Why Strava is damaging for mountain biking (as well as military security)

by Hannah Dobson 38

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, and now it’s hit the mainstream press. Strava is all over the news for revealing, through its heatmap function, the location of various military installations. Oops. While we might have a bit of a giggle at the foolishness of supposedly highly trained undercover CIA operatives uploading their patrol routes to Strava as they try and reach their 10,000 steps a day target, I think us mountain bikers need to take a look at ourselves too.

Don’t get me wrong: some of the data being revealed by Strava is very interesting (as well as telling us where we might find a supposedly hidden military base). It demonstrates that in many areas there is a huge cycling-for-leisure population that is completely abandoning the bike midweek for any utilitarian purposes. For transport planners and cycling activists, this kind of data can be really useful in helping to provide the kind of infrastructure or incentives that might help alleviate some of the traffic problems on our roads. Of course, the dataset isn’t perfect – Strava is likely to attract those with more of an interest in hitting targets than just getting from A to B, but it gives a degree of insight into cycling habits all the same. It also gives us insight into exercise habits more generally – data shows that people who exercise regularly (and keep at it) are more likely to exercise in the morning, or as part of a group or club – potentially useful information for tackling public health issues.

strava heatmap
Spot the cheeky trails.

However, when it comes to offroad riding, I think Strava has the potential to give some insights which are probably not too helpful to anyone working to improve trail access for riders. Let’s take a look at those issues.

Speed on trails

Cruising past a walker at what seems like a slow speed to us might well seem like light speed to them. Especially if you don’t give them a cheery wave and hello. Strava gives them the power to prove that you were riding at whatever exorbitant speed you might have actually been doing – albeit at 5am at midsummer when they chances of meeting anyone are very slim. But when we did it doesn’t really matter. If people are hurtling down a bridleway at 40mph then people are going to hate. Do that on a footpath and feed them the data to prove you’re at it on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and they might have a point.

Cheeky trails – you’re using them

This is further fodder for the haterz. You’re riding on footpaths, over SSI moorland, and in that private estate, leaving your digital tyre marks behind you. Not only were you riding there, you were riding fast, it wasn’t an accidental mistaken route – you went back the following week to try and better your time. And you took a photograph of that little jump you built, and added it to your ride record. It might have added to the feel good feeling for the day as the little kudos thumbs rolled in, but it’s added fuel to the haters’ fire. Is it really worth it for those thumbs?

Cheeky or private trails – where they are

Now I know that haters are going to hate. Until there is Scottish style access we’re going to be up against them, and then they’ll probably just find new ways to hate us. But I think that the virtual signposting of trails is one of the most damaging things that us mountain bikers are doing to ourselves. It’s one thing to post a shot of a cheeky trail on Instagram, or even a video of some cool jumps in the woods. But record your ride on Strava and you leave a digital trail which can provide anyone with nice neat map of where to find that great route. Turn that great descent into a segment and things get even worse. Anyone who is thinking of visiting the area can simply search the Strava segment map and see where all the trails are. They don’t need a local guide or friend to show them, they can just follow the map and ride the trail. Look at the leaderboard for a segment or two, you’ll probably find someone who has a public profile and you can download their entire ride as a .gpx file. Suddenly a quiet hillside known only to a handful of local riders (and maybe only ridden in the right conditions) is covered in outsiders, subjecting the trails to more use than is sustainable and leading to conflict (which of course the local riders are left to deal with, while the outsiders move on to their next ride location). And what if you’re a landowner who has been building trails for your own fun, some muppet sneaks on and records their ride, and suddenly you’re faced with the problems caused by uninvited strangers injuring themselves on your own personal gap jumps?

No local knowledge needed

Being able to find trails without any local connection isn’t just a problem of heavy traffic. People finding trails this way know nothing of any local agreements that might be in place. Your mate Bob has a farm and lets you all build and ride trails on his hillside, but not in lambing season. Strava stalking doesn’t let riders know this. Or that you’ve agreed with local community groups to leave a trail alone due to local wildlife sensitivities. Residents just see riders – they don’t know if they’re local or not – and uninformed riders can jeopardise the efforts that local riders may be making to keep the peace and retain trail access.

Data selling

As the US Army has now realised, Strava is collecting your data. As their business model doesn’t involve serving adverts to us, they’re using other potential sources of income – and one of these is your data. As I said in my introduction, knowledge about where and how we ride can be used to benefit cyclists, however I have little doubt it could also be used against us. What if Natural England was concerned about cheeky trails on SSI land? It’s not too hard to imagine that buying Strava data to show the patterns of usage and access could easily be used to justify the building of large fences or other obstacles. Forget to set all your privacy settings appropriately – or just don’t give it the thought that it might be an issue – and you could be contributing to this kind of justification.

What could Strava do?

Before this military data story kicked off, I contacted Strava to ask about their position – their response is basically that people using Strava are expected to behave. This is the statement they gave me when I asked them about the issues above:

Gareth Mills, UK Country Manager at Strava, said: “We expect Strava athletes to know and obey all laws and rules related to their activities. We ask our members not to use illegal or closed trails, or trespass on private property.”

Call me contrary, but I find this a cop out. They also failed to tell me whether it is possible to get a segment removed. As far as I can tell, it is not. So if someone creates a segment on your personal gap jumps on your own land, I can’t see how you can do anything about it. Even reporting it as ‘dangerous’ only means you have to go through an extra disclaimer before you get to see the leaderboard – it doesn’t remove the segment.

Surely, where it is clear that riders are using illegal or closed trails, there should be some way to report this and get a segment removed from the map, or create zones (similar to the privacy zone you’ve probably got set up round your house) where ride routes will not be displayed publicly? Indeed, with modern on-line mapping, it can’t be that complicated to make it impossible to record a ride on anything other that wouldn’t exist in a sat-nav? Road cyclists could continue to compete, land access issues would go back to the times where secret trails stood a chance of being secret.

Given all the effort Strava is putting in to developing itself into a social network, with new features to encourage its use, you would think there would have at least been some discussion of these issues, and possible solutions. Again, I asked Strava, but only got the statement above. Even a vague ‘we recognise it is an issue and are testing out options for addressing this’ would have been more encouraging – but no such glimmers of hope were forthcoming.

I made my own suggestions for possible remedies: could there be an ‘environmental’ flag added, so that – like with ‘dangerous’ segments – riders could be alerted to a sensitive trail that had restrictions (like, for example Snowdon) upon it? Could such segments be removed from the search map, but not the segments – so that if you rode a trail, you would be recorded on the segment, but you couldn’t use the map to discover its presence in the first place?

Again, silence apart from that bland statement above.

Other social media channels have had to step up and address the behaviour of their users. Extremist content and images of abuse must be identified and removed. Purveyors of hate have their accounts suspended (Trump excepted – Ed). Obviously cheeky trail access is on a completely different level of ‘wrong’, but the point that social media operators do have a responsibility to police the behaviour of their users stands. Asking riders ‘to know and obey all laws and rules related to their activities’ and absolving yourselves of responsibility doesn’t cut it.

Perhaps this will change now that Strava is going to be getting calls from irate military commanders – maybe they will start offering a means of removing data from the map. But until that’s the case, I suggest you take responsibility for yourselves: don’t use Strava when mountain biking.

Comments (38)

  1. Always such well considered arguments, thanks again Hannah.

  2. “don’t use Strava when mountain biking.”

    Surely it should read

    “don’t use Strava when mountain biking on cheeky trails.”

  3. Well…I do exactly that – Check a segment in a wood, check top leader and I download the gpx file. I do think I belong to a tiny timy minority and people will still prefer to be guided with a local or go to a trail center as it’s much easier. Segment explore need some time I’m sure most people can’t bother to spend on.

  4. “Always such well considered arguments, thanks again Hannah.” +1

    I don’t use Strava (or any other GPS logging systems) for the reasons outlined above. My rides are often 80% or more cheeky and I don’t want others to be able to follow my online tracks.

    (I do realise that I probably shouldn’t be riding these trails at all…)

  5. Did you ask the industry day tech riders to turn off Strava before riding all the cheeky stuff up around Barely Legal?

  6. If Strava shows you riding on private land, frankly so what? it’s a civil offense, most of the private land in this country is owed by a tiny minority – why worry what they think?

    The notion of Private land is the issue, not people accessing it – I guarantee you, you/we are subsidising that land one way or another.

  7. I think its a nice idea to think everyone will listen and politely only record legal trails. But they wouldnt, and it only takes one or two to show the rest of us the way as it were.

    I also think the whole ownership of illegal trails (lets call them by their proper name!) is a moot point. Just because you spend hours / days dragging a rake over someone elses land doesnt mean you are any more entitled to ride it than the next person. Yea its not fair but thems the breaks! Stuff like Strava makes it easier for others but we live in an inter connected world and cant really avoid it!

  8. “Look at the leaderboard for a segment or two, you’ll probably find someone who has a public profile and you can download their entire ride as a .gpx file.”

    This is exactly what I do.

    Where’s the evidence that this is actually a problem vs what seems to me in this article to be speculation?

    As per comments above, I think you need to be pretty committed to go trail hunting in such a way, and therefore are likely to be conscious of the ethics of cheeky trails http://www.cheekytrails.co.uk/ethics.htm

  9. Must admit I Strava and ride lots of paths that are deemed footpaths access laws are daft in this little country I like to think I am leaving a digital bike print to lobby in the future to show usage and that those fps should really be opened up to bikes

  10. Really this is nothing to do with Strava or biking specifically.
    It’s about knowing what information you are giving away, who to and what they can potentially do with it.

  11. I want to Strava “F**K the man” on private land just in case they weren’t getting the message.

  12. If you’re happy to lead large groups down “illegal trails” you’re on thin ice complaining about other social media sites.

    As you say “Asking riders ‘to know and obey all laws and rules related to their activities’ and absolving yourselves of responsibility doesn’t cut it.”

  13. Hmm, Guilty as charged. It’s a fair cop guvnor, you’ve got me bang to rights.

  14. don’t use Strava when mountain biking

    Or don’t ride where you shouldn’t. I take the seemingly unpopular view these days that you should be responsible for your own actions – if you ride a cheeky trail, then record it frankly you’re asking for trouble. If you’re riding in a designated SSI and there are clear requests not to ride, then have a think about why maybe.
    Even magazine ride guides often include a nudge & a wink about off piste trails that perhaps are better left for the locals to ‘enjoy responsibly’.

    Conversely Strava data could prove continuous use in cases where footpaths need to be transitioned to bridleways. To be honest I think this is more likely than a digital red sock revolution against cyclists – it could equally prove that current legislation is effectively pointless and lead to a scottish access agreement country wide.

    Do agree that segments should be removable, but in practice not sure how that’d work – you kill it off for whatever reason, I reinstate it or something very close to it shortly after… unless whole chunks of countrside are blacklisted which would knock on to other valid data.

  15. “If Strava shows you riding on private land, frankly so what? it’s a civil offense, most of the private land in this country is owed by a tiny minority – why worry what they think?”
    Agreed – really not fussed.

  16. A bit like Kinder trespass, but trying to keep it a secret, eh?

  17. All this foo faa is basically about excluding people from trails.

    Get open access, problem solved. Put the energy into that, not controlling the info.

    Scotland shows it can and does work. Everyone on a trail knows the other is entitled to be there, so it’s live and let live..

    Don’t worry about the finer feelings of the landowners. Their predecessors probably stole the land anyway. They’ll just have to get used to the peasants not knuckling their forelocks to them.

    (And don’t say it won’t work in England, you lot are a lot politer than us 🙂 )

  18. lol at epicyclo.

    This piece makes a lot of sound arguments. Problem is, the cat’s out of the bag, and has been for several years now. There are examples of Strava being used to ban cyclists from parks, and some non-cycling user groups are telling their members to sign up to it so they can keep tabs on us.

    On the brighter side, there are some interesting examples of Strava showing gaps in the network – places where using footpaths is the only realistic option to join up a couple of bridleways, for example. Or all those bridleways that turn into footpaths half way down.

    Maybe in 20 year’s time we’ll be using it to apply for rights of way upgrades, although I’d hope some sort of access reform happens sooner than that.

  19. Indeed Mr Agreeable about linking BWs up there is a problem in the Lakes i.e. High St to Nan Bield the path is so wide its a nonsense to ban bikes off it

  20. “Suddenly a quiet hillside known only to a handful of local riders (and maybe only ridden in the right conditions) is covered in outsiders, subjecting the trails to more use than is sustainable and leading to conflict (which of course the local riders are left to deal with, while the outsiders move on to their next ride location).”

    Priceless coming from someone who writes for a magazine that has published god knows how many rides guides over 116 issues.

  21. Strava must be able to remove and block a segment going on. My example is the dark crystal in whist. Nothing there and you cannot put one down it. Just saying.

  22. On Strava’s privacy settings page there is a checkbox that allows you to remove your data from Heatmaps….

  23. The biggest problem with Strava around here is the dumbing down of trails. Some of the most interesting, and tricky, single track quickly becomes a ripped straight line once a segment is created. I’m tempted to create a loop around the perimeter of the car-park for those who want to get their circuit completed as quickly as possible without the hard part of actually enjoying riding round the trail.

  24. About four years ago I was working in a busy bicycle maintenance business in an upmarket London suburb.

    We had a new customer come in one day with a fancy racing bike that had a fancy crank, and he asked us to change the spider out for another one which he provided. He was a surly fella, but one of our customers recognised him from a race and engaged him in conversation so that gave him some authentication in our eyes.

    When it came to doing the work we found that he had provided the wrong spider for the crank he had so we couldn’t fit it because it didn’t fit. There was something else wrong with the crank set up which we sorted free of charge and then I phoned him to apologise that we couldn’t do the work because the part he’d provided was the wrong part. He came in with a face like thunder, grabbed his bike and the part and left without saying one single word.

    Two days later he’s on the phone saying we’d broken his power meter and I was to pay him £600 now for a new one. I explained that I was only an employee so I wouldn’t personally be paying him anything, and that I’d get my boss to call him.

    We got on to our customer who knew this guy who then looked the guy up for us on Strava.

    And Strava told us this guy’s power meter had not been working for six months.

    Strava can be useful.

  25. I haven’t read the Strava privacy policy in-depth but it seems that even if you have a private account and also mark individual rides as private, this data is still shown on global heat maps – albeit anonymously. There’s a very convoluted way to opt out through the app, on their website it’s easier.

  26. I’m torn on this.

    Although a local I learned my way around what I consider my local (The Quantocks) from guidebooks, online magazine maps and posts on the STW forum. I only found Strava later (I had been using mapmyride). It did prove invaluable for finding trails and I did get far more enjoyment and riding from hunting places out. Part of riding for me is exploring, and doing it the digital way still requires some intelligence on the ground. You can still get a bit lost (just not completely for too long!).

    If it weren’t for Strava I wouldn’t have the depth of knowledge of my local area. I knew which areas weren’t being ridden and explored those too. This gave me a reason to get out, time and time again, and build more interesting rides.

    It’s not just about riding fast and screaming down trails, but a balance of all things.

    Conversely, the other smaller riding area round there, The Mendips is a much denser place, and doesn’t have the same information online about where the trails are etc. I’ve ridden with a local group, and on my own. Its very different to learn your way around that way. I didn’t learn a huge amount from being lead by people. Same again for another local area, I’ve explored it myself from some Strava stalking, but time on the ground is what helps you put together a good ride.

    btw as an aside

    1) the awesome ‘trailforks’ app does have exciusion zone, the mendips has one set up.
    2) there was a ‘local only’ strava free areas in one part of the quantocks.even with facebook and local networking people can’t stop talking about em. let alone spotting laybys in an unexpected place full of people unloading bikes.. loose lips sink ships n all that…

  27. Sorry guys and gals but i think the cat is already out of the bag on this one.

    strava is obviously here to stay, Personally i think its great and has got many folks out on bikes.

    What you cant really say (well you can) is i dont care what laws im breaking. If you get done its a fair cop im afraid. Otherwise you just end up devaluing the law and we end up with everyone running amok?

  28. Nasty Strava allowing outsiders to ride on my special local trails for local people. I hates it, I does. I hates it…

  29. Entitlement.

    I’m entitled to ride wherever I want, whoever the land belongs to.
    No-one else is entitled to ride ‘my’ trails. (or just my local friends)

    And people wonder why we get a bad reputation?

  30. Strava? Touched it once. Never again.

  31. uberpod said on January 30, 2018

    Entitlement.

    I’m entitled to ride wherever I want, whoever the land belongs to.
    No-one else is entitled to ride ‘my’ trails. (or just my local friends)

    And people wonder why we get a bad reputation?

    Who do you think the land belongs to? If you live where I live the land owners plough tracks on to moors kill local wildlife so their rich friends and clients can go on shoots while we subsidise it, and helping to flooding homes in the valley – and you’re concerned about skidding a line into a side of hill? Forestry commission land is subsidised or a tax write down for the wealthy, any bit of working farmland is subsidised by us, set aside is subsidized by us ,

    in regards to just our mates on “our” trails I completely agree with you.

  32. A lot of these concerns are easily managed already:

    Go to Strava settings on PC/MAC:
    Go to Privacy Settings:

    Consider using these:

    Privacy Mode: Enhanced
    Create Privacy Zones (a no brainer for security)
    Flyby – Nobody
    Group Activity Enhanced Privacy: Check
    Strava Metro & Heatmap: Uncheck, so data not included

    Other Options:
    Hide from Public Leaderboards (can also do on ride by ride basis)
    All Private (can also do on ride by ride basis)

  33. How can you describe someone as a “Hater” for pointing out that MTBers are riding illegally and/or too fast ?

  34. Illegal is probably too strong a word as it normally implies a criminal act.

    Cycling on footpaths and on private/access land may be trespass, which is generally a civil law matter solely between the trespasser and the landowner (unless bylaws in place). It is not generally a criminal law matter.

  35. Lot of good points raised for healthy debate in the article and comments!
    There’s lots of arguments for open access, but then responsibility needs to come hand in hand with it, quite often see where people have built their own trails on private land with no real impact to the landowners or other public access users on nearby footpaths, but the massive stash of litter some people leave behind in the form of their days worth of soft drinks cans and crisp packets is not necessary, you can understand why some people are turned against MTBers as they assume we’re all the same. These are the reasons people eventually put up massive fences and stop access all together, a case of one spoiling things for all.

    There are a number of large parkland type areas in the UK where access is allowed and everyone seems to get along fine with a bit of tolerance from both sides, but these too are often subject to the same litter issues as private ones.

    Bottom line, If we all behave we can coexist.

  36. We should respect other users of the countryside. I ride a lot of cheeky trails at night, but wouldn’t in daylight as they are frequented by walkers etc. In daylight I stick to bridleways and don’t expect to do fast times unless I’m lucky enough to find no one else using them.

  37. Strava is for roadies, wanna race and compete with virtual friends, buy a road bike.

  38. This reads as, lets keep the cheeky trails secret. Which is nonsense.

    The only sensible solution, campaign for open access for all. Youse are mental down there.

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