You’ve probably heard about Strava. You may not know much about it, but what you’ve heard is likely related to road cycling. Even so, you know some mountain bikers use Strava and wonder if it’s something you should consider using.
My short answer is, “Yes, you should, but only if you want to.”
My long answer is quite a bit more complicated. I did some research to try and find some “rules” for using Strava while mountain biking but couldn’t find much out there. That probably has a lot to do with mountain bike culture tending to shy away from setting hard rules. MTBing is all about getting out and having a great time.
I agree with this philosophy. In fact, I’m going to attempt to formulate a set of guidelines for using Strava while mountain biking that are all about not only getting the most out of your ride data while not getting overly serious about the whole thing and doing all you can to prevent negatively affecting the stoke of your fellow riders.
Disclaimer: I’m not setting out to formulate a real system of rules here—these are solely my personal opinions.
1. Strava Isn’t 100% Accurate
The first thing you’ve got to realize when using Strava to track your rides is this: don’t expect to get 100% accuracy. Yes, modern GPS tracking is highly-accurate, but there are a number of factors which will affect how well Strava records your ride.
First, realize that you’re weaving in, out, and among tree cover for most of your ride. Unlike a road ride where you’re often riding under open skies and your GPS unit has an unimpeded signal from the satellites, tree cover lowers the accuracy through simple signal degradation and blockage. Add to this the fact that you’re twisting and turning often, which is another factor that lowers the overall accuracy of tracking.
Second, your accuracy on Strava has a lot to do with the quality, sensitivity, and features of your GPS unit. If you’re a part of a cycling club or forum, you’ll often see members post questions like, “How long is this trail? I got 5.5 miles, but that doesn’t seem right.” Then you’ll see answers such as, “My GPS got 5.75 miles,” and “Mine got 5.3 miles.” Another user will pop in and say, “I got 6.1 miles and I use a wheel sensor with my unit.” Simply put, some GPS units are better than others, and the more feature-rich your GPS unit the higher the accuracy.
Third, placement of your GPS unit can play a role in how accurate your tracking will be. I tracked my rides for a long time just using the Strava app and built-in GPS on my iPhone—which I stuck in either a jersey back pocket or the pocket of my riding shorts. Later on, I got a bar mount for my phone and my ride data changed fairly significantly on my regular trail rides just because the phone was open to the sky. I’ve recently purchased a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt that’s mounted on an out-front bar attachment and my data has shifted in accuracy again—especially in elevation data since the Bolt has a barometric altimeter built in. I’ll eventually add the speed and cadence sensors (and perhaps the heart rate monitor) for even higher accuracy.
2. No One Else Cares About Your Strava
Seriously, no one else cares.
OK, well maybe your closest riding buddies care, and perhaps your significant other might care (or at least patiently act like they care), and maybe your Mom cares (if she even knows what you’re talking about). Otherwise, no one else really cares about all that data you’re collecting, or that you set 19 PRs on your last ride, or that you sniped a KOM on a segment of your favorite trail. (Well…the person you took the KOM from cares.)
In the end, all that data you’re collecting is for you and pretty much no one else. I’m a huge fan of Strava for many reasons, but all of those reasons have to do with personal progress and satisfaction. These are the reasons I think you should use Strava—so that you have a record of what trails you rode, when you rode them, and how you’re improving over time.
Listen, I’m not a highly-competitive person by nature, but I understand the mindset. Some of you are competitive, and there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t use Strava to push yourself to beat the times you see recorded on the trails—in fact, I think the entire purpose of KOMs/QOMs is to encourage competition. I also think it’s fun to follow my friends and compare my times to theirs. Most of my friends on Strava have been mountain biking far longer than me and are in much better shape, so their Strava times are still twice as fast (often more) than mine. So, I have a long way to go to catch up, but it’s fun to see how far I’ve progressed. There was a day when my times were three or four times slower than my friends, so getting to the point where I’m only half as fast is a very fun achievement.
But again, no one cares but me. Sure, I’ll get kudos from my friends when I complete a ride, and congratulatory comments when I have a great ride and set a bunch of PRs. That’s fun, encouraging, and another great reason to use Strava. My friends and I can share experiences and build each other up. Which leads to the next rule.
3. It’s Not a Race…Unless It Is
One of the reasons this list was inspired was due to the sometimes bad behavior and reputation of a select few cyclists. As with any sport, there’s a small segment of participants that are so highly-competitive that nothing else matters. They live for the win. They live for crushing the competition. They live to prove they’re better than someone else.
OK, that’s cool, but most of us don’t care. (See rule #2 above.) None of the rides we go on at our local trails are races, so getting passed by someone else is just par for the course—especially if you’re and older, slower, “fluffier” rider like me. Dude, I’m just happy I made it out on my bike and I’m more than willing to pull over and let you pass me, just don’t be a jerk about it.
Don’t be the type that rips around a corner and yells “Strava!” every time you come up on a slower rider. (There’s a name for people like that.) It’s not a race, and the other trail users aren’t your competition. Go out and make friends with those slower riders, show them how to become an awesome rider like you, and show them how to have a good time. They might even show up to your next real race and cheer you on.
4. Strava Is Never an Excuse for Bad Behavior
Tied directly to rule #3, don’t ever forget proper trail etiquette in an effort to gain a new PR or win a KOM. Below is a short—but not exhaustive—list of bad behaviors sometimes witnessed among those who place Strava above all else:
- Rudely passing slower riders.
- Intimidating slower riders by following too closely.
- Failing to stop and help riders in need.
- Refusing to yield properly to other trail users (hikers, etc.).
- Leaving the trail to pass a slower rider.
- Riding around, not through, wet or muddy sections and thus widening the trail.
- Cutting bandit shortcuts (more on this in rule #5).
- Tossing food wrappers and other trash along the trail.
- Not properly controlling your bike and causing erosive damage to the trail surface.
- Riding a closed trail so that no other riders will “get in your way.”
5. Never Fake Your Strava
I’ll never understand it, but there are always those who think cheating makes them look better or makes them feel like they’ve achieved something real. It may surprise you, but there are those who will use underhanded means to fool Strava into making their rides look better—even to the point of stealing other rider’s KOMs.
Seriously, don’t do this. You didn’t earn it. You don’t deserve it.
While I still believe rule #1 above is true, the fact remains that someone does care about their Strava achievements—namely the person who won the achievement. They worked hard to earn it and you’re a jerk if you take it from them without working equally hard, if not harder.
Another way to fake your Strava is to use “alternate” lines on the trail. This doesn’t mean that if a trail has two legitimate options—such as a bypass around a technical feature—that your Strava doesn’t count if you took the easier line. That’s no big deal, especially since bypasses are typically the slower line anyway. The problem is when you create your own lines to shorten or dumb down the trail in an effort to shave a few seconds off of your total time.
What does this achieve? Cutting your own lines—known as Strava lines, cheater lines, sissy lines, snowflake lines, etc.—is just another form of cheating, another form of trying to win something unearned. Not only that, it’s simply bad behavior. Cutting your own lines damages the trail. Don’t do it.
6. If You Ride an E-bike, Mark Your Ride Appropriately
E-bikes are somewhat controversial within the American mountain biking scene. While they’ve gained wide acceptance in Europe and other parts of the world, e-bikes are still frowned upon in most local circles. This post isn’t about bringing up that debate again, but rather encouraging you to properly record e-bike usage on Strava.
Similar to #5, use of an e-bike to post up ride achievements is a form of cheating. Yes, I said it. Using an e-bike to take KOMs/QOMs is cheating.
Why? Because it gives you an unequal advantage over other riders. Yes, rule #1 still applies, but so does rule #5.
There’s a simple fix to this—simply mark your ride as an “E-bike Ride.” The problem is that this isn’t as easy as selecting “ride” or “run” in the app. For now, the easiest solution seems to be just record your ride on Strava an usual, then edit the ride and change the ride type to “E-bike.” This will take your ride off of any regular ride leaderboards and place your ride into an e-bike specific category. Hopefully Strava will make it easier to record e-bike rides in the future, but for now it’s solely your responsibility to police your own rides and mark them appropriately.
If you know of an easier way to mark e-bike rides in Strava, please let me know in the comments.
7. Think Before You Use Strava on Certain Trails
Not every ride should be recorded, or at least not every ride should be made public. You should learn how to mark some rides private depending on the type of trail you ride. Why? Here are a few considerations:
- Don’t Expose Secret Trails: What? There are secret trails out there? How do I find them? How can I ride them? Well, that’s the point—these trails are secret and should stay that way—just like Seth’s Bike Hacks explains during his ride in Hawaii. Many of these trails are open by invitation only (I know about one such secret trail here in North Texas myself, and no I won’t tell you about it), so recording your ride on Strava and making it public exposes the trail location in ways the land manager or trail stewards may not want. Public rides on Strava also show up on the Strava Global Heat Map, making trail locations discoverable by users curious enough to snoop around their local area. Exposing and riding secret trails without invitation is a good way to ensure that trail disappears permanently.
- Private Trails May Need to Stay Private: While it’s doubtful you’re going to expose a top secret military base, you should pay attention to whether or not to mark your ride as private if you’re riding a private trail. If it’s a private trail that’s open to the public—especially if you have to pay an entrance fee of some sort—then marking your ride public is probably no big deal. However, if you’ve received an invitation out to a private ranch or trail, find out from the owner if they’d prefer you mark the ride as private. Doing so will help prevent hundreds of other rides from showing up and begging to ride on private land—or worse yet, illegally trespassing on their land.
- Don’t Use Strava on Bandit Trails: I’m not going to make a statement about whether or not you should ride bandit trails—that risk is on you. However, if you do ride bandit trails, don’t make your ride public. Why? Simply because some bandit trails are allowed to exist because their traffic is kept low. Some entities—such as municipalities or counties—are willing to turn a blind eye to a handful of riders taking their bikes out to ride through the trees every once in a while. The problem comes if suddenly dozens or hundreds of riders start showing up. Then the land managers have to start being concerned with land rights, erosion, liability, and much more which will eventually end up getting the bandit trail shut down. Keep your bandit trail riding to yourself.
8. Have Fun!
Above all, remember why you started mountain biking. If Strava is somehow preventing you from finding regular joy on your rides, then you’re doing something wrong. If that’s you, turn off the phone or bike computer and just ride. Recapture that feeling you originally had when rolling your tires over dirt—the experience that made you want to come back for more. Invite some friends to join you. Invite new riders into the sport, lead them well, and teach them how to have fun.
Isn’t that what mountain biking is really all about?