Saturday, September 28, 2013

Strava: Why Cycling Will Never Be (for) The Sane?

Train Safely, So You Will Live to Race Tomorrow  

Or, put another way, remember that first layer of safety: Control Your Bike

Pardon my take-off on the title to a very good and hopefully, thought provoking article in the November print edition of Bicycling, but reading that stuff made me shudder. With Kim Flint dead after crushing himself on a steep descent, and Chris Bucchere a convicted felon after blowing through a busy urban intersection as the light changed and hitting a pedestrian (who later died) one has to wonder why riders would take such chances with both their own and other's lives. Someone has failed to learn that to win a race you actually have to finish it.
Descent where Kim Flint died, -9.6% grade. 
From Forbes article linked in text.
Shades of Fabio Casartelli...
Note this is now flagged. 

A lot of people already think the lycra-clad crowd is both arrogant and insane, but I don't see the point of living the stereotype by racing all out over public roads for virtual trophies. Its easy to get carried away with the competitive spirit, but one has to moderate one's behavior to conform to the reality of riding in a real world set of conditions. Real, sanctioned races are held under race permits with traffic and race restrictions, course marshals and police. Note that the Bandelier Loop, which is the basis for the Tour de Los Alamos and also a Strava segment, has, during the race, course marshals at several locations (such as at Back Gate, the base of Truck Route, and major intersections in White Rock) and in addition, the fast descent to Ancho Canyon is traditionally neutralized.  Note too that aside from sanctioned races, this course, as well as the rest of the world, is governed by normal traffic laws, to say nothing of the laws of physics. One of those laws governs the relationship between transforming kinetic energy (speed) to work (reducing your rib cage to splinters).

In a sanctioned race, a rider can get DQ'ed for stupid behavior. In a training ride one can get the boot off of one's own team for putting others at risk--no one wants the reputation of being a squirrel. Riding against one's self can be just as deadly. I had my own Come to Jesus Moment on a day I was descending NM-4 and nearly ended up as a hood ornament on an oncoming F-150 while apexing without sufficient regard to reality (which is pretty much how Bicycling described Kim Flint's fate). Lesson learned-- "closed course, don't try this at home" means exactly that.

 I don't think the car companies, aside from their legal staff, are serious about that "closed course" admonition, but neither do they put up web sites where customers can brag about street racing and get egged on to top the latest best time on an uncontrolled course. Sadly, while these online Strava competitions may have started out having the best of intentions (and most users of the site may be reasonable riders with good intentions) the site had, wittingly or not, also provided a global platform where the risk-takers could push each other to the ragged edge, turning the "closed course, don't try this at home" idea on its head. Being able to flag treacherous sections of road is great, but it doesn't change the underlying issue I have with this model, to wit, all-out time trialing on uncontrolled courses has the potential to seriously undermine traffic safety.

Although at least one judge in California decided that Strava is immune to lawsuits when people crash and burn trying to be top dog on its web site, I hope the company takes these two incidents as lessons learned (which to some degree it has, with the flagging system). But really, in the ultimate analysis, it is entirely the rider's problem. No one at Strava is holding a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to ride stupid, which, I guess, was their defense as they collected their dividends.  Meanwhile, when things go wrong, the rest of us are tarred with the same brush of irresponsibility as the lunatic fringe, not to mention having to go to its funerals. Note added later: Bob Mionske's comments, "Suing Strava", are here.

So the bottom line? If you want to push the envelope against yourself, bump real elbows with buddies, or compare yourself to online competitors, by all means do so. But first scout the course and scrap the idea if conditions look ugly. Then make sure you are riding within a safety envelope and not being a public menace.  Remember, in a group ride, one can hopefully (not always) count on ride leaders or experienced colleagues to moderate things based on conditions but in a virtual competition, do you really know the state of mind of the competitor or what the road looked like yesterday? The only moderator in a virtual competition is the guy holding the handlebars on your bicycle. Don't let yourself down.

 You can't run life in reverse when the outcome sucks and as we all have to admit, when you push the envelope hard, sometimes that envelope pushes back even harder.

The Castro Street "bomb", via Youtube and SFCitizen, seen in the vid below. There is one other San Francisco "bomb" segment still on the Strava site, this one on Hyde Street, with an average grade of -4.2% and max of about -10%. I count thirteen cross streets. Top time is 20.8 mph equivalent.

Watch the vid and draw your own conclusions.


Anonymous said...

Lycra clad and not, there seem to be quite a number of insane cyclists in this town. The ones that get my goat the most are the ones that travel the wrong way in the bike lanes on diamond drive. I regularly see this happen both for 'regular' folk and for lycra folk. Almost all of the ones I see doing this are driving north in the southbound bike lane, mostly around/across from the pueblo complex.

The most egregious I ever saw was about 15-20 at once, some in and some not-so-in the south bound bike lane, all moving north.

Whats with that anyway? And has there **EVER** been an occasion where someone doing that has been ticketed? Just think and compare the uproar that would happen if a car driver had been caught doing the same thing...

Khal said...

Your observations might be different than mine, but I see more on the west side sidewalk heading north, and fewer "swimming salmon" in the southbound bike lane.

There is actually, believe it or not, a rational, if not legal, explanation. When the County put in the bike lanes, LANL dropped the ball at the bridge. So most cyclists take the bridge sidepath both ways. Neale Pickett worked with the County and LANL a few years back to design something to get the northbound cyclists back on the proper, northbound side of the road, but when the bypass road cratered that got dropped. So cyclists simply stay on the southbound side of Diamond if they live in the western areas rather than make a time consuming pedestrian maneuver to cross Diamond, or a right-left vehicle maneuver. Also, it can be quite intimidating to some cyclists to make a left turn from the northbound bike lane into the Western areas when there is two lanes of fast, "rush hour" motor traffic to contend with.

So sure, it may not be by the book and I agree riding wrong way in the bike lane is illegal and dangerous (I once nearly had a head on crash with a wrong way cyclist), but frankly, LANL and the county dropped the ball on this, since LANL is the main cycling-commuter destination in the county. There is more than enough blame to go around.

As far as citations, there are few given to cyclists. A couple notable ones written up that I do know about were grossly in error, too. A little police education would be a good thing.

Principled Pragmatist said...


An active LCI forwarded to me your message about this on the LCI list. I'm surprised and disappointed by it.

First, I'm going to guess that you don't use Strava. I say that because certain statements you make seem to be based on how you imagine Strava works and affects riders, rather than how it really works and affects riders.

Just yesterday I got a message from Strava that one of my KOMs was "stolen", by a friend of mine no less! Ron is a very strong rider and frankly it was a surprise that I ever had a faster time than him, except that this stretch has about 5 traffic lights on it, and the time I got my KOM I had a tailwind and all greens. Ron apologized for "stealing" my KOM, but noted he got all greens. This is a popular segment, with 100s of Strava cyclists who have ridden it, and yet my KOM held since July. From reading your article you'd think the traffic lights would not even be a factor because Strava "racers" are so irresponsible. Yet my KOM was lost only when another Strava cyclist also got all greens.

Out of many thousands of Strava cyclists you cite two incidents where Strava might be said to have been a factor in influencing irresponsible behavior. That's an incredibly good record.

Did you know that Strava has a mechanism that allows users to "flag" certain segments as being unsafe so that relative times are not displayed for them? Most important Strava segments are climbs anyway. Perfectly safe.

And racing bicycles on the open road, by the way, has never been illegal, so far as I know, so long as traffic rules are followed. Lawful bicycle racing on open roads is not an oxymoron.

Anyway, Strava cycling is not racing per say; it is more about the individual cyclist trying to go as fast as he can, which I believe has been normal behavior since the advent of the bicycle. The only thing that Strava adds is automatic tracking and recording of times.

Don't knock something you haven't tried.

Khal said...

Terms of use are pretty clear, and flagging has been introduced, as mentioned in the Bicycling article.

Its really up to the individual to ride safely, and not be goaded into dangerous riding after reading stuff like this:

Uh oh! Alex Morgan just stole your KOM!

Hey CyclingTips,

You just lost your KOM on Mt Rael Climb to Alex Morgan by 1 second.

Better get out there and show them who’s boss!

-Your friends at Strava

Principled Pragmatist said...


Have you looked at the Mt Real segment?

It's 4.6% grade climbing 200 feet in less than a mile. The fastest times are 15 mph.

You really think being encouraged to improve your time on such a climb is being "goaded into dangerous riding"?

I see you did not deny being a non-user of Strava. Just a Strava critic. Are you also a critic of movies you didn't see? Books you didn't read? Studies you haven't read? Websites you haven't visited?

Don't knock things you haven't tried.

Khal said...

Uphills are fair game.

Principled Pragmatist said...

Until you start using Strava you just can't really get it. But I will say this. Even regular cyclists can benefit from more motivation. Even if you love bike riding it's easy to find other things to do with your time than ride your bike. I believe Strava is extraordinarily effective in motivating for two reasons. First, there is the old adage, if you want something to improve, measure it. Strava makes measuring incredibly easy, and it measures everything. How often you ride, how far you ride, how many hours you ride, how fast you ride, and where you ride. Not only that, but it shows you how fast you ride on various segments compared to how fast you've ridden before, and compared to others. Second: peer pressure. Not only does it tell you when you've been off the bike for 2, 3 or more days, but all your cycling friends see that. When you hit a PR on a tough climb, your friends see that too, and give you kudos. We're social animals. Peer encouragement is motivating. The combination is extraordinarily powerful.

Knocking Strava for encouraging unsafe behavior is like knocking water for its ability to drown people. Totally missing the point.

Khal said...

Are you paid to advertise Strava?

Obviously we disagree. That's the lovely thing about blogs. Everyone can have one--an opinion, and a blog.

Like water, one can drink it, swim in it, or drown in it. Its up to the user to know the difference. That's all.

Principled Pragmatist said...

No, I'm not paid to advertise for Strava. I'm just a Strava user (free account).

Of course you're free to express your opinion about Strava, but you should be honest about the fact that you have no idea what you're talking about when you express this opinion, since you have never used Strava.

You remind me of a segregation advocate who has little to no experience controlling lanes criticizing the practice.

Khal said...

Thank you for your opinions.