Life of strife for Strava fans

Stepping up to the stand to protest Strava’s innocence and point the finger at racers who don’t know where the brakes are.

Sometimes technology seems like part of the furniture of a tedious way of life. Riding a bike can feel like an opportunity to get away from the trappings of the 21st century – weaving in and out of cars and dodging roadworks, you’re against the system.

But if you’re like me, every day is a wrestling match with gears that jam, computers that crash and batteries that fail when they’re needed most. Maybe that’s why I’ve by and large stayed away from Strava – effective and well-designed though it is. I think part of cycling’s appeal to me has always been its simplicity and self-reliance and Strava feels like a glorified clock to me.

But I can hear the excitement in friends’ voices when they describe how they’ve beaten some ghost version of another rider in an imagined time trial, as if they’ve dislodged some smug tyrant from an iron throne after a valiant two-wheeled struggle.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that riders out there had ploughed down pedestrians and upended themselves in the pursuit of Strava-inspired glory. I remember taking part in a charity bike ride a couple of years ago and hanging on for dear life of downhill sections as other people – those dastardly destroyers of anything as innocent as a charity jaunt – flew hell-for-leather through crowds of wobbling novices. We all know what deliberately reckless cycling looks like and if you commute you might well be treated to exhibitions of it daily.

Still, Strava doesn’t make people act like maniacs. Rather, it gives maniacs a nice encouragement. It’s a little like violent computer games: easily blamed for excessive behaviour but hardly the full story. You could just as easily blame lycras for helping riders go faster and encouraging them to think like racers.

So I find myself defending Strava. Every month there’s some new technology, some chip/app/lightweight piece of kit that helps you better track progress and do some pretty cool stuff – the only reason that anyone connects Strava with accidents involving speed freaks is because its a good tool that ends up in a lot of enthusiasts’ pockets.

Still, it would be short-sighted to completely ignore the idea that racing culture is actually pretty dangerous. No point in lecturing: ‘slow down you naughty so-and-so’s!’, but likewise those that have made a fuss about Strava needing to highlight the risks of going fast need to have a think about who they think is going to pay attention to that kind of warning.

Not me, though I do think there’s something to be said for looking at what Strava’s core ideas are. In fact, I buy the line taken by Michael Horvath, Strava’s CEO, hook line and sinker. He told the BBC: “As I get older, I am less interested about how fast I am going. I’m more interested about how much fun I am having. And so that again goes back to storytelling and the social aspect which is at the core of Strava.”

It would be naive for me to suggest that Strava isn’t often about racing. However, the problem of reckless riding is just part of what happens when aggressive, oblivious or uncaring people get in the saddle. They make the roads a worse place for us all, but don’t lets suggest that that has anything to do with anything other than their own unwillingness to ride safely.

I don’t use Strava because I really don’t care all that much about virtual competition and I don’t like having pieces of kit that I could live without. I think cycling is one of those beautiful pleasures that is best when you don’t owe your performance to a nagging phone app. Still, that’s a bigger discussion and really, why would you want to stop technofans having their fun?

Steve Hall

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