The race on the Internet
Kings, cheats, crashes and drugs—inside Strava, the social media app that cyclists and runners are becoming obsessed with
It is just past 8pm on a Saturday. Twenty-nine cyclists are going into The Bike Shop in Yusuf Sarai, New Delhi, by turns, to sign indemnity forms and take their brevet cards. A brevet is a ride of at least 200km, conducted with the approval of international cycling body Audax Club Parisien, and riders who complete this distance are called randonneurs.
Outside, some riders are getting a meal of stuffed parathas with generous dollops of butter and fizzy drinks from a dhaba (roadside eatery). Their bicycles—Cannondale, Scott and Giant, among other high-end brands—are leaning against the wall of the store. Calls for final bike checks can be heard above the sound of traffic on Sri Aurobindo Marg.
In less than an hour, the cyclists will start their 200km ride from the nearby Green Park Metro Station to Panipat, in Haryana, and back. They must complete the challenge in a maximum of 13-and-a-half hours to receive the medal. Their brevet cards will be stamped with the time of arrival at each of the five checkpoints by event organizer and convener of the Delhi Randonneurs group, Chiro Priyo Mitra.
From Garmin watches to GoPro cameras with mounts on handlebars and helmets, there is a wealth of sport-related technology on display. Each of the 29 riders is also using Strava, a popular log-cum-social media service for cyclists, runners and swimmers that uses GPS to track in minute detail riders’ routes, pace and elevation. It is the most popular tracking app among cyclists and runners in India—competitors such as Endomondo find few takers here.
Strava, launched in 2009 from an office in San Francisco, has over a million users worldwide now. It creates a sort of social media page for users and can sync with wearable GPS devices, such as Fitbit bands, to upload data from a ride on to your page. The app then turns this data into a series of beautifully visualized tables and graphs. Friends and followers can see these charts and comment on the rides. There are options to see training videos and read motivational stories. A key function is that Strava allows users to create events and “segments” of varying lengths and then compete with others for maximum mileage or speed on these stretches. At stake is a virtual king/queen of the mountain or course record crown and real-world bragging rights.
“Being king of a mountain feels great,” says Mitra, himself a randonneur and long-distance runner, and a veterinarian by profession.
Of late, however, Strava has gained some notoriety globally for encouraging risk-taking behaviour, even cheating. In April, a US-based cycling group demanded Strava strip a top rider of his 800-plus king of the mountain titles for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Mitra says cheating, whether it is hailing a taxi for a part of the ride, fudging the GPS data or doping, is known in India too, as are rash decisions aimed at beating the competition. “I know of accidents—three of them fatal—where people were trying to take someone’s crown on Strava,” says Mitra.
Getting the top spot on a virtual leader board on apps such as Strava can become an obsession. “If it (the ride or run) is not on Strava, it’s like it never happened,” says Mitra, who wears a GPS watch in addition to carrying his iPhone to record data. “Once I lost GPS on my phone in the 17th kilometre of a half marathon (21km). I was upset for all of that day and part of the next.”
Shalabh Saxena, a director at the Canara HSBC Oriental Bank Of Commerce Life Insurance Company Ltd, had an accident last year and hasn’t been able to go cycling since. He recalls clearly the high of being in the top 10 on his Strava group. “Even today, I am unbeaten on two-three segments,” he says. He’s gunning to get back into the saddle soon. He still looks at his Strava score sometimes: He covered over 40,000km in three-and-a-half years. “Yes, you take a few risks to go faster. If the road is empty, you might jump a signal,” he admits.
“Everybody likes to win,” says Sangeeta Saikia, an ultra-marathoner who joined Strava last year when she bought a TomTom GPS watch. The trick, she says, is in remembering what’s important. “You can get a crown for a week or two. But you can’t win a race that way,” says Saikia, a doctor.
Saikia says Strava is her “lazy girl’s workout log” and “true-blue social media network for athletes”. She values it for the post-workout analysis it can offer, but is wary of users who set unrealistic goals for themselves to beat someone else’s record or follow someone else’s workout plan.
Cyclist and digital media professional Siddharth Subramanian gave up using Endomondo for a similar reason last year. “I like to ride for the joy of it and to explore new places,” he says. When he was logging his rides on the app for the world to see, he would sometimes ride the same routes over and over again. Familiarity allows riders to go faster. “I can go comfortably at 25km per hour for hours together. If I push, I can also go at 30-40km per hour, but at that speed, you can’t see anything,” he says.
Strava has tried to guard against any perversion of the idea of competition and sportsmanship. In 2013, it released a Stand With Us code to emphasize “sportsmanship and fair play”, says Andrew Vontz, cycling marketing manager for Strava, on email.
To be sure, most athletes use Strava in the way it was intended: as a workout log and analysis mechanism, and to engender a sense of healthy competition. Mitra says that more than once he has gone running at 10pm on a Saturday night because he was close to winning the most-miles-covered-in-a-week crown—an ongoing event in his Strava group that expires at midnight on Saturdays.
Saikia, who was in Mukteshwar, in Uttarakhand, for a half marathon on 14 May, says the app certainly motivates her to do more. “I just got a notification that someone has bested my time on Tejinder Point at Sanjay Van in Delhi by 2 seconds. I suppose I will have to go 4 seconds faster soon. It just makes you smile,” says Saikia. “But then I am not very ambitious.”
For Mitra, who is marshalling this brevet—which means he is driving to the checkpoints in a car full of supplies such as water, food and medicines—the riders’ individual Strava pages will act as his eyes and ears. Any unscheduled stops or deviations from the route can be detected. If someone suddenly picks up twice their normal speed on a stretch, it might indicate they are hitching a ride in an auto or even pace-lining (when cyclists ride behind another vehicle, such as a truck, to avoid headwinds). Mitra will scrutinize the pages at the end of the event, when everyone has uploaded their data to the app.
He has little patience for those who cheat or take unwarranted risks to get ahead on Strava. He has warned riders in the past about cheating and even flagged some rides to Strava as possible instances of cheating.
How does he know when someone is trying to get ahead by unfair means?
“We are a small community of about 2,000 (brevet riders). We follow each other on Strava. If someone’s performance graph shows a sudden inexplicable spike, I email Strava to red-flag them,” says Mitra. As for those who take performance enhancement drugs, Mitra says, “We just avoid them.”
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