Alex is an addict. And, like all addicts, he can give up any time he wants…
Some are slaves to it, many more loathe its digital tyre print, but few hold an ambivalent position. Road riders pretend it’s a training aid and not a vanity prop. Mountain bikers pump digital testosterone by cutting corners and inflating times. And almost anyone who confuses cycling with a belief system has a view about it – mostly on the extreme edges of the argument. There’s not much love for the middle ground. Here’s mine.
I like – and maybe a verb a little stronger than that – Strava in the times it records my little greatness. I hate it when uncalculated risks fail to light up my tiny gold ‘Personal Record’, or impede my propulsion up a ladder with an unattainable top step.
It’s ironically amusing that the concept of ‘Digital EPO’ stalks every leaderboard, while the whole concept of chasing the Strava dragon in electronic veins is an addiction habitual drug addicts would recognise. Me? I can give it up any time I like. Not tomorrow, but next week. Or the week after that. It’d be a blessing to live without the pain of the KOM loss ping, or wondering how all your pals are riding so many more miles than you.
But this is not what’s going to send me cold turkey. That story starts two years ago, when my last visit to the superb loaf-like geography of the Quantocks Hills delivered big on sunshine, great views and endless climbing, but left me rather lacking in confidence, downhill speed and excuses. Result: much agonisingly rubbish descending, mid-pack and holding up the proper riders: ‘Cheers Al, just been through a whole set of brake pads back here…’ they joked at the bottom.
Funny, I wasn’t laughing that much. The ‘organic Strava’ of riding with your mates is a more visceral experience when compared to mitigating a crap digital performance on some feeble pretext made up long after the event. No such worries on my return to the same trails recently though – with my box-fresh, on-trend, 27.5-inch full sus and feeling full of post-skills course confidence.
I spent the ride hanging onto the dusty tyre trails of those normally long disappeared (I should have been faster still but in my defense the conditions were perfect). Still, there were times when I was doing that thing of looking at a sketchy line and just committing to it, rather than my normal approach of hitting the brakes and dying a little death inside.
There were incidents. Saving a front end slide with a foot out; bouncing off a wall about a second before the multitude of rocks I’d disturbed hammered into the same; landing a big, scary drop with closed eyes and squirming tyres. But it’d be worth it, because – ignoring eagerly waiting family members – on stepping through my front door, it was time for the dirty download.
Even a post-ride beer doesn’t quite hit the high spot when compared to the digital validation of an increase in velocity. And in a few places, it was right there in the numbers. It’s hard to know what swells the chest more – being 10% quicker than two years previously, or faster than 70% of people you are unlikely ever to meet.
This is no way changes the hard fact you’re still noticeably slower than 1% of the Strava cohort. It does not take an app to bring this painful truth home when you ride with some of that 1% all the time. While dealing with that, consider this; much, if not most, of this strived-for Strava improvement is nothing more than piloting a faster bike, which will essentially travel at just below light speed all on its own if you leave the brakes alone, anyway.
Even with all of this, one segment ridden on both Quantocks rides held my attention. The little gem of Weacombe: starting steep, straight and fast through rutted braking bumps before twisting into perfect flowing singletrack chasing the river down the fall line. ‘God’, I thought as I barreled down the hill, ‘I’m good here’ – well in sight of those who are seen at the top and bottom of the trail but rarely in between, pushing it a bit through the corners and letting the bugger run in between. Oh I’ve got some flow on now, of that there can be no doubt.
Enough waffle. Numbers say more than words. August 2013: a rather pedestrian 1:42. May 2015: a spectacularly rapid 1:41.
I may not have been laughing earlier but I am now. This isn’t about Strava, it’s about my delusion being a beautiful thing that deserves better than to be tainted by numbers. It’s counting the many things that are important, not totaling the one that is not. Strava is a symptom of this disease, not the cause.
The very best thing about that ride was breathing heavily at the top of the last climb in the midst of a massive piss-take with all the people I want to share my weekends with. Seconds later I was mostly falling down a rocky descent and being reminded that standing on the pedals is somewhat different to being propped up by meaningless numbers.
So yeah, I’m giving up Strava. Logging off forever. Disabling the notifications. Abandoning the challenges. Deleting my account. I don’t need it, and it certainly doesn’t need me. My days of being ring-fenced by a digital boundary are definitely over. Tomorrow it’s gone. Or the day after. Certainly by next week.
Like I say, I can give it up any time I like.