My first experience with Strava, the exercise tracking app, came in high school, when I swore a solemn oath never to use it, in exchange for an introduction to a new bike trail network on Moscow Mountain. The reasons for the oath were twofold. The trails our aspiring group of freeriders was building were located in a (dark) gray area of legality, at an intersection of private land, where anything was legal as long as no one got hurt, and U.S. Forest Service land where “earthen features” (jumps and berms) were frowned upon. Anyone introduced to this trail network was required to swear off Strava. We didn’t want to leave any digital evidence of our probable wrongdoing.
The second reason for the Strava ban was simpler. Everyone we’d ever met who used Strava was sort of a dick. We didn’t want to ride with that kind of person, and we didn’t want them on our trails. We weren’t concerned with beating segments and burning calories, and we were tired of cranky old men in too-small shorts screaming “Strava!” at us as they failed to yield to us as we pedaled up the trails they were descending. We hated Strava, and the competitive spirit it awakened in mediocre but performance-driven riders seeking KOM (King of Mountain) status.
Now, 10 years later, I use Strava, or another ride tracking app, on almost every ride. That’s not all that’s changed since high school, of course. I also am a little less concerned with building illegal jumps in woods, and subverting the local trail advocates with my sketchy features than I used to be. But that second reason for hating Strava hasn’t changed.
I’ve run into the same Strava-obsessed jerks on both sides of Teton Pass, notably on Putt-Putt, which, to be perfectly honest, seems like a pretty sad place to be testing your mettle at the expense of other trail users. But I’ve also seen Strava used in an entirely different way, and that’s sold me on it completely.
It turns out that keeping track of where you rode, and approximately how fast you rode it, has a much wider range of potential uses than stroking the middle-aged male ego. And instead of driving a selfish desire to beat everyone else up or down a certain section of trail, Strava is most powerful when it’s used to share trail information with others.
I’ve found that it does a great job of connecting like-minded people. Some backcountry rides are a bit of a gamble. You set out with a rough idea of what connects, what’s going to be trail and what’s going to be riverbed hike-a-bike, and then you go for it. Sometimes it turns out incredibly well, and you find a new loop you want to ride a few times a year. More often you get a little bit of great riding and a lot of swearing. In the old world you’d go out on a ride like that, come home, maybe tell a few friends how terrible it was, and then never try it again. Now, with Strava, you can note which parts were great and which parts made you want to throw your bike in the creek and leave it forever. That gives other people interested in the route a little more guidance, and, potentially, will lead to less swearing and hiking up riverbeds.
Of course that does take some of the adventure out of the ride, but if you’re that kind of purist, there’s no one making you check the app, and I for one, really like knowing if I’m about to ride an established mountain bike trail, or something that looks like a deer came through sometime in the ’90s and somebody called it a trail.
The other big advantage of Strava is tracking your own performance. For most users that’s the obvious one, the reason they use the app. But I’m not hugely competitive with myself, or with everyone else who’s ever ridden the trail. I’d much rather smile at pedestrians than scream at them to get out of the way so I can shave a few seconds off my personal best. But it is nice to build up a little bit of a reference for trails you only ride once or twice a year. It’s great to be able to see that you rode the same loop at about the same speed last year, that you didn’t get fat and slow over the winter.
So yes, I have broken my high-school era oath swearing off Strava. I do keep track of what I ride with my phone. But so do the other sketchy jump builders I swore it with, and even though we live in different states now, we can share ambitious backcountry routes, just in case they ever get to visit.