Strava and the Mountain Bikers Who (ab)Use It

Mountain biking was one of the things I missed most while we were traveling. And a new full-suspension bike was among the first items I purchased upon our return home, right after a car, mattress, and table and chairs. Like most activities that people feel passionate about, the mountain biking community has had its fair share of conflicts over the years. Riders would butt heads about the merits of pedaling up hills versus shuttling; flame wars have raged for a decade over the ideal wheel size; and old-school curmudgeons continue to rail against everything from trail design to dropper seat posts and one-by drivetrains. These petty arguments could easily be ignored by simply logging off and going for a ride. But there’s a new controversy surrounding my favorite sport and one that, if you believe the rare headline, threatens to eliminate the thing we care most about. It’s called Strava.

What is Strava?

Strava is an online website and app that allows runners and cyclists to share the GPS data from their activities with a community of users. Your workout data gets uploaded to an activity feed, not unlike Facebook’s news feed, and your Strava followers can see what you did, give you Kudos, and comment on your route. Premium members gain access to a host of additional features that help you track your progress over time. Users can compare their performance on various segments against all other users (and past performances) to see how they stack up. Those with the fastest times on a particular segment earn a “King of the Mountain” badge. Users are also awarded medals for having one of their personal fastest times on a segment or a trophy for being in the top ten of all users on a particular segment.

In essence, Strava is one part social media, one part workout diary, and one part pissing contest. An example.

I’ve used various online exercise tracking websites for over fifteen years and though Strava isn’t perfect (for example, it doesn’t differentiate between running roads versus trails, nor does it separate road cycling from mountain biking), it is currently the app-of-choice, if for no other reason than because it’s the one your friends all use. Its also gaining popularity among city planners for use in helping plan future bicycle lanes and paths for commuters.

I resisted using Strava until this year because I didn’t know any mountain bikers who used it. Now, after being gone for two years, it seems the majority of my friends use it. And I enjoy it. I like being able to see the routes some of the epic-minded cyclists I know put together (premium users can download the GPX data from one another), and I like that Strava is not only tracking my mileage and time running and cycling, but also tracking the mileage I accumulate on my individual pieces of gear. And yes, I also like seeing where I rank against other area mountain bikers.

Strava and the Secret Trail

It’s become all-too common to hear the holdouts bemoaning Strava on group rides these days. Some people just don’t believe in tracking your exercise, others are concerned that the group dynamic of a social ride will be threatened by someone trying for a faster time (as if people never before rode as fast as they could downhill anyway). Others just like to complain about things they don’t understand. Like anything, it comes down to the individual user and their focus that day. Some people want to always push themselves to go faster. Others just want to get outside and sweat a little.

Complaints about Strava within the mountain biking community have always been based on one’s own personal opinion or out of an unrealized fear of Strava being used against us in effort to eliminate trail access.

Unfortunately, people’s worst fears are starting to come true.

For starters, not all of the trails we build and ride are 100% legal. Many lie in a gray area when it comes to land management; some are on private property; and yet others are legal trails but closed to mountain bikers. People poach. All user groups do it: hikers, equestrians, motos, and mountain bikers. It’s not right, but it happens. It used to happen in relative silence. That was, until Strava.

Nowadays, in the age of over-sharing, land managers and officials can log onto Strava and study the heat maps to see exactly where mountain bikers are riding. Not only can they see which trails are being poached, but they can even see where trails are that they weren’t aware of. Rumors fly far and wide on this subject. I’ve heard mountain bikers say that Strava’ing user-built trails (the preferred euphemism for unofficial trails) helps demonstrate need for more trails to land managers and is therefore spun to be considered a good thing. I’ve heard others say that they were warned that a trail builder would break their legs if they Strava’d a secret trail. I’ve even heard of land managers threatening to issue a fine to cyclists whose Strava upload showed that they poached a hiker-only trail.

Rumors, all of them. But all with a scosh of believability. A part of me even wants to believe all three.

Speed Kills Trail Access

Land managers aren’t stupid: they generally seem to know where so-called secret trails are located. They know when mountain bikers are riding hiker-only trails. The tracks don’t lie. It’s also true that several of the official trails we have here close to my home were, at one-time, user-built trails that got so heavily used, they became official through popularity. Fortunately for those of us who care about growing the sport and gaining access to more of our amazing public lands, the number of people who poach trails are few. We all have our list of trails that we wish were open to mountain bikes, but most of us opt to grind our teeth in frustration instead of breaking the law. Mountain bikers have by and large learned over the past thirty years how to navigate the proper channels and how to work with the recreation system. New trails and partnerships are being announced all the time, particularly here in Washington.

“Strava opened the eyes of those blind to a reality
they should have long ago understood.”

While Strava may not live up to the naysayer’s worst fears in terms of revealing trails, it has recently done too good of a job of showing public officials and land managers how fast those trails are ridden.

In California, mountain bikers are fighting back efforts to close a trail system to mountain bikes after public officials saw the speeds being registered on Strava. Mountain bikers were hitting top-speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour on a multi-use trail. And hikers, equestrians, and land managers predictably freaked out.

This wasn’t Strava’s fault. Sure, Strava may have been the tool that provided the evidence of the speeds these trails were being ridden (Garmin Connect or another app could have been used just the same), but for as long as there have been mountain bikes, there have been people racing them downhill. You only need look back at the Clunker days in Marin County to know that. No, Strava isn’t the cause of people going fast. If Strava is guilty of anything, it’s of no longer allowing land managers to claim ignorance with regards to how trails are ridden. Strava opened the eyes of those blind to a reality they should have long ago understood. But if cyclists colliding with hikers and equestrians wasn’t a problem before the Strava data was made apparent, it shouldn’t be afterwards.

So they banned bikes on those trails out of concerns to the safety to hikers and other users. And mountain bikers are upset. Rightfully so. But aiming that anger at Strava and its users is just scapegoating. For every rider who Strava’d their high-speed descent of that trail, there were sure to be countless others who rode it just as fast who didn’t. Some got caught, others didn’t. Of course, the mountain biking community chooses to look at the Strava users as being the sole problem. When, in reality, I doubt it ever occurred to any of those riders that they were doing something that was either 1) a secret, or 2) prohibited.

The officials who voted to close those trails to bikes could have, at any time, have gone for a hike and seen mountain bikers descending trail at speed. They would have seen the reality of our sport. Yes, some of us ride fast. Perhaps too fast for some situations — and perhaps that should be discussed. But we’ve done it long before Strava came along, and we’d continue doing it if Strava deleted its leaderboards tomorrow.

Yes, it’s true that Strava has made it easier for land managers and those user groups against us (hikers, primarily) to exaggerate the threat we pose. But in addition to traveling at a speed perceived by some to be “too fast” those land managers should have asked to see the incident reports from crashes and injuries involving hikers and cyclists. If there weren’t any, if their fears were all just hypothetical, then the trails should have remained open.

Hopefully, in the future, land managers can base their decisions on more than the fear of what may happen and instead turn to the history of incidents, if such exists. Similarly, mountain bikers need to own up to the fact that we all descend fast enough to give non-bikers pause. The technology exists for land managers and public officials to know our speeds and where we ride (radar guns are now being used in Marin County, CA). Maybe we don’t need to make it easy for them by using apps like Strava. Maybe people should be responsible and mark their data as private (or not upload it at all) if they’re riding in a sensitive/secret/unofficial area.

Or maybe Strava should only record our efforts on uphills? Then it’d not only eliminate the over-sharing of downhill speeds, but maybe encourage shuttlers to pedal up hills.

Nah, that’s just silly talk. Every bit as silly as thinking cyclists and runners only go fast because of online leaderboards.

Post Image by Zach Dischner, used under Creative Commons.

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