I became one of Horvath’s premium users a little over a year ago, just as I was getting into an early-middle-age cycling kick—right on schedule. Expensive carbon bike? Check. Lactic-threshold test? Affirmative. Sprocket-shaped grease smear on right calf? Testify! At this point in life, with most career goals met, here was a new place to find a sense of raw, if vaguely ridiculous, advancement. As the writer John Casey noted, “My old teacher Kurt Vonnegut told me that to flatter a person it’s more effective to praise their minor secret vanities than their major accomplishments.”
Initially, I was dismayed by the towering times atop the leaderboards. But even here, Strava has managed to engineer esteem through data segmentation—available only to paying premium members. And so I find myself frantically filtering by age and weight, improving even more, looking hopefully for more categories. As Alex Mather, a user-experience designer at Strava, told me, “We joked about having a dad filter. It’s your handicap, basically.”
Vanity has its limits, however. One recent change was to eliminate the ability for users to give themselves Kudos, Strava’s equivalent of the Like button. As Mather noted, “People would contact our support team. They felt weird when they accidentally gave themselves Kudos.” I take solace in one other refuge, however: you can still be KOM of a segment you have created, even if no other users have ridden it. As Dan Brown, Strava’s mobile-apps product manager puts it with a comic flourish, “It just so happens I win again!”
YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW who Anthony Fatuzzo is. But if you’ve ridden a bike in the New York City area and posted your ride on Strava, you will see his name, sitting at or near the top of any number of New Jersey and New York segments. After the 2012 New York Gran Fondo race, in which he finished second, I even heard his name invoked at a postrace dinner party, uttered by none other than Tim Johnson. The reigning feeling was: who is that guy? “He’s just some cat 4,” said Johnson, referring to the level of competitive cycling just above rank beginner.
One day I decide to find out, so I meet Fatuzzo for a ride from the George Washington Bridge to Piermont, New York, a favored training route. Fatuzzo, it turns out, is a soft-spoken 29-year-old from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, who works in the shoe department at the Garden State Plaza Macy’s. He’s got a body type roughly like that of Cadel Evans, and while he recently became a category 3 racer, it was not race results per se that had given him a certain fame in New York’s cycling circles: it was Strava.
As we ride, he tells me that he joined the site last January after his Garmin broke; desperate for data, he installed the app on his iPhone and was quickly hooked. When I ask how much he specifically went after certain segments, he grins. “If you’re going 60 miles and you know there’s one at 20 and one at 40, you don’t want to gun it in between.” And while he says Strava doesn’t compare to racing, he credits the app with his podium finish at the Gran Fondo. “To bring out that effort, you need more than a stopwatch.” After stopping for a coffee, he says, “Let’s go after a KOM.” And as we reach the piece of virtual real estate that is State Line Hill–9W—a sweeping, gradual ascent—he shifts to his big ring, rises from the saddle, calf muscles surging into relief, and leaves me behind. By the time I rejoin him, he is already king of the mountain.
There are any number of these riders—call them Strava famous—haunting leaderboards in cycling enclaves. One afternoon I go out riding in Marin County, California, with Skyler Taylor, a 17-year-old member of the Bear Development Team, a racing program for riders under 23. Also along is Anthony Little, a Web programmer and occasional motorcycle racer. They both have their fair share of Marin KOMs. During a bagel break, I get a sense of just how deep the Strava culture runs. There’s the mild obsession with the leaderboard. (A rider named Chris Phipps is a source of particular fascination. “He’s, like, over 40,” says Taylor as I raise my eyebrows in sympathetic incredulity.) There are the myths and legends. “We poach a lot of trails around here,” says Little, using the term for riding an essentially illegal mountain-bike trail. “There are rumors,” adds Taylor, “that rangers were using Strava to find them and close them down.”
And then there are the questionable KOMs: one local rider was climbing hills with an electric-assist recumbent bike. “We knew instantly,” says Little. “He had two minutes on pros.” Strava’s Mather says the site is going to be “more proactive” about identifying dubious rides: “We can look at some heuristics and tell what’s superhuman—for example, if someone’s heart rate is really low and they’re going 70mph.” But there are other, more traditional ways to game the system. A cat 3 rider and active Strava user named David Anthony was busted for EPO after winning the 45–49 age group in last spring’s New York Gran Fondo. And the site can’t tell whether you were drafting a car or set your KOM as part of a paceline.