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From the mag: King of the (down) hill

Published August 14, 2012
On mountain bike trails riders trying to set a KOM risk more than their own life and limb. Some fear they risk the safety of other trail users and jeopardize trail access.

Mountain bikers debate Strava’s impact on rider behavior

GOLDEN, CO (BRAIN)Not long ago, Scot Nicol, the founder of Ibis, was pedaling through a park near his home when he saw a friend coming the other way on the trail.

“I slowed down and gave him the nod, and usually he would stop and we’d talk about the weather or bike parts or something inane like that,” Nicol recalled. “This particular time he just smiled at me and said, ‘Strava run.’ Fair enough, and off he went.”

While Nicol didn’t make much of the incident, other longtime mountain bike industry members are growing concerned about the use of Strava.com on mountain bike trails. And at least one land manager has got wind of Strava and is trying to prevent its use on trails he manages.

Strava uses GPS-enabled bike computers and smartphones to track rides. Users can designate segments of trails or roads and then track their progress or compete to set a top time over the segment. Strava shows the segment rankings on KOM (King of the Mountain) leader boards.

On its website, Strava said its system “makes fitness a social experience, providing motivation and camaraderie even if you’re exercising alone.”

The motivation is powerful; the word “addiction” often comes up among Strava users.

Before embarking on a staff lunch ride up the Apex Trail in Golden, Colorado, recently, Yeti Cycles president Chris Conroy fired up his Garmin computer. Conroy is a recent convert to Strava and owns the top time on a nearby descent.

“It’s crazy, I’m addicted,” he said with a smile.

There are other similar apps, and the largest fitness-tracking brand, MapMyRide, has recently added a feature similar to Strava’s segments.

On the road, setting a Strava KOM on a descent risks personal injury. But on mountain bike trails, riders trying to set a KOM on a downhill segment risk more than their own life and limb — Some fear they risk the safety of other trail users and jeopardize trail access.

The chief concerns: The app gathers and shows data—including high speeds or use of banned trails—that could be used by those who oppose mountain bike access to certain trails; segments may encourage riders to ignore other trail users and their own safety in pursuit of a high ranking; and finally, riders intent on setting good times relate to their GPS units rather than their friends and other trail users.

“People call it social media, but I call it anti-social media,” said Wayne Lumpkin, the founder of Avid and owner of Spot Brand Bicycles, based just across the street from Yeti in Golden. “People stop talking to each other, they get so competitive. I have serious concerns about the effect of Strava on the sport.”

Forest supervisor asks to opt out

But the industry isn’t alone in noticing a potential trend among Strava users and trail usage. Strava has caught the attention of officials at North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest, who have asked the company to delete DuPont trails from its system.

In a statement distributed to members of the regional bike community, forest supervisor David Brown said Strava is an “online bike racing” system and that racing is forbidden in the forest, which has more than 80 miles of trails and roads that are open to bikes and other users. Brown asked riders to self-police.

“We have had complaints about bikes going too fast. It is important that the mountain bike community police itself to prevent more complaints. I consider it a matter of public safety that mountain bikes not be speeding down the trails. Racing in any form is considered an athletic contest, and is a rules violation,” Brown wrote.

Assistant forest supervisor Bruce MacDonald said that when he was told about Strava, he looked at the website and could see that riders were exceeding forest speed limits on at least one segment, the Airstrip Trail. Forest rules set a speed limit of 10 mph on dirt roads and 20 mph on gravel roads. The Strava KOM on Airstrip, a dirt road, averaged 18.2 mph.

MacDonald emailed Strava to ask that all trails in the forest be removed, but said he hadn’t heard back.

Strava urges responsibility

Strava spokesman Mark Riedy said the company promotes “a sense of responsibility” among its users.

“Our general perspective is we built a tool that can be used any way people want to use it. ... The content is user-generated. We don’t have the ability to edit what people do or don’t do,” he said.

Strava allows users to flag a segment that they consider unsafe. The leader board and top times are removed from flagged segments. Also, any Strava user can mark his or her rides as “private” and they are visible only to the user.

Strava also posted a users’ mission statement on its blog in June. The post lists what “we, the Strava community, stand for,” including: “We know the rules. Laws and rules are created for our protection. Cycling, running and swimming are inherently dangerous and following the law, and common sense, when it comes to traffic, weather, or conditions, reduces our odds of getting hurt or hurting others. It’s as simple as that.”

Debate continues

The International Mountain Bicycling Association has not taken a public stance on Strava and its similar competitors, but the organization’s communications director, Mark Eller, said that IMBA is considering holding a discussion about the issue during this fall’s IMBA Summit in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Eller, who recently blogged about Strava on IMBA’s website, said Strava was perhaps making some long-existing trail-sharing issues more public, but that it wasn’t anything particularly new. In his blog post, titled “Confessions of a Strava Addict,” he suggested bikers use common sense while using Strava on trails.

“Err on the side of caution while descending. A collision at warp speed is the kind of thing that could change trail access in your hometown for years to come,” he wrote.

Meanwhile Strava has become a common subject wherever cyclists gather, and Internet forums like MTBR.com buzz with debate about Strava’s effect on trails versus the need for personal responsibility.

As Ibis’ Nicol said, “I don’t think Strava promotes dickishness. Either you have it or you don’t, Strava or no Strava.”

As for his friend on the trails, Nicol said he saw him on the trail a few days later and they chatted.

“I asked him how his Strava run was, and he said, ‘I crashed. But I still hold the record.’ ”

Steve Frothingham

Topics associated with this article: BRAIN News

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