Has Strava replaced the sprint for the village sign?

By Sam Dansie | Saturday, October 12, 2013 7.00am

Is Strava the reserve of time-strapped, competition-deprived weekend warriors, or is it enriching club runs too?  

Staffordshire University Geographer Dr Paul Barratt recently presented a paper to the Royal Geographical Society entitled Racing Strangers, examining Strava's effect on how, where and when people ride. Yes, Strava users are in a state of perpetual competition against rivals they may never meet – and for nothing but an intangible place on a virtual leader board – but as well as nurturing individual achievement, he concluded it was also contributed to group  riding's enjoyment.

There was a time when a debate over Strava's place in the cycling firmament split riders into relatively equal-sized for-and-against tribes. The antis' standpoint was that it had no place in real cycling – and certainly not on the club run. The constant change of pace associated with segment chasing fragmented rides and was irritating, they said. It's annoying when people charge off the front in pursuit of a KOM. If you want competition, go pin on a number was a usual refrain. 

But now its place in chain gangs and the regular weekend clubs runs is undeniable, BikeRadar spoke to some avid club riders to find out why. The pursuit of bragging rights, some banter fodder in the café or pub afterwards; a way to pep up a too-steady group runs; a convenient and historical record of the ebb and flow of an individual's form, and a combination of all the above, came up.

The reasons share common ground: most club cyclists are competitive buggers.

Karl Owen, 27, who races for Manchester Wheelers and rides out with the Warrington Road Club chain gang says Strava has formalised a lust for some competition. What used to be a straight-up village sign sprint against a few mates has been opened up to everyone in the locale and the odd ringer from out of town.

"[That competition's] always existed," he said. "There's always been the individual element and previously it might have been sprinting for village signs and I think that's possibly developed for sprinting for an invisible KOM line."

Robin Kyte, Wolverhampton Wheelers' vice president, regular ride leader and coach with 50 years' cycling in his legs makes another point: Strava wars are building up between clubs.

Recently riders from the Shrewsbury CRT squad team time trialled to the top of leader board on a series of segments on some roads they share. It enticed the Wheelers to fight right back. Which they did, of course.   

It's nothing serious, he observed but it was a talking point, something to brag about at the next race, or TT or whatever.

This growing favour for Strava among groups doesn't surprise Dr Barratt.

Based on interviews with 14 club riders and his own experiences, Barratt concluded that Strava is changing our attitude to riding. Superficially, we wait for the weather to improve, we ride slowly then attack segments and we choose routes based on segments we want to cover. Whisper it but it also might incentivise us to ride more often too.      

Importantly, Barratt says he not seen any evidence – in his own Leek CC club at least – that the individualism associated with Strava is tempting people to ditch club runs and go 'Strava sniping'. On the contrary: some of his anonymous interviewees said it brought them together.

“It quite often dominates the conversation during the ride, [and] more so in the pub afterwards," said one 31-year-old man.

“I’ve made friends through it. A couple of the lads who work in our building use Strava. We’d been racing each other for months but didn’t know," said a 46-year-old.  

Barratt observes more fundamental shifts in our attitude to club riding too: "A bike ride is not something that just happens anymore," he said. "Before it was a memory and now it's turned into something more tangible. It has a legacy as it were – it's your map, and [gives you] stats on your profile. It's an achievement."

And do our subjects agree Strava is changing the way we ride? Back at the Warrington Road Club chain gang, Karl Owen said he's noted some minor shifts. KOM hunters now slide to the back of the gang and gradually move forward over a segment to gain the extra seconds that might deliver a result. Nowadays the gang pulls for the whole segment too, he says, rather than some riders easing off when the sprint for the signpost looms.

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Kyte – not a Strava user himself but is quite happy with its presence on Wolverhampton Wheelers group rides – finds he's revisiting the same well-worn piece of road because, surprise, surprise, it features a popular segment.       

It's given that Strava dictates where many people ride, but still its slightly odd that our group riding is so governed by digital imperatives.

However Barratt said that most see Strava for what it is: a social tool, little more than a talking point. Nevertheless, sometimes, maybe just leave the computer at home and go riding unencumbered with a computer, he suggested.

"Whereas [Strava's] enjoyable as well – it's great to get a king of the mountain – it's also great to forget your GPS once in a while and just enjoy going for a ride just for what it is," concluded Barratt.  

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