Why obsessing over stats takes all the fun out of riding

Damn the data: cycling’s pleasures are unquantifiable

Now, I like technology as much as the next man, assuming the next man is your dad who a) still can’t work the video recorder and b) hasn’t realised that video recorders, like landlines, floppy discs and politicians resigning when disgraced, are part of the fossil record. But I’m not entirely convinced by the idea of ‘big data’, the endless collection of which is supposed to free us all to skip sunnily through a sparkling heaven of personalised consumption. Why?

Because alongside the idea that everything meaningful can be measured comes the assumption that anything unmeasurable has no meaning.

It’s exactly this idea that’s embodied in the whole ‘If it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen’ thing. Outside cycling it’s a broader ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ – again it’s a belief ushered in by technology, because now every single one of us carries a mobile that can record and disseminate each brilliant inkling either you or your uncommonly gifted offspring has in the twinkling of a white lie.

Electronics are coming to cycling and I accept that, because electronics are coming to everything. And mostly they’re very impressive. But the increasing integration of power meters, GPS trackers, heart rate monitors and even electronic shifting — telemetry from which could also be thrown into the general data pile — could easily distract us from basic reality.

That basic reality is that most of us ride because it’s a pleasure to be in the moment, to focus on something so purely that there is only now. Past and future don’t exist when body and mind work in unison. Cycling is an escape.

And it’s all about expressing your individuality
And it’s all about expressing your individuality

Recorded data, and its evermore complex analysis, allows no escape. The knowledge that every move you make, every breath you take and quite possibly every cake you bake is being watched, measured and analysed swamps ‘the moment’ like a rising tide. It’s impossible to get lost in seconds that are utterly mapped.

Measure pleasure too hard and it’s gone.

Big data

Take the most common use of ‘big data,’ for instance, which is where gigantic companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon use our every online move to figure out what we want, and then try to sell it to us.

It says a lot about our browsing histories that development is seriously gathering pace on sex robots. I’ve no doubt that gigaterralottaflops of internet search data says that lonely industrialised orgasms are our hearts’ true desire, but I’m willing — even as a cynic — to say real human desires are more complicated.

Well, maybe not the male half. But on average, the data doesn’t reflect what we really want so much as what we think will distract us from not having it.

My point is, even the most invasive data collection can’t truly define us as people. Data can’t define us as cyclists either — not unless we let it.

Power meters have surged in popularity as prices fall and designs evolve
Power meters have surged in popularity as prices fall and designs evolve

There are myriad ways in which you can be a ‘good’ cyclist that can’t be measured by sensors, apps and leader boards.

Take the 50-something guy I constantly see riding near my Welsh town, for instance. His bike is a lovely orange Cotic Soul with Hope hubs (can’t mistake that sound) and old-school, QR-axled, silver-legged Fox Float forks. It looks as new as the long-ago day it was built. It’s always immaculately clean, winter or summer. If he ever rides it in the dirt I’d be surprised, and from his physique I’d say he’s not been setting any KOMs on the roads either.

By any electronically measurable metric, he’s a complete also-ran… unless he’s actually so trail-floatingly fast that dirt hasn’t got time to stick to him, in which case chapeau, sir. But let’s assume for now he’d be nowhere on Strava. Amateurish loser, right?

In real life, he’s as real a biker as the fastest and fittest. He’s always riding. He clearly loves his bike and to get out there on it, all the time. He’s as ‘good’ and ‘serious’ as any of us. Cycling will be a duller sport if we allow ourselves to zoom in so far we forget that numbers can’t define everything.

If a rider falls in the forest and Strava isn’t there to record it, does it really happen?
If a rider falls in the forest and Strava isn’t there to record it, does it really happen?

This isn’t just another anti-Strava rant. I use it and like it, but the two times it failed me — and my reaction to it — made me think.

The first time I simply forgot to switch it on, and only realised once I got home and went to check if the ride I’d just experienced was any good or not.

The second time came just a few days later, when the GPS decided I’d arrowed straight through a hedge, over a field, through a stream, into another field and finally burst out of a second hedge onto a different road. Consequently, I hadn’t crossed the end of the climb (at a surely personal-best pace…) and the segment wasn’t recorded.

I was gutted. I’d lost miles from the little Strava phone widget in the first case, and a dot on the graph — maybe even a drawing of a cup! — in the second case. On some level it really was as if those rides hadn’t happened. This is clearly a stupid way of looking at life, and please don’t say it’s just me.

Again, I welcome electronics and their advantages. I just hope we never forget that the big picture, as opposed to the big data, only emerges if we occasionally switch them all off.

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