A digital skeptic sucks it up and logs on
Back in 2014, a cyclist in Central Park struck and killed a pedestrian. He was on a bike with aerobars and he appeared to be using Strava at the time. This only reaffirmed my hatred for the popular performance-tracking app, which I'd long derided as the equivalent of riding with your head up your own ass while masturbating.
Of course it's easy to hate something if you have no actual first-hand experience with it. This is the driving force behind Internet commentary, organized religion, and Donald Trump's presidency. Plus, when you hate something, you have to ask yourself why you hate it, and more often than not the answer is because you kinda want to try it.
So in the spirit of loosening up, I finally opened myself a Strava account. Would my new relaxed attitude toward data and social networking enhance my riding enjoyment or would I merely join the ranks of the many data-obsessed cyclists plumbing the depths of their own lower intestines?
I've only been Strava-ing (Straving? Striving?) for a couple weeks now, and I have yet to do any "big" rides, but here's what I've observed so far:
Don't get me wrong, I knew this already. What did surprise me though was that seeing my suckiness quantified on such a granular level is strangely comforting. After all, it's human nature to want to know where you stand. That's why most of us would rather be dumped than ghosted.
It Doesn't Motivate Me to Ride...
"I like Strava," people have told me. "It movitates me to ride."
To this I've always thrown back my head and cried "Ha!" as they slowly back away from me. What kind of cyclist needs motivation to ride? If anything I need motivation not to ride, such as hearing the phrases, "Yeah, that leg is broken" or "If you go out on that ride then don't bother coming back."
Certainly now that I'm on Strava this remains the case. I'm not compelled to ride any more now than I was when I eschewed it. What I do find, however, is that Strava allows me to sort of prolong the enjoyment of the ride by admiring its contours and drilling down into the data, even if it's telling me stuff I already know. And I suppose hoarding data so you can fondle it later is a form of motivation.
Still, in a way Strava is more like those Nashbar catalogs I used to get in the mail: I know all this stuff already and I don't really need any of it, but I still can't help poring over it on the toilet.
...But It Does Motivate Me to Run
As a lifelong cyclist and recovering bike racer I don't need an app to tell me how far I'm going, how hard I'm working, or where I stack up among my peers.
However, as a once-in-a-blue-moon runner, I'm completely in the dark.
It hadn't even occurred to me to turn on Strava and go for a run until I saw the little toggle switch, though now that I have it's motivated me to want to do it again, even if the duration and intensity of my typical run is the equivalent of trotting to catch the bus.
So if you like an activity but don't love it with your heart and soul I see how Strava can be the difference between doing it and succumbing to a Netflix binge instead.
I Am Not Alone
I live in New York City, where the most popular cycling routes are so heavily trafficked that you feel like you're in a Gran Fondo. (The fact that everyone's wearing the jersey from the last Gran Fondo they did doesn't help.) This has compelled me over the years to seek out the roads less travelled, and when I head out on a typical ride these days I often won't see another cyclist.
As a result, I've been laboring under the delusion that I'm some sort of pioneer. It feels good to ask yourself, "I wonder where this road goes?" and discover a new climb or an untrammeled set of rollers. And when you never see another rider on it you figure it's just your little secret.
Well, now I know there are no secrets and that whether I've seen them or not my fellow cyclists have had their grubby little mitts all over my favorite backroads.
So if you enjoy the sense of solitude that comes from solo cycling, Strava is as disconcerting as shining a blacklight on a hotel bedspread.
It Probably Won't Turn You Into an Asshole, But It Might Help
At this point in my cycling career I have nothing to prove on the bike. If I'm stuck behind a slower rider, I relax and wait for a good moment to pass. If I see a rider with a mechanical issue, I slow down and see if I can provide some assistance.
With Strava switched on I still did these things, but I also caught myself thinking about how doing so would look later when I went over the data on the toilet.
Then there's cycling in the city. Riding the very crowded Hudson River Greenway in Manhattan on a recent weekday evening I marveled at the heedless doofus on a triathlon bike, splayed out on his aerobars with his head down as he attempted to lay down a personal best. The busiest commuter routes contain some of the most popular Strava segments and anyone trying to light them up during rush hour is an idiot.
So if you're already predisposed to being an asshole it's not hard to imagine Strava pushing you over the edge. Then again, an asshole is an asshole, and I suppose blaming Strava for that is as dumb as blaming Ozzy Ozbourne for teen suicide like they did in the '80s.
This Is the Future and I Might as Well Embrace It
So was my suspicion that Strava can turn you into a self-absorbed data weenie correct? Of course it was. I'm reliving my rides on the toilet for chrissake! But it turns out I'm okay with that, much in the same way I'm okay with the confirmation that I suck, because clearly that's who I was anyway.
The real revelation was that I was avoiding Strava out of obstinence rather than indifference. And while I may very well grow indifferent to this digital novelty, at least it will be genuine indifference and not the kind that's borne of ignorance.
True aloofness is like a KOM: you've got to work for it.