Six years of Strava… it’s hard to believe
Words - James Raison
Cover photo - the incomparable Lana Adams (@lanaadams) with terrible Photoshop by me…
It was a bleary-eyed Sunday morning when I opened the email from Strava. A bright and chipper message greeted me as I piled into my breakfast in a semi-conscious, pre-caffeinated state:
The full message read: “Today’s a big day! It's been a whole six years since your first ride on Strava. Crazy, right? We're so grateful for your commitment to the Strava community. Here's to another year of great rides — cheers!”
My initial reaction was to be scared. Terrified even. Nobody wants to be reminded of the relentless march of time by their social fitness platform that they’d still consider “new” or at least “new-ish” to the world. 6 YEARS?
But as the initial shock passed, I was left with something else. A warm glow. A full-body fuzziness. I realised something as I sat on my couch, a bag of pointy bones with oversized legs, undersized waist, chicken arms, and the torso of someone lost in the desert for months; I goddam love Strava.
A ROMANCE BLOSSOMS
Let’s rewind to the heady days of Spring 2012; a 26 year old nerd is manually uploading his times up the local climbs to Cycle2Max (now defunct, it used to claim to be “The World’s Premiere Bicycle Hill Climb Website”) based on the inexact and clunky scrolling through Garmin’s fledgling online platform. It was crude, inexact, and relied on user honesty. Not a good combination.
Everything changed when riding with a friend; “Have you tried Strava? Everyone at work is obsessed with it.” I hadn’t.
After my first upload, I too was obsessed. The visualisation, data tracking, and segment system were amazing. I got hooked by chasing personal best times, longer distances, and more climbing. Self-improvement has always been my favourite part of cycling and now I was able to quantify it over time, and compare to so many others. I didn’t realise at the time that I was joining the ranks of a burgeoning class of new athletes.
STRAVA ATHLETES ARISE!
No article caused more hate mail to hit our inboxes than the Strava Athlete Vs Racer piece I published earlier this year. Most thought I was some salty racer angry at people who take Strava too seriously. Everyone who knows me found it all rather hilarious for the simple reason that I’m the consummate Strava Athlete and I was squarely making fun of myself.
I slotted into the Strava Athlete role because I’m a little short on competitive aggression. I’m not the guy who enjoys banging handlebars, fighting for wheels, or full-gas bunch descents. Instead I went down a different path; filling myself with lactic acid and drooling my way up hills. Steep hills have become my bread and butter. I love it. I have no delusions of racing grandeur. I’m a guy who used to be overweight. Blazing up steep hills and seeing my Strava ride filled with PRs, cups, and occasional crowns is about enjoying the extraordinary transformative effect that bikes had on me (chronicled in detail on my Bikes are Magic I have Proof article). These are hills I would’ve struggled to walk up and now I’m setting some of the fastest times on Strava. That’s not an easy feeling to describe to lifelong athletes or people with years of physical prowess under their belt.
I remember the first time I took a KOM. On a then-obscure hill some 40km South of Adelaide I rode a colossal tailwind to leaderboard-topping glory. Days later I was unceremoniously jettisoned from top spot as the Tour Down Under and BUPA Challenge rolled through it. As I rode more, lost weight, and found new hills, more top-10s began to appear and I found myself digging deeper. For the first time I was measurably improving against myself and my peers.
Poking fun at Strava athletes is poking the most fun at myself; someone who’s committed substantial time getting better at an imaginary race against people who aren’t there. I understand the racers who deride people who don’t pin on a number and pour their efforts into Strava. I, at least, am under no illusions of racing grandeur and have a lot of respect for those who put their body and bike on the line.
THE PEERLESS PLATFORM
Strava has forged and maintained market dominance in its category during a time of extraordinarily rapid tech development.
As other social platforms have degraded to utter ad-filled toxicity cesspits (Facebook, I’m looking at you), Strava has maintained a slick interface and damn good user experience. There’s been some odd decisions - like the weird yearly trophies, and the clunky move away from chronological display - but Strava has always felt like a premium platform even for free users. Balancing slow commercialisation and quality user experience is hard, and Strava has done it well I’m happy to pay the handful of dollars per month.
The vast user data has made it unlikely that a competitor could challenge it. Strava leaderboards have become canonical in tracking the fastest times and I don’t see that changing. Elite riders are named alongside totally average weekend warriors. The user base and data volumes are staggering. It’s hard to imagine that anything could overthrow Strava.
The numbers are truly staggering. Here’s some of their 2017 figures:
over a billion activities uploaded
16 activities uploaded per second for the entire calendar year
2.3 billion kudos given
8.4 billion kms/5.2 billion miles ridden
149,055 activity titles with “coffee” in them.
A DARK SIDE
Strava is not without its problems.
It’s still vulnerable to that most destructive force; its own users. Strava has been used for some ugly bullying, judgement, and harassment. Stories have periodically popped up chronicling some grotesque behaviour. Like any social media, or any social interaction, it can turn toxic because that seems the unfortunate reality of people on the internet.
On balance, my experience with Strava has been overwhelmingly positive. The kudos and comments continue to bounce around as people recognise and discuss achievements and shared good times on bikes. My social network of cycling buddies has grown thanks to Strava and the few jerks I’ve encountered will never outweigh the solid gold friends I’ve made.
Strava has had a negative effect on riding behaviour too. Climbing leaderboards has led to some ridiculous cheating with e-bikes, doctoring their files, and taking silly risks. MTB trails have been carved up as riders chase faster lines rather than riding the trail as cut. It seems the pursuit of riding bikes fast will inexorably lead to bad behaviour.
THE DOWNRIGHT AWESOME
Strava has given us some incredible entertainment beyond our personal goal tracking.
We’ve pored over Strava data from World Championships, Grand Tour, and Spring Classics. Thousands watched Romain Bardet win stage 17 of the 2017 Tour de France and over 22,000 people then gave him kudos after he uploaded to Strava.
Even ordinary peoples’ extraordinary achievements have been drawn global adulation. Ultra-endurance athletes, double and triple Everesters, and world record setters all upload to Strava. Mark Beaumont’s record 79-day round the world record is there too.
Then there’s the glorious Strava art depicting everything from cowboys on giraffes, Darth Vader, dinosaurs, turkeys, and a request to send tacos to mid-town Manhattan. There’s also a lot of… genitals… if you’re into that… *ahem* anyway, Strava art is one of my favourite things.
Finally, I had a good giggle at the story of activities uploaded from military facilities, effectively showing their layouts and locations on Strava’s global heatmap. (check out one of the stories about it on SBS Cycling Central)
6 YEARS IN RETROSPECT
Strava diverted the course of my life six years ago. It pushed me further than I would have gone otherwise because it gave me the metrics to chase goals I hadn’t thought I would or could achieve, or even knew existed. It houses some of my proudest achievements and some distance, time, and elevation numbers truly unfathomable to my overweight early-twenties self. It feels like a body of work that I’ll happily never complete; rather it’ll change and evolve over time as I do different things.
The term “Strava Athlete” certainly has some negative connotations to it. I’m happy to wear it though. Strava, it’s been a great 6 years.
Disclosure statement: We’ve never received any money from Strava. This tragic love letter is entirely genuine.