Strava.com – A fantastic tool, but beware it can dangerous to your ego

As I’ve posted before, I believe there are fundamentally two types of road cyclists – those like the data and those who don’t. Once in a while something comes along that may tempt the non-believers and I think that Strava might well be one of those things. 

This is because one of the other fundamental things I’ve noticed about cyclists is that we are generally a very competitive lot and like nothing more than beating our mates on rides or smashing our personal bests whenever possible (ideally on every ride). 

Strava is a website that allows you to follow your friends and club/team mates performances, upload your own GPS ride data to rate against previous performances as well as against your friends performances and be told when, where and how well you’re friends are riding. I’m getting emails everyday at the moment telling me how much riding my friends on Strava are doing and how well they’re doing – this is an excellent motivator to get out the door myself. 


This is really what’s great about Strava – the ability to clearly map your speed against your friends over the same climbs and roads so you can let the data show who’s fastest. If I say I think I can ride such and such route faster than you – if you upload your data and that of your mates – you’ll soon see who’s the quickest and where. The possibilities for friendly rivalry are almost endless.

One of the expensive catches is that you need to have a GPS data gathering device like a Garmin Edge or an iPhone or Android phone – as you have to use something that tracks you as you cover ground. On top of the basic speed and position on the map data it can also track your heartrate and power output if you’re using a powermeter. If you’ve been thinking about getting a Garmin or do already have one – Strava is really worth thoroughly checking out. 

Once you’ve finished your riding you upload your data into Strava and this is where is starts to get properly interesting.

Firstly it logs your ride, where, how far etc, etc but it also checks where you’ve ridden against where other people have ridden and overlays the data – particularly on hills. For example when I rode the Puncheur Sportive, I uploaded my ride data from my iPhone Cyclemeter programme (http://www.abvio.com/cyclemeter/) into Strava. When Strava analysed my data it saw that I and other people had ridden up Ditchling Beacon so it recorded my performance on that climb (which was far from impressive after a cramp filled 68 miles before I arrived there). When I rode in Surrey with my triathlete mates and uploaded the data to Strava, it found several climbs – Crocknorth, Leith Hill and Coombe Lane and ranked me in the bottom quartile on all of those climbs – including Leith Hill where I stopped to wait and take pictures of one of my riding buddies during the climb. 


So everytime someone rides a segment that you ride – it updates all of our relative performances and this is the downside of Strava – if you’re a great cyclist – it proves it by the number of KOM (King of the Mountain) awards you have on the roads you ride- it shows your power too so you can see your awesomeness not only in time, but also in low heart rate and massive power etc. If like me, you’re pretty average you may end up in the bottom quartile with me and any illusions you have about being a good cyclist are pretty well shattered – so it can be tough for your ego. Currently I’m nearly last on all of the hill segments that I’ve ridden where other people regularly ride – so the only way is up – or at least I hope it is. This news is potentially also damaging for those I ride with as they will now come to grips with the fact that the data shows how slow I am and therefore how relatively slow we all are. Melodramatics and ego aside, there are some other really useful positives about Strava as well as the relative ride data analysis. 

You can also create your own segments. For example there are some roads I ride almost every time I’m out so it’s been interesting and useful to create segments in certain locations so that if I was feeling good on a particular day I can see if that shows in my times at key points on the ride. 
It’s also interesting to compare rides on different bikes if you have them. For example about a week ago I rode as hard as I could on the day up a climb that I knew was a segment. I was on my old Specialized but I rode as fast as I could. The time before when I rode up there I was on my Diablo and had only been riding at a relatively modest level of effort. I thought I would have smashed that time on my Specialized as I really did try – but the data said otherwise. I was just 4 seconds faster over 3.8kms in a time of 11m 26 seconds and still 38 seconds off the fastest time. So obviously I’ll be taking my Diablo up there next time to see if I can go faster still. If you’re riding in similar weather conditions over the same roads but on different bikes it can give you some interesting insights.
As someone who loves data – this is fascinating and almost addictive. The fact that I’m slower than many other riders is neither here nor there for me – I’m not cycling to be a champion – I’m cycling because I love it and because it’s fun and I’m getting fitter and healthier. I know I’m slowly improving too and I’ve only uploaded a small percentage of my data – mostly from over the winter (yes I am making some excuses but also providing some context for how I’m assessing my own data and performances). I don’t have a powermeter (or any plans to get one) and helpfully Strava also estimates your power to give you a proxy power reading too – which is a nice plus and is based around your other data and I’m guessing based on the power outputs of riders with similar performances that do have a powermeter (and the data for this that they’ve saved into Strava). 

I’m really impressed by Strava – in fact I would go so far as to say it’s the best thing I’ve discovered so far this year. I see that they’ve also recently raised some venture capital funding so I expect to see them continue to grow and develop a great site. If you’re in a club – check out the KOM event to log all your clubs climbing in 2011 in a league table (it only works on Garmins outside of the US – it won’t accept my iPhone data for example) http://blog.strava.com/studio-velo-kom-challenge-%E2%80%93-february-2952/ . Another thing to keep in mind is that as more people sign up and use it, it will only get better as you’ll have more riders and more data to compare against. Hopefully for my damaged ego – there will even be some people who are slower than me. So if you like Strava – encourage more people to use it – it will improve the experience for all of us.

So how do you get on Strava – easy, just go the site: http://www.strava.com/ and sign up for the free plan to begin with which allows you to upload up to 5 rides a month. This is enough to get a taste for Strava but not enough to really use it in depth. This mini-review is based on my use of the free plan – so it’s not in depth and simply reflects what I’ve been able to learn from playing about with the free package. To get the best out of Strava, you need to sign up for a plan at either $6 per month or $59 for a full year (http://www.strava.com/plans). To me, if you have Garmin GPS device already – then you probably like data enough to like Strava – try the free plan or just jump in and buy a year – it’s a great tool and I’d be very surprised if you regret it. 

The good people at Strava have now kindly offered 3 months free use of the full Stava Velo package (the unlimited rides plan) for Giro di Lento readers. To register go here: https://www.strava.com/register?plan=monthly – The discount code to use for this offer is: girodilento11 and it will work with existing accounts.

Without starting a whole other topic about GPS phones as GPS bike computers – let me just say a Garmin will be more accurate and the battery last longer and therefore in my opinion is the best tool to use with Strava. If you don’t have one, you can try Strava with your iPhone using something like Strava’s own app or Cyclemeter but if you want to record your heart rate etc – get a Garmin. If you are using an iPhone, Strava have just released their own iPhone app that will automatically sync your data with your Strava account – that’s great if you’re not on the restricted free plan but if you are – Cyclemeter may be a better option so you can selectively upload ride data.

You can find out more about the Strava app here: http://www.strava.com/iphone or here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/strava-cycling/id426826309 – needless to say I’ve downloaded it to my iPhone and will write about how I find sometime in the next month. 

I don’t yet have a Garmin, but as soon as I do, I’ll be getting a years subscription to Strava and start working on moving up a quartile on some of those climbs. Strava has recently released a nice blogging widget to share rides and I’d use that too.Watch out for it in the future on Girodilento.com but here’s a test using my Puncheur ride data once again:

Here are a couple of introductory videos on Strava that offer the official introduction and getting started tips:

Thanks for reading and please get in touch if you have any questions.

Following this post, Strava have rolled out some new features, which I’ve also covered here: