Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Own Little KOM

I saw a post recently on BikeSnobNYC about how he recently set up a Strava account (actually, it was a guest post on Outside Online). I'm sure most readers know what Strava is, but just in case someone out there doesn't, let me briefly explain that it is a social-media type of service where riders and runners can track their performance using their smart phone and/or GPS. It also lets users compare their performance with other Strava users.

It might come as a shock, but I actually set up a Strava account over a year ago. Not exactly a Retro-grouchy thing to do, but let me explain a little about it.

For a long while I had doggedly resisted getting a smart phone for various reasons, and was more than content to keep using my old flip phone as long as possible. My old phone made calls, and took calls, and that was all I needed or wanted it for. I suppose it also could take really low-quality photos, but I had no idea how to get them off the phone, so I never bothered with it. Well, it finally got to where technology and phone services had moved on so much my old phone was no longer supported and couldn't even be updated to work properly anymore. So I grudgingly got a new phone, and joined the current era by getting a smart phone. I did download some apps for it, and I do like the fact that I can take decent pictures with it in the event that I don't happen to have my better camera with me, but mostly I still just use it as a phone.

Not long after I got the phone, I downloaded the Strava app. Not because I was interested in tracking performance, or comparing my results to anyone else, but because I thought it might be a good way to verify the distance of some of my rides. I always knew roughly how long my commute to/from work was, but not exactly. So I set up Strava and tracked my commute (both ways, since I take different routes in the morning and afternoon). It turned out that my daily commuting mileage was about a half-mile longer overall than I'd realized, so that was useful info. But while checking on my mileage, I also spotted something that surprised me. There are a number of hills on my commuting ride, and many of them are ranked segments on Strava where you can compare your speed to anyone else using the service. The top ranked rider on the segment is the KOM or "King of the Mountain." Okay, that much I already knew about - but what surprised me was that on one of these hills I was ranked 2nd, only a couple of seconds slower than the KOM. The hill in question is a short but steep one that I have to climb on my way home every day. It hadn't even occurred to me that it might be a ranked Strava segment.

Being so close to the KOM on this little hill (without even really trying) got me thinking I should pick up my pace a little next time and try to take the top spot. The next day I did it. When I approached the foot of the hill, I shifted up instead of down, got up out of the saddle, and sprinted to the top. Checking the results when I got home, I was the new KOM! I mentioned the accomplishment to a couple of my cycling coworkers, more out of surprise than anything else.

Another day or two later I got a message from Strava. Someone had beaten my time by several seconds. Not only that, but a second rider had exactly matched my best time (and I mean matched the time and speed exactly! unbelievable!). As it turned out, the person who had matched my time was one of my female coworkers, who took the title Queen of the Mountain as a result. She was one of the people whom I had told about my little accomplishment, and I guess she took it as a challenge. The man who'd beaten me was her boyfriend, a guy who is pretty competitive with one of the local racing clubs. Both of them ride the latest in carbon fiber wünderbikes.

Suddenly I had gotten a taste of that Strava-induced competitive urge I'd heard about and possibly even mocked. I decided I'd have to get my KOM back. The next day, I took my most modern "raciest" bike ("raciest" being a relative term in my case - it's still a lugged steel frame, but has modern shifting, clipless pedals, and has no racks, fenders, or bags). I got to "my" hill and hammered my way up. Checking later, I found that it wasn't enough. In fact, I hadn't even beaten my previous best. Sheesh.

The next day I decided I was going to let it go and try not to care. I wasn't even going to turn on Strava to track the ride home, because what was the point (remember that I'd only done it in the first place to check the distance). So what if some guy I don't even know was a little faster than me going up the hill. There are plenty of other hills along my route where I'm not even close to being the fastest, so why should this one be any different? The fact that I had been the fastest, even just briefly, was what made it different I suppose.

On the way home from work that day, I was feeling pretty good. As a last minute decision, I turned on Strava again. One more try wouldn't hurt, right? On the approach to my hill, a bit before the actual climbing began, I wound up some good speed in a high gear and tried like hell to keep it going all the way to the top. When I crested the hill, I knew I'd had a great run. Checking it later on the site, I saw I had done it. I was the KOM again.

What bike had I been riding? This one:

The Rivendell weighs just shy of 28 pounds as shown.
Pretty much the opposite of a racer, but I got my one and only KOM on Strava with it. That's my favorite part of this story.

More than a year later, the accomplishment still stands (shockingly). I still have the Strava account, but I haven't actually used or logged into it since. I don't know what I'll do if/when I get that inevitable message that someone has beaten me. I'd like to think that I'll ignore it for the same reasons that I threw out my old ride computer. That stuff just isn't all that important to me. But I do have a sense of the way it can become almost an obsession with some people.


  1. Nice bike! In his book "Just Ride", Grant Petersen wrote "Be an 'unracer'", and I took it to heart. I also had a 2G flipfone, and when AT&T closed that network down, I took their offer of a free cellphone... but yet-another flipfone, rather than a smartphone. Why? I have a desktop workstation AND a tablet, AND a Catseye "Padrone" which records distance, speed, and time (and then manually enter the results to DailyMile, via my workstation). It's all good... difficult to resist the siren-song of a smartphone and Strava. Enjoy!

  2. Since K/QOMs quickly fall to serious climb racing folks and PRs diminish with age and shape, I find a fun thing to use Strava for is exploring literally everywhere. The Ride Every Road concept. Use Strava's heatmap feature to see what roads you haven't ridden on... And go fix that problem! Alleys, trails, and previous unknown culdesacs galore await. On any bike.

  3. I log all my rides on Strava, but I'm not using it to compete. I do have two KOMs though, both segments are ones I created on hills that are on my daily commute. When you ride the same hill 200 times a year, you're bound to get a tailwind eventually.

    Like you, I am competitive enough that when one of mine got "taken" I went and got it back.

    My lightest bike is 27 pounds. I don't "train," just ride. So for most Strava segments around town, I'm pretty consistent in being around half as fast as whoever has the KOM.

  4. I'm still using a flip-phone. I guess I'm out of the look for now!

    1. Like I said, I only Grudgingly got rid of mine because it was no longer supported. I'm all for phones that work as phones and nothing more.

  5. Someone on another forum I frequent was writing about Strava.

    Thing was, they spelled it Starva.

    Repeatedly. Like, 10 times.

    Someone politely asked if they did in fact, mean Strava?

    NO, IT'S STARVA!!! Was the response.

    I left the thread, as I've never raced, ever, couldn't give to turds about it or anything to do with it actually. But Starva stuck with me, as an eloquent poke at something I find generally loathsome.

    In MTB world, Strava users have been known to display some seriously antisocial behavior, such as simply yelling "STRAVA!!" at other riders in their way, (like we'll all just know what you're raving about necessarily??).

    So, with my pals, we now scream STARVA!!!! at the top of many a serious climb, after some rather awesome crash, what have you.

    Just, ya know, so we remind ourselves not to start to take ourselves too damn seriously.

  6. That competitiveness is the exact reason why I don't do "Starva", or powermeters, or cycle computers. I just can't be bothered to care. I'll just ride my bike, thanks, as often as I can.

    I do have a smartphone as I found it useful for many reasons. The only time that I use it when cycling is to check my way on the Maps app if I get lost while in an unfamiliar area.

  7. The trick with strava is to change the options so it displays your own times by default. Its a bit disheartening to see your best time on a segment as 997th of 999, and the last two appear to have stopped for an hour half way up for a coffee!

    By only displaying your own times, its all about your own efforts rather than competing with others.

    I log every ride, with the main goal of totaling my year's riding across all bikes and all rides. Strava + stravistix chrome plugin do that nicely for me.

    1. Even if you remove the competitive angle from the app, you still have the app running on your phone, using the GPS/WiFi/cellular functions constantly, and draining your phone's battery. I suppose that's a tradeoff that some people are willing to make if they like to analyze their rides, but for me, I'd rather Just Ride and save my battery for the maps app (if/when I get lost) and for making phone calls.

    2. It does definitely drain the battery quickly. Like I said, my main goal was to use it for accurate distance. I haven't actually run the app much since the story described above. Performance tracking just isn't that important to me.

  8. I use Strava non-competitively on my commutes because Strava aggregates and anonymizes the data to create a data set that is useful to planners--Strava "heat maps."