any GPS bike computer. Routes, be they two-mile commutes or 100-mile sportives, are mapped alongside times and data such as power output. Members may follow each other and create "segments", turning stretches of road into virtual race tracks. If a route takes in a segment, Strava automatically ranks the rider's time. The cyclist with the best time wins King of the Mountain (KOM), a name taken from the Tour de France, where pros fight to be awarded the polka-dot jersey for best climber.

I had resisted signing up to Strava. I've had a Garmin for years and enjoy timing, discovering and mapping rides, but I'm no racer, preferring to challenge only myself.

But as Strava has grown along with hundreds of other GPS-based fitness apps, its membership multiplying 10 times last year, all my like-minded friends are now using it. So last month I signed up to find out why.

As well as logging rides, the site allows users to explore areas in search of segments. I had centred on my home in south London and found dozens, including the climb up College Road into Fountain Drive, a mile-long slog up to Crystal Palace. I've ridden it for years en route to Sunday spins in Kent, but had never thought about racing up it. The man to beat is Derek, the fastest among the 2,075 people who have challenged the College Road Hill Climb. His KOM time: two minutes and 24 seconds over 1.3km (average speed: 33.2kmh, or 20.6mph).

I start gently before speeding across an invisible start line. The following moments are a blur of gurning and grunting as I power up the winding asphalt. After the final ramp to the virtual finish, my heart screams and my burning thighs threaten to melt my shorts. But have I done enough?

Back at home, I discover that Derek climbs like an Apollo rocket. My time: two minutes, 57 seconds (average speed: 17mph) a full 33 seconds off his KOM. But, scrolling down the leaderboard, I see that I am 24th out of 2,000, which suddenly seems decent. Curious about Derek, I google his full name – and feel better still.

Derek Bouchard-Hall is 42 and also lives in south London. But he's from America, where, from 1992 to 2002, he was a pro road and track cyclist. In 2000, his USA pursuit team finished some way behind a British quartet that included a young Bradley Wiggins. I had unwittingly set out to beat a pro. The next morning, I track him down to Wiggle, the online sport retailer, where he is in charge of performance development (an MBA and consultancy career followed his retirement).

Bouchard-Hall loves Strava and, like me, had set out two years ago to make his digital mark in Dulwich. He had heard about the site in its early days, when word spread in the hills around its California HQ. Strava was founded in San Francisco by Michael Horvath, a Harvard grad who missed the camaraderie of his university rowing team. "We imagined a 'virtual locker room' where we could share workouts among friends," he writes.

Bouchard-Hall was sceptical at first. "A bunch of grown men trying to compare where they stand seemed like a silly thing to do," he says. "But then you get into it and realise how much fun it is and what it adds to your riding. I use it to find key climbs if I go somewhere new. If my dad does a long ride back in Florida, I get an alert and can send him a note saying well done."

Chris Pook is an amateur racer on the Shropshire-based Paramount Cycle Racing Team. His Strava exploits have appeared on my Facebook wall since we met on the road a few years ago. The 30-year-old says the site has transformed the Sunday club run: "People accelerate at certain points if they know a segment is coming up. It pushes us to train harder and climb faster as the collective pace goes up."

Strava won't reveal member numbers or the proportion that is male (it has been put at 90 per cent. Just 165 women have ridden College Hill out of 2,000). The site appeals perfectly to the macho geek lurking under the skin of even the most mild-mannered riders, not least the middle-aged in Lycra known as "Mamils" now flocking to Britain's B-roads. It also succeeds as a social network; status updates come in the form of rides inviting "kudos" points rather than likes.

But women can be competitive braggers, too. Dawn Sealey, 35, joined the site in April having been "too intimidated" to join her male-dominated local club in the Channel Islands.

"It allows me to track my progress and see how I compare with others without having to go through the formal or scary racing process," she says. "I definitely try to beat other cyclists and the first time I got QOM I pretty much danced around the house." She later emails having discovered her crown has been taken: "Doh! Better get my bike out."

But Strava is not universally loved. Many riders believe it encourages risk-taking in the pursuit of virtual goals. D L Byron is the Seattle-based publisher of Bike Hugger, the bike culture blog and digital magazine. He says Strava strivers "want the same high a slot machine may give a gambler if they keep pushing that spin-the-wheels button." The difference, he adds, is that "you're doing it in traffic, on open roads, with no sanctioning body or legal responsibility to a community of cyclists."

A Californian rider called Kim Flint was attempting to win back a downhill KOM in 2010 when he hit a car and later died. He had been riding over the speed limit but his family sued Strava for negligence. Last month, a judge ruled the site was not to blame. "Every cyclist is responsible for their own safety and the safety of those around them," Horvath says in an email. In 2011, David Millar, the British pro now riding in the Tour de France, smashed the KOM on a circuit of Richmond Park in south-west London, among the most Strava'd roads in Britain. Using the bike he'd ridden to victory in the time trial at the Tour of Italy earlier that year, he completed the 6.7-mile loop in 13 minutes and 35 seconds, an average speed of 30mph.

When it was pointed out the speed limit in the park is 20mph, his record was removed, the BBC took down a video of the ride, and Millar apologised for his "naivety". But the current record involves an average speed of 28mph and is still on the site, begging to be beaten.

Some riders are so desperate to bag KOMs, they are prepared not to dice with death, but to cheat. DigitalEPO.com promises to virtually "juice" your virtual ride. The man behind it won't answer questions but the site appears in fact to be a satirical subversion of what it calls "obnoxious street-racing websites". Strava, meanwhile, encourages users to report suspicious rides.

I decide not to take the risk and, my Dulwich climb now logged, I fear I may be hooked. Perhaps at the end of the summer, after more training, I can do better on College Road. Just five seconds gained would earn me six places on the board. Twelve would get me into the top 10. "That's a great effort," Bouchard-Hall says of my attempt to get close to his KOM. He really shouldn't encourage me.

Update: The man behind the app

Scott Lathan, the man behind DigitalEPO.com, replied to my email after publication detailing his motives in answers to my questions. Our exchange follows:

Where did the idea from the site come from?

Some background - I'm a road cyclist who rides 4,000 miles/150,000 ft elevation a year, certainly fewer than many Strava users but I'm no slouch either. When I first heard about Strava I thought it was a joke: “Really? Unsupervised street racing organized by a for-profit website?” I'm also a programmer, and recognized that these files can be easily edited. There are no special skills involved, and took it on as a challenge.

How popular has it been?

The site has been popular. I don't pay too much attention to metrics but I get a lot of hits. Emailed responses are polarized, but they're about evenly split - I've been called a hero, and sworn at in several languages.

What do you think about the rise of Strava and its effect on cycling?

While it may be a good training tool, I find the competitive element of Strava to be horribly irresponsible. People have died and been seriously injured, and I believe injuries caused by cyclists chasing KOMs have been widely underreported. I've seen riding companions get irrational trying to maintain times - cutting in and out of traffic, etc., putting themselves, their riding companions, and pedestrians in danger. On a less serious note, I see a sport I love - recreational cycling - being turned into a competition. And as it turns out, there are quite a few of us who don't ride to “get there first”.

Ultimately we're all responsible for our own actions, and those actions include goading people into unsupervised situations which put themselves and the public in danger. Those who claim most street KOMs aren't accomplished without breaking the law are either lying or deluding themselves. Possibly we'll have to see a Strava-like site for automotive street racing or motorcycle racing before someone has the sense to pull the plug on all of these endeavors.

What do you say to critics who suggest you are encouraging cheating? Or is that the point?

Anyone who competes in sanctioned races knows Strava times mean next to nothing for comparative purposes. They don't take into account wind, weather, traffic, or drafting, not to mention gaming them at websites like mine and any number of other ways.

Personally I think Strava is cheating the cycling community and anyone who wants to take a stroll without getting run over. I admit that if there is a Robiin Hood-esque element to “cheating the cheaters”, I find that somewhat appealing.

Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

    £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

    Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A long-established, technology rich ...

    Recruitment Genius: Project and Resource Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing experience-led technology co...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Support / IT Sales / Graduate Sales / Trainee

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has now arisen for a Sale...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable