Virtual Coach Pushes Rider to Higher Elevations

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I’m not competitive.

I take that back.

I’ve never been competitive in anything but schoolwork. If I could earn As—or even better, set grade curves—I would. Partially because I knew I could.

But sports? Not so much.

I’ve always been active but when it comes to winning at sport, I’ve had no problem backing off, especially where pain was involved. My motto in cycling has always been, “I’m out to have fun. If it’s not fun, I’m outta here.”

But this year, I got a new coach.

My coach pushes me to try new things and taunts me into hammering through a few more aggressive pedal strokes. “Don’t let up until you’ve reached the full crest of the hill,” the coach whispers.

Quick to point out my accomplishments, my new coach has made me a better rider, even when I didn’t know I wanted to be a better rider. And so far, my coach hasn’t charged me a dime.

My new coach’s name? Strava.

Strava is a web application for cyclists and runners with built-in social and personal tracking capabilities. Users can run the app from a mobile phone but I prefer using it with my Garmin and laptop.

After a ride, I plug in my Garmin and Strava.com prompts me to upload activity. Once uploaded, the fun begins. My Activity Page breaks down the ride, showing me my average and top speeds, elevation gain and calories burned. I love the visual features such as the elevation graph and red route outlines. They allow me to feel impressed with myself, as in, Gee whiz, no wonder I was suffering on that climb and That ride made a pretty cool squiggly loop.

Knowing I will come home to face my accomplishments makes me try newer and more challenging rides. I hate seeing the same red routes.

Because.

I’m not the only one looking.

The social feature allows users to follow others in the cycling community. On a given day, I know if and where my buddies rode and how they fared against, say, me.

That’s right. Strava has created a virtual race. Every ride is broken into segments and every segment lists riders who have gone before. It doesn’t just list them, it ranks them. KOM (King of the Mountain) for men and QOM (Queen of the Mountain) for women are coveted top spots and Strava makes you feel oh-so-good when you top the charts by giving you a shiny (virtual) trophy and a message telling you how bad-ass you are.

On the other hand, they’ve perfected the art of pissing you off by sending an annoying Uh Oh! So-and-so just STOLE your QOM. 

Who wouldn’t be a little irked?

Not gonna lie, I’ve become a teensy bit obsessed with those messages and rankings.

For instance, on one climb, I’m two seconds behind another gal who I know I can beat. If I were competitive I might be tempted to re-ride that route with about three seconds worth of more umph.

The good thing about my Strava coach is that it allows me to measure my progress and I do find that the visual layout motivates me. Yesterday, I came home from a ride feeling like a dog, only to discover my average mph was faster than usual. To me, that’s helpful.

It’s also contributed to building our female cyclist community. We’re always so worried about showing up and getting dropped or having to soft-pedal an entire ride. Knowing how others are riding helps confirm who might make well-matched riding partners—men or women. Gina L., who slaughters my segment times by 6 minutes, probably wouldn’t be the best choice for a riding buddy, but I will look for Angie W., who consistently ranks just above or below me.

Of course, competition isn’t always pretty and there are those who seem to think someone’s really going to mail them an official Tour de France polka-dot jersey. Dudes (and dudettes) have been known to sacrifice cycling etiquette in pursuit of that top spot. Whatever. To them I say, Sorry your mama never told you how great you were.

For me, I’ll continue to use Strava to improve my riding and have fun trading rankings with my friends.

After all, we’re all in this together and if we’re all getting better, who can argue that?

By Carrie Schmeck – Redding, CA