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| Blog, Cycling Plus, Features | 12/03/2013 19:28pm

Strava is the GPS app that can transform your riding, turn every climb into a race and looks set to change the face of cycling, says John WhitneyA curious phenomenon swept the Cycling Plus office at the turn of last year. After-work rides had always been civilised, steady-paced affairs, but a new training tool caused a metamorphosis in our approach. Climbs were being tackled at full gas, all in pursuit of topping an online, virtual leaderboard and having bragging rights the next day. Training became full-blooded competition and it’s been nothing short of a game-changer.

This phenomenon is a website called Strava and if it hasn’t appeared on your radar yet, it’s only a matter of time before it does.  If you’re not yet up to speed, here’s the basic concept. GPS is used to calculate your time on a stretch of road, known as a segment, to find the King – or Queen – of the Mountains. The leader gets to boast to mates until, inevitably, their record is broken, at which point the former leader tries desperately to reclaim it. This ‘gamification’ of training is an ingenious idea, yet so deliciously simple that it’s a wonder it took so long to become a reality.

All row together
To find out where it all began, you have to go back 20-odd years to the late 1980s and Harvard University. Friends and future Strava co-creators Michael Horvath and Mark Gainey rowed together, a sport unique in that the volume of training required far outweighs competition. Even when they did pin on a number, it was limited to six or seven races. This huge gap between events meant that the only way to stay motivated was to make training as competitive as possible.

This was the 1980s, remember. Training gizmos that we take for granted were years away, so when they graduated and lost their team, it was much harder to stay motivated and keep their numbers on track. College sport is huge in the US but unlike the UK, the club scene is poor, so there’s little to fall back on. Increasingly, they looked to find ways to push themselves when there was no coach around.

After gaining a PhD in Economics, Horvath taught at Stanford before founding a successful software company, Kana, with Gainey. It was around that time, in 1996, when they first got the idea that would eventually become Strava. Horvath refers to it as a virtual locker room, a place where athletes could meet in cyberspace to stay connected through workouts. It was a social network in every sense, years before the term existed. But without the technology to make their ambitions reality, the idea was shelved. After floating Kana, he went back to teaching before returning to the entrepreneurial life.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the pair thought the time was ripe to revisit their idea. They built a basic version and put it into the hands of 10 athletes. Horvath, now CEO, says even with this trial, Strava proved to be uniquely motivating – the 10 reckoned that they’d never ridden as fast. Two even joined the fledgling company. It was created first and foremost for themselves, but as avid athletes – Horvath is a triathlete – they reasoned that if they found Strava beneficial, others would too. Its growth was slow at first, but deliberately so – developing and refining it was more important. Their team, based mainly in San Francisco, grew steadily, and at the time of writing the firm employs 45 staff.

Fine-tuning the tech was top of their agenda and here, in a nutshell, is how it works. Each segment is defined by a set of latitude-longitude data points that has either been posted to the Strava network by a user or, in the case of categorised climbs, detected automatically. The method that they use is patent-pending, but they take individual points from a cyclist’s GPS data and match it to published segments to rank them on a leaderboard. Segments are usually climbs but flatter stretches of road are common, as are, somewhat controversially, descents.

Most are user-generated so the more people who upload data the more valuable Strava becomes. Topping a leaderboard with 200 names is going to be more motivating than one with 20, and the more users there are, the fiercer the competition. While we can only comment from personal experience in south-west England, segment leaderboards are noticeably longer now than they were at the turn of 2012. How did it get onto the radar of so many British cyclists in such a short space of time? “We found it works well word of mouth,” says Horvath. “If you’re an athlete, you count on the opinion of friends, coaches and training partners. You rely on them for advice and recommendations. We don’t pay for advertising in the traditional sense.”

They ran ads during this year’s Tour de France in the US. But rather than shoving a product in viewers’ faces, they wanted to create an air of mystery – a bid to speed up word of mouth, rather than a change of strategy. Like any social network, growth is dependent on users feeding back to others. In the case of Strava, there’s no better way of doing this than to work with pro cyclists like Taylor Phinney. When Phinney joined BMC last year, he became one of their professional athletes. Ted King of Liquigas-Cannondale is another – a rider Phinney calls the biggest Strava addict in the peloton.
Having cyclists of this stature uploading race and training data to their Strava profile gives amateur users a unique opportunity to compete against them. Imagine taking a KOM off Phinney on his home roads of Boulder! There’s nothing that compares in any other sport.

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