What if Strava’s not the enemy… and Garmin is?

Maybe it’s time to shoot the messenger instead of the message, says Steven Williams

Much has been written about ride-recording app Strava, and the negative effects of making every ride a competition between you and a million strangers.

As a relatively new thing — an app instead of a physical device, a social network and a predatory evil whose victims include the poor, defenceless US Army — resistance is inevitable.

The only thing cyclists enjoy more than new technologies that make them faster is complaining about new technologies making other riders faster. Strava combines these two things. Plus, it’s a free download and a really nice bright orange.

Meanwhile, there’s noticeably less moralising about ride-recording gadgetry from Garmin, Bryton, Wahoo and the rest… which is odd. These little handlebar-mounted GPS displays just don’t seem to aggravate people in the same way, despite doing much the same thing.

But what if we’ve all missed the one big distinction that really matters? What if the real battle is not between whether to gather data or not, but whether to see it in real time or not?

Having revealed secret US bases abroad, Strava’s ‘heatmap’ unearthed evidence of rudimentary roads on the Isle of Wight. Sensational
Having revealed secret US bases abroad, Strava’s ‘heatmap’ unearthed evidence of rudimentary roads on the Isle of Wight. Sensational

Reviewing hard performance data after every ride is one thing. Having it presented to you instantly, potentially kicking off a feedback loop where you’re riding to the numbers filling your eyes instead of the roads and trails, is quite another.

Real-time data is more likely to distract from the purity, freedom and simple pleasure of riding your bike.

If we’re going to start pointing fingers (we are!), perhaps we should be pointing them at the screens we can see — all the GPS ones

That’s not to say cycling GPSs aren’t great at what they do. They’re vital for serious training or navigation, more accurate, and enjoy better coverage than phones. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous that ‘Garmin’ is rapidly joining the likes of Hoover, Sellotape and Google as a blanket term for a thing, no matter who actually makes it. But we’re not all training or adventuring, so how many of us are staring at them without good reason?

At the same time, Strava has become popular on account of being free and easy to get with a rub of your thumb. In fact, it’s so popular that GPS units are increasingly supporting Strava Live Segments and connectivity as standard — if you can’t beat them, hardware makers have realised, join them.

You can’t get a free Garmin with your thumb, but you can at least use one by rubbing your phone as usual. And if that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.

As a consequence of such digital ubiquity, some of you will be getting the best/worst of both worlds already, with real-time data and Strava blinking remorselessly from your bars. Lucky you. The anxiety alone is probably making you pedal harder.

Dedicated training computers, such as the Stages Dash, make every ride a many-windowed laboratory of pain. Which is nice
Dedicated training computers, such as the Stages Dash, make every ride a many-windowed laboratory of pain. Which is nice

So if we’re going to start pointing fingers (we are!), perhaps we should be pointing them at the screens we can see — all the GPS ones — rather than the ones we can’t, namely the phones in our pockets running Strava.

I’ve recently ‘upgraded’ to a GPS, and it’s been a surprise — I now have a 6cm box right under my nose that tortures me up every climb, down every descent and across every flat with its yammering timer, bare-faced speedo, disappointing averages and sappingly stubborn miles-to-go (other experiences are available).

Even more wonderfully, this gadget constantly nags me to connect additional sensors to record my embarrassing power outputs, dilapidated heart rate and stupid cadence.

I could connect all these things to my phone instead, and go back to a fully analogue ride that only turns digital when it’s over. That way the data remains in the background as an incentive, rather in my eyeline as an omnipresent impulse. Where I’m not specifically ‘training’ — but do want to improve — that’s surely a better option than ditching all data completely. Am I defending Strava? Oh dear. I am.

Trainers such as Zwift can log virtual miles on your intangible Strava. Now you can climb a volcano and question what’s even real, thus saving time
Trainers such as Zwift can log virtual miles on your intangible Strava. Now you can climb a volcano and question what’s even real, thus saving time

I mean, who doesn’t love the needy Strava notifications after every activity, prying into your social circle, seeking to build an ever-thicker secret police file: where we live; what, when and how we ride; who we know; age, gender, height, weight and on and on. Perhaps if I start sharing my heart rate I’ll realise all my friends are bots, even the ones I’ve met. Or that I am.

Perhaps the next time the app asks, ‘Do you know Gregory Sexblanket, Florence Italy or Jack Bauer?’ I’ll finally answer, but only by clicking on strangers. That should slow Strava’s roll. Though I fear nothing can stop Jack Bauer.

Nothing’s going to stop the relentless ‘social’ acquisition of Big Data either, or the reduction of us all to data that’s bought, used and sold. But what we can stop doing is letting data get between us and our precious, real-world and genuinely social time spent riding.

At least until we’re home again, anyway.

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