STRAVA has shaped the mountain bike community like a few other apps. It is a compelling prospect to compare yourself to others on segments on your own time and get kudos from friends after a hard ride. You might even use the app to find other riders in your area or to find popular routes while visiting a new locale while on a trip. Of course, people also use STRAVA as a training tool. But I’d like to argue that STRAVA is bad for mountain biking culture despite compelling merits.
I have two main issues with the app– the leaderboard and the heat map. And here’s why.
At first, the leaderboard was the only reason I was interested in the app. It’s fun to compete for KOM’s or QOM’s and or to marvel at the speed of the fastest riders on your trails. Setting goals and meeting them is admirable use of the app.
My 15 years of bike racing left me with a particular set of skills, and I wanted people to know how fast I was. It was entirely self-seeking. If your goal is to set a fast time on a trail, you WILL ride like a selfish jackwagon. That’s what it takes to go fast. On a racecourse, it’s appropriate to ride like a hooligan. However, on a public trial, where families are hiking, old ladies are walking their dogs, and newer riders are learning to ride, riding in this manner is absolutely inappropriate. Blowing the doors off other trail users paints mountain bikers negatively, and it hurts the mission of trail advocates across North America.
I openly admit that sometimes it just happens, especially when you’re in a flow state and riding quickly; some sub-optimal trail encounters are inevitable. However, the frequency of bad trail encounters seems to skyrocket when KOM or QOM hunting.
Heavy STRAVA use manifests itself in destroyed trails
Looking at a World Cup weekend, it’s evident that line choice matters greatly when you measure success with a stopwatch. World Cup tracks change radically throughout a weekend; the same happens to our trails. Corners get cut, technical features are removed, and breaking points are troughs.
One could argue that mountain bikers will always ride quickly, even without STRAVA, but I'd say that riding at 100% vs. 90% yields a disproportionate difference to trail damage.
A replacement for racing
Another reason STRAVA is bad for mountain biking culture is it’s become a de facto replacement for racing for many. Why pay $40 to enter a race when you can “race” with STRAVA for free? But, again, the community is why; races are social and cultural meeting places. Without races, many mountain bikers isolate themselves from getting to know one another, and that’s a shame. Many races also donate to trail advocacy groups, making and maintaining trails.
The heat map is another issue with STRAVA and similar apps like Trailforks. As STRAVA use is prevalent, secret trails get easily discovered. Riding hidden trails with STRAVA is shouting the wrong message to land managers and harmful trail access. There is a misunderstanding in a portion of the mountain bike community that building secret trails yields more trails to ride. Anyone that has built trails knows they take a massive amount of work to make. A group of friends MIGHT be able to create a few miles a year on evenings or weekends.
Resources and grants
That same effort applied in legitimate channels can open up resources and grants that multiply the efforts by many folds. One only has to look at the communities of Knoxville TN, Eagle ID, or Bentonville, AR to see the rewards of trail advocacy in legitimate channels. These communities have miles and miles of excellent singletrack with more going in all the time.
Santa Cruz and San Francisco are examples of how heat maps have done tremendous damage to the relationship mountain bikers have with land managers. The relationship between mountain bikers and land managers in these communities at one time was highly antagonistic. In Santa Cruz, this relationship is being repaired. There have been some fruits of a healthy relationship in the past decade. However, it is easier and more productive to start with good relationships in the first place.
It would be entirely naive to suggest that secret trails will disappear from heat maps and that mountain bikers won’t unreasonably push their limits on multi-use trails. Though I’ve thought more about the hidden consequences of STRAVA, I’ve grown to be more and more reticent to record my rides. An added benefit I’ve found is I can unplug from the digital world better. So much of life is data-driven. I’ve grown to appreciate that my mountain biking isn’t.
Whether pushing his limits on technical trails, seeing what’s around the next corner, or tinkering in his shop; Peter enjoys life to the full. In addition to bikes, he enjoys frame building, graphic design, and math. He lives in Asheville, NC with his wife and son.
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