It’s a beautiful Saturday, and I’ve just arrived back home after a race in Central Park. I’m attempting to sync my Strava data so I can pore over the graphical representation of my meager efforts, but for some reason I keep getting an “upload pending” message. Rather than set my phone aside and tend to more important matters, such as divesting myself of my chamois and cracking open a shower beer, I keep refreshing over and over again like I’m trying to snag Taylor Swift tickets.
*Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame*
So how did I get here?
Well, it all started last summer. I’d been a racer for many years but had transitioned into a casual phase that involved avoiding Lycra and seeking out dirt as much as possible. Every so often, I’d jump into the odd low-key mountain bike race, but I hadn’t pinned on a number and bent over a pair of drop bars since sliding off the back of a crit in 2014 like a fried egg off a spatula.
I derived much pleasure from this casual, unkempt lifestyle, much like Daniel Day-Lewis probably did when he moved to Italy to become a cobbler. However, the roadie within was not dead; he was merely dormant. When Martin Scorsese came a-callin’ and gave Day-Lewis the opportunity to yell at people while wearing period dress in Gangs of New York, he eventually set down the loafers and got back to the grind. Similarly, unbeknownst to me at that point, it was only a matter of time before someone or something came along to awaken my inner roadie.
That something was Strava.
I’d been making a point of avoiding Strava for years, dismissing it as a hand mirror for the self-obsessed, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I was in deep denial about my own profound self-obsession. Moreover, I was beginning to come off like one of those annoying people who still brags about not having a smartphone. So, exactly one year ago, I sucked it up and created a Strava account.
At first, not much changed. I enjoyed the novelty of reliving my rides afterward in detail, thanks to all that data, but the way I approached these rides (slow, mostly) remained the same. As far as I was concerned, I’d raced my last race and I would ride into the sunset on a steel bike while wearing cutoffs. Similarly, I’m sure the first time Scorsese called Day-Lewis, he didn’t even bother to put down his cobbler’s hammer. “I’ve got an Oscar and a BAFTA, what the hell do I need to do another movie for? Now leave me alone while I reheel this boot.”
Ultimately though, with the right combination of elements, you can lure anyone back to their original passion. For Day-Lewis, the prospect of working with Scorsese may not have been enough to pry him off the cobbler’s bench, but throw in a creepy glass eye and the opportunity to throw knives at people and you’ve got a deal. As for me, Strava might not have gotten me out of my jorts and back into my chamois, but a few months later, I took delivery of an exquisite wooden bicycle for testing, and that got me thinking: “It sure would be fun to try racing this thing.”
I might have been able to withstand the seductive whirring of the electronic gear shifters and the purposeful ratcheting sound of a coasting carbon wheelset by themselves, but now that I was kitted out and wired up, I was deeply screwed. Thanks to Strava, I could see my erstwhile roadie compatriots still riding around in circles, and, like a recovering alcoholic peering through the window of a bar, I found myself longing to rejoin them. So, by the following March, I was making my way down to Central Park in 30-degree weather under cover of darkness to make an ass-crack-of-dawn start time for the first time in years.
One year into my Strava adoption, there’s plenty that hasn’t changed. For one thing, I still suck at racing. I sucked then, I suck now, and I plan to continue sucking for as long as I’m able to throw a leg over a bicycle. For another, I still don’t have any cycling goals. (Sucking and not having goals tend to go together.) Sure, Strava’s more than willing to help me in that regard—you can set all sorts of goals and challenges for yourself—but if I was interested in checking boxes and making deadlines, I’d skip Strava altogether and use TurboTax. I also still refuse to ride a trainer, and you’ll never find me recording my Citi Bike jaunts, grocery runs, or lawnmowing endeavors. (It helps a lot that I don’t have a lawn.)
What has changed is that I now acknowledge Strava does indeed motivate me to ride, an idea I’d always scoffed at since riding was always my default activity. There’s just something about seeing my rides ordered on a screen that makes me want to keep them consistent. I suppose it’s the same anal-retentive impulse that caused me to painstakingly alphabetize my records when I was younger even though they all sounded exactly the same (“Exploited” comes before “Extreme Noise Terror”), or to, you know, ride road bikes, which is arguably the most anally retentive activity of all.
More motivating, though—and more difficult for me to admit—is that as a parent with weird riding hours who works from home, I do need the social component that Strava offers. As much as I reveled (and continue to revel) in my solitary rambling jorts rides, it turns out that I do crave occasional interaction with other like-minded adults. And dressing identically to them, riding around in circles, and drinking coffee with them afterward offers this. In this sense, Strava helped restore some balance to my life. I realize now that while I had vilified Strava for being antisocial and self-indulgent, it’s really just a way for busy people who like riding bikes to exchange high-fives, and what’s so bad about that?
So, in the course of a year, did Strava manage to ensnare me in an inextricable web of Lycra? Sure, it did. But as long as I continue to suck, it can never own me completely, because sucking is freedom.