How Strava Got Me Into Bike Racing

The good (and bad) of the controversial app that helped me develop a life-changing hobby.

Collage of woman riding her bike through town and a map.
I get why the app is controversial. It still helped me develop a life-changing hobby. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Strava.

I remember the conversation with one of my co-workers at Wired distinctly.

“You should download Strava.”

“What’s Strava?”

Thanks to a monthlong project using my phone as my wallet, I’d recently replaced my old MUNI bus ride with a bike commute, and I’d been telling him how I was passing so many other cyclists on my jaunt into the office each morning. I should check out the app to see how fast I really was, he said.

Strava, he explained, was an app for tracking your workouts—most commonly your bike rides or runs—and comparing your efforts with those of everyone else who’s traversed a particular stretch of road (also known as a segment). The fastest person, the one with the top spot on the leaderboards, was called the King or Queen of the Mountain. Intrigued, I downloaded the app.

I never thought of myself as competitive until, on my first ride tracked by Strava, a small yellow trophy indicated I was the fourth fastest woman to ride one particular segment in Golden Gate Park. Fourth place? I wasn’t even trying! A short time later, that fourth place became my first Queen of the Mountain. From there, I was hooked—QOM hunting became a hobby. My prework rides became longer as I wiggled and looped to discover new segments to steal. I might ride a hill casually at first, and then return the next day on the attack. Eventually, my co-workers convinced me that my efforts would be more fruitful on a road bike instead of my clunky commuter. I began to shed the weight I’d put on since college and found myself happier, healthier, and absolutely in love with bike life.

Strava has garnered plenty of criticism over the years. In pursuit of an elusive downhill KOM, one cyclist died in 2010. He was speeding down the wrong side of the road and was killed after colliding with an oncoming vehicle. The rider’s family sued Strava, a civil suit eventually dismissed by a judge in Berkeley, California. Strava has been criticized for inspiring dangerous behavior—things like street racing, stop sign–running, and violating the center line rule. More recently, the app’s come under fire for an entirely different feature: its heat maps, which graphically aggregate all the publicly shared activities on the fitness-focused social network. It was recently discovered that these heat maps give away the locations of sensitive military bases across the globe. It’s a troubling revelation, but like previous instances, it may be more rooted in user behavior (specifically, a lapse of judgment on the part of kudos-seeking Strava members) rather than a failing of the app itself or its policies.

As my own Strava obsession progressed, I too succumbed to lapses in judgment. I raced downhill. I ran stop signs. But the Strava community I’d become a part of held me accountable. “Didn’t you have to run a stop sign to get that QOM?” someone asked one day. I was shamed. But I was also inspired to put my newfound competitive cycling spirit to the test. With the support of my Strava-using friends, I entered my first bike race just a few months after clipping into road bike pedals for the first time. I did horribly—in fact, I’d never actually watched a road bike race before, and my wild visions of riding away from the field were dashed when my all-out effort from the gun proved a poor tactic. However, once again, I was hooked. The adrenaline rush, the sheer number of speedy, athletic women on the course, the fact that I could go absolutely as fast as I wanted to with no stop signs—what more could I want?

With a “safe” outlet secured for my competitive needs, I was able to put my Strava habit in perspective. Sure, I’d still go for QOMs, but I abandoned my pursuit of ones that were clearly unsafe, aided by the community-led removal of such segments from the platform as well. My segment-focused attacks evolved into structured intervals, and succeeding in the interval workouts trumped whether or not I bested segment times on the app. Eventually, I started creating my own private segments so I could compare my own efforts on a particular stretch of road against no one but myself. The app became a way to make friends on group rides, chat with them in the comments of their posted workouts, and explore new roads when I traveled or as my usual haunts grew mundane.

Strava certainly has its faults, but a growing, educated community is helping to make the app a fruitful (if underrated) social network. While the app can inspire unsafe, even stupid behavior, that chase eventually led me to give racing a shot, where I could ride fast and win real trophies in a relatively safe, controlled environment. But most importantly, Strava helped inspire a hobby that I look forward to enjoying for years to come.