Strava, whose cycling users are 90 percent male, can seem like a Type A boys’ club, but women like Kate Powlison, the communications coordinator of Boulder-based Bikes Belong, still find it useful, if not always for the same reasons. When I connected with Powlison, she was in the midst of training to ride the entire Tour de France route a day ahead of the race with a group of women. She and her friends used Strava less for competition than for digital camaraderie. “Even though we were spread out from Portland to Puerto Rico,” she says, “Strava makes it feel as if we’re riding together.” The team’s manager, she notes, suggested an in-group competition, but the idea was nixed. “We use Strava as a way to follow and support each other,” she says—although, she adds, “I definitely do like bagging a QOM.”
As serious as the quest for KOMs can get, nothing quite engenders the level of competition brought out by Strava’s occasional challenges, sponsored events that pit riders across the world to rack up the most miles in a week or climb the most elevation in a month. First launched last year, they were an effort by Strava to get away from the individual-leaderboard focus. “The challenges are not really about winning,” Horvath says. “They’re about getting above a bar.”
Earlier this year, Strava issued a challenge sponsored by Specialized. “Riders,” went the pitch, “do you think you can climb the cumulative elevation of the five Spring Classics in 47 days?” The goal: 105,312 feet in a month and a half.
It took Robin Squire, an art director in small-town Devon, England, a little more than a week. “From where I live, anywhere I cycle I have to climb 1,000 feet just to get to the moors,” he told me. Squire, 47, had turned to cycling years before, after an injury put him out of soccer. “To be honest, 105,000 feet in 47 days—I’d probably do that in my normal riding.” But something about the challenge touched a nerve. “I decided I was going to be the first,” he says.
And so he took a week’s vacation to climb hills in the cold rain. As his total quickly mounted, he was flabbergasted by the “ridiculous” number of comments and Kudos he began receiving from around the world. His effort peaked the night before he’d have to stop riding to watch the kids. “I went out at 9 p.m. It was dark and cold,” he says. With no traffic about, he put on headphones. “I just floated up those hills, it didn’t even feel like I was riding.” He’d gone 62 miles and climbed nearly 10,000 feet by 3 a.m. When he reached 105,000 feet, he says, “I expected my name to stay on top of the leaderboard.” But the totals went above 100 percent and kept rising. Eventually, Brian Toone, a professor of computer science and a category 1 racer in Alabama—and, according to Strava, holder of the largest number of KOMs of any rider—won with a staggering 468,661 feet of climbing.
FOR THOSE WHO DON'T understand the ever-present gnawing edge of what cyclist and writer Matt Seaton calls “doing the miles,” reading these exploits might provoke the impulse to shout: Get a life! Indeed, some Strava users, like Stu Bone, of Mill Valley, California, an acquisitions director with a real estate equity fund who also heads the Bear team, have employed pseudonyms to disguise just how much riding they’ve been doing. “My job’s pretty grown-up,” he tells me. “I’ll ride in the morning and then go meet with some serious individuals.” When he first joined Strava, he noticed that it became one of the first Google hits for his name. “Initially, I wasn’t comfortable with everyone seeing that I ride 200 miles a week.” And so he became Blinky Palermo, a friend’s longtime drunken alias.
But over time, he says, he experienced a shift in his life, one chronicled on Strava. “I became a little less consumer driven, less materialistic, less ego driven, less identified with who I was at work. It might sound kind of corny, but I became more comfortable being myself.” And so he changed his name back. “I ride my bike a lot—that’s who I am,” says Bone. “I’m not going to try and hide it.”
In Devon, Squire speaks of the sense of fulfillment he got from the Strava challenge. “I felt so alive during that period. I just lived it,” he says. “I’m almost finding it harder to cycle with any meaning now that the challenge is finished.” Strava may be a home for repressed Walter Mittys clad in the yellow jersey of the mind, but it can also unlock a kind of inner frontier of exploration. For example, a California rider named Ryan McKay set out to ride the 500 kilometers (311 miles) of the Rapha Festive 500 Strava challenge in one day—an epic quest, from Los Angeles to his parent’s house in Coalinga, during which he encountered everything from frozen water bottles to the “warm body of a freshly killed coyote.”