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The Strava effect

Strava is a wonderful training tool. I've used it for almost a year, I've recommended it to other ALCers, I pay for its premium service, and I've grown quite fond of it. But, like so many other things, too much Strava can be a bad thing.

On yesterday's ALC training ride in Sunnyvale, I was riding as myself, not as a training ride leader. The route included the slog on Alameda de las Pulgas from Highway 84 to Sand Hill Road (called Alameda Dash on Strava), generally a stretch where riders can build up some good speed on nearly level terrain, often thanks to prevailing tailwinds. But smack dab in the middle of this stretch is one of ALC's favorite rest stops: the Starbucks at Avy Avenue in Menlo Park. It was the second scheduled rest stop of the day, at about mile 37 of my 57-mile ride. (This included riding to and from the official ride start in Sunnyvale.)

Taking a break at that Starbucks means that you accumulate resting time in the middle of the Alameda Dash, which pretty much eliminates any chance of setting any speed records. And yesterday, I was riding strongly enough on Alameda that I could feel I might be setting a personal best. As I approached Avy, the traffic signal turned green, and I made a quick decision that I would forgo the rest stop in hopes of beating my old time.

I reached the Sand Hill intersection feeling rather good about my time. Of course, I wouldn't know until the end of the ride whether I'd set a personal best. But then as I turned onto Junipero Serra and pedaled along Foothill Expressway for about the millionth time, I started to get grumpy. I didn't enjoy the motorists, the other cyclists, the beautiful springlike weather, my new bike's shifting, or pretty much anything else. By the time I reached the official ride end in Sunnyvale, I'd worked myself into an impressive dander, and I didn't exactly relish another 5.5 miles of cycling in city traffic to get back home.

By now, you've no doubt figured out what happened. I sacrificed proper nutrition for a stupid goal. I was actually aware of that while riding, but I figured I could make it. When I stopped in Sunnyvale to sign the sign-out sheet, I ate some Sport Beans, and that at least delayed the onset of full-on curmudgeonity. (It finally hit about 90 minutes later when I went grocery shopping.)

And, yes, I did set a personal best on Alameda, beating my previous best time by 16 seconds. Was it worth it? Of course not.

Strava has exploded in popularity in the past year, and now it seems that nearly every "serious" cyclist in the Bay Area uses it. This also means that virtually every interesting cycle route in the area has already been done by many other riders, most of them much faster than me. (In fact, after yesterday's nutrition-ignorant success, I now rank 269th out of 748 on the Alameda Dash. Big whoop.)

My pursuit of a cute little Strava cybermedal only cost me a couple hours of grumpiness. But sometimes the stakes are much higher. In 2010, a cyclist died in the Berkeley hills after he tried to regain his top ranking on a particularly tricky descent. (To their credit, Strava now allows segments to be flagged as dangerous, meaning that riders can't compete against one another.)

We are always reminded that AIDS/LifeCycle is "a ride, not a race." Websites such as Strava can easily put you in the mindset of competing against others -- or even against yourself -- and this can lead to behaviors that aren't necessarily best for training to do events such as ALC. Like most tools, Strava can be used in many ways. When I see how I compare to other riders in Strava -- and I see that I rarely get much above the average time -- that can be depressing. But when I compare my own performance against rides of three, six, or nine months ago on the same segments, I can find much to be proud of.

If you are a naturally competitive individual, tools such as Strava can nudge you toward unhealthy or unwise behaviors. Try to be aware of this when it's happening, and evaluate what's best for you in the long run.