To Strava in the Springs

    Follow is what you do on Strava — especially in Colorado Springs.

    Strava Bike Riding Colorado Springs
    Illustrations by Alie Mann

    We had just finished moving into our Colorado Springs home a few years ago when my next-door neighbor arrived to introduce himself. To protect his identity, I won’t be using his real name. Instead, I’ll call him Thor. He’s an engineer with a wife and two kids, and on the day I met him, he confessed to feeling wiped out because he’d just finished a triathlon.

    It was not quite 11 in the morning. “That was quick,” I said.

    “Actually,” said Thor, “my time sucked.” He had crashed during the bike portion of the race and broken his arm. This slowed him down.

    “You still finished?” I said, noticing his arm was not in a cast. “You haven’t been to the hospital yet?”

    “I have to mow the lawn,” he said, then laughed. Then, changing the subject, he said, “You on Strava?”

    I had to admit I did not even know what Strava was.

    “It’s an app,” he said. “It’s for biking and running. You ride, right?”

    I was not sure what to say. I rode, but not in the Springs sense of the term. I owned a bike but not high performance cycling gloves, a Carmichael Training jersey or cycling shoes. My bike weighed about 50 pounds and possessed neither front nor rear suspension, nor the sort of pedals into which one “clicks.”

    “Of course I ride,” I told Thor. It was my first day on the street, and I did not want to fall out with the cool kids so quickly.

    “You’re going to love Strava,” he said. He moved to shake my hand, then remembered his broken arm and reconsidered. “See you on the trails.”

    For those to whom Strava is simply a Swedish word meaning “to strive,” allow me to explain. Strava is a smartphone application invented by two friends who realized GPS data had become specific enough to record their cycling times and compare them. This is what Strava does. It tells you how fast and how far you ride, then ranks you against others. In order to be ranked against someone else, you have to “follow” them. That is the verb of Strava. On Facebook you friend someone; on LinkedIn you connect. Follow is what people on Strava do to one another.

    Not long after I had installed Strava on my phone, I received a notification that Thor was following me. So did everyone else on my block, all of whom are either just as fit as Thor or in even better shape. They are ex-members of the Marine Corps and high school cross-country coaches, former Olympians and current Olympic athletes.

    That’s the Springs for you.

    I began uploading my rides to Strava and learned two things. The first was that nationally I ranked about middle of the pack in terms of my cycling prowess. If everyone in the United States were on bikes being chased by a flesh-eating dragon, about half the country would get eaten before me. That is a comforting thought.

    However, Strava also informed me that in Colorado Springs terms I was the short, fat, unbelievably slow guy at the very back of the pack who gets eaten about 30 seconds after the flesh-eating dragon appears. Not as comforting.

    I continued to ride and upload my data. I was initially a little reluctant to do this—mine were not numbers to brag about. But Thor and the rest of my street didn’t seem to care. No matter how slow or how short my ride, my Strava-using neighbors always took the time to like my ride or even shout encouragement when we crossed paths on the trails.

    Then one day it happened. I returned from a ride, and saw I was 32.5 seconds behind Thor on a stretch of Gold Camp Road. Not the whole road, but a stretch of it known on Strava as “Gold Camp Road Middle.” If I could ride that six-minute stretch 33 seconds faster, I could pass Thor.

    It was harder than you might think. Six months later I had taken off 16 seconds.

    Accepting that I would not be able to catch Thor on my own, I enlisted the help of another neighbor. This neighbor—let’s call him Obi-Wan Kenobi—was a personal trainer.

    “Dude,” he said, “I have been there. I nearly killed myself trying to get a KOM.”

    King of the Mountain Strava Colorado Springs
    Illustration by Alie Mann

    KOM stands for King of the Mountain. In Strava language it means that you’re winning—that you have ridden a segment faster than anyone else, though not that you are the winner. There are no winners in Strava because someone can always show up to unseat you by clocking a better time.

    “I don’t want to be KOM,” I said. “I just want to beat Thor.”

    “How about we put you and your bike in the back of my truck, and I’ll drive you?”

    “That would be cheating,” I said.

    “How about I tie a rope to the back of the truck and pull you?”

    More legit, I told him, but still cheating.

    Obi-Wan shook his head. “It looks like what we’re talking about is fair and square. You’re just going to have to get there then.”

    And I did—though not without Thor’s help, who one day bestowed upon me his old bike. “It’s a piece of junk,” he told me. “But it’s a better piece of junk than you’re riding now. I figure if you’re going to ride every day, you should have a decent bike.”

    And that was that. Thor’s old bike had front and rear suspension, and the sort of pedals you click into. It had disc brakes.

    “Disc brakes on a bike?” I said.

    “All the cool kids are using them,” said Thor with a wink.

    It took another year. I lost 20 pounds and dropped 2 inches off my waistline. My blood pressure was lower than ever before. And one day I passed Thor.

    He was now 1,118th on the segment of earth known on Strava as Gold Camp Road Middle, and I was 1,117th. I went to tell Thor, who congratulated me heartily. “I’m proud of you,” he said, and soon the rest of the street was celebrating my victory.

    The next day Thor went out and beat my time. Once again, he’s 32.5 seconds ahead of me.

    That’s the Springs for you. There’s always something to strive for.