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

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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.