A few winters ago 35-year-old Massachusetts cyclist Tim Johnson, one of the country’s top cyclocross pros, was holed up in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu, training on the area’s labyrinthine network of canyon roads. He was staying at the house of Ben Bostrom, 38, a champion motorcycle racer and accomplished road cyclist. The training ground was Latigo Canyon Road, a twisting and relentlessly ascending route out Bostrom’s front door. For all Southern California’s winter promise, the day was New England grim.
“It was pissing rain and cold,” he says. “I was doing 10-minute intervals, going as hard as I could.” After the ride, Johnson uploaded the data from his Garmin GPS cycling computer to Strava, the “performance analytics” website and mobile app that allows riders to compete virtually by comparing times and biometric data. He marked the ride private and forgot about it as race season commenced. A year later, Johnson was back in Malibu, in Bostrom’s kitchen, where he and a group of riders were uploading data from the day’s ride. That’s when Johnson let it slip: “Dude, I think I’m KOM of your hill.”
For the uninitiated, KOM is short for “king of the mountain.” It’s a term borrowed from the Tour de France that means you posted the top time on one of Strava’s millions of global “segments”—those ferocious hills or innocuous exurban straightaways that Strava users have parceled out. KOMs are like glittering prizes in a massive multiplayer online game.
And so, back in Bostrom’s kitchen, Johnson was suggesting that Latigo Canyon—Bostrom’s canyon—was no longer his. This was no mere ousting of your cubicle mate as Foursquare mayor of the local Quiznos. Bostrom’s user name is Jack Latigo, and he holds many KOMs. “Ben’s like, ‘No way,’ and I start telling him about this ride from last January,” he says. Johnson unlocked the ride, thus joining the many past riders who had tackled Latigo. It takes the site time to crunch the data, however, and with each refresh the numbers shift. “I keep hitting refresh, and I’m 1 out of 20. One out of 100. One out of 250. I’m still in the lead. We hit 1 out of 412. He’s getting more and more bummed out.”
Johnson reloaded the site one last time. Two out of 516—Jack Latigo was back on top. “We’re all screaming,” he says. For Johnson, something clicked about the app: “The idea that we’re sitting around talking about a ride that’s a year old....” Johnson thinks Strava could even change racing, from ephemeral events to enduring ride files that dwell in the cloud.
It’s not just competitive pros who are taken with Strava, of course: an army of more than a million users are turning their local tarmac into a daily time trial—sometimes bespoiling singletrack etiquette and terrifying casual riders and walkers on multiuse paths—and telling the world about it. Some wax rhapsodic about how Strava has changed their lives, some see it as a dangerous intrusion of wannabe racers on public roads, and at least one person has died, as a pending lawsuit charges, while chasing a KOM.
Whatever you think Strava is—real-life fantasy football for data-obsessed cyclists (and, to a lesser extent, runners), the last redoubt of middle-aged vanity (more on that later), or the end of the friendly group ride—its moment is clearly at hand. It not only has become the stuff of new words (e.g., Strava-cide, to blow up the carefully controlled rigor of a training ride in the hope of capturing a KOM), but it has achieved the ne plus ultra of Internet stardom: it has become a verb—“to Strava” a ride. It has even raised a new kind of philosophical inquiry: Is the unexamined ride worth riding?
IN THE LATE 19TH century, the pioneering Indiana University psychologist Norman Triplett, sifting through records from the Racing Board of the League of American Wheelmen, made a seminal observation about the psychology of sport: cyclists who raced against competitors or a pacemaker were faster than cyclists who rode alone. So-called social facilitation, the theory went, demonstrated something we now consider obvious: humans try harder when matched against others. Later work would demonstrate that the mere presence of others could inspire us to work harder.