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The Cult of Strava

The Social Facilitation Theory argues that social evaluation has an impact on performance.

The psychologist Norman Triplett was the first to study this effect, starting in 1898.  He found that cyclists had better race times when in the company of other cyclists.  Further research demonstrated something we now consider obvious:  humans try harder when matched against others. Later work would demonstrate that the mere presence of others could inspire us to work harder.

Fast forward 110 years.   Social facilitation meets social sharing (think Facebook) and Strava is born.  Cyclists now have a way to record the details of a ride and compare those details with those of every other Strava member who has done the same ride.  Thanks to a smartphone app that does away with the need for a dedicated cycling GPS, some one million cyclists use Strava today, and that user base continues to grow.  Cyclists now have access to social evaluation on a massive scale.

Thousands of Strava users have created segments, or specific sections, of their cycling routes.  Any segments will be displayed as part of your ride data in the Strava application.

Strava Segment

The segments table shows your performance on the current ride relative to your previous efforts on the same ride.  Each segment is identified, and the segment distance, elevation, and your performance parameters are displayed.  If your latest performance on a segment is one of your better ones you get a little medal:  gold for a Personal Record, silver for a 2nd best and bronze for a 3rd best time.

Click on a segment and social facilitation comes into play.

Strava Leaderboard

Note: Rider names have been deleted

Now you see your best performance on a segment relative to every other rider on Strava who has ridden the same segment.  I see I need to ride this segment just 0.1 kph faster to be in the top 50!

If I want a hit to my ego I can view the results for men only.  Fortunately for my ego there is only one woman ahead of me on the leaderboard for this segment.  For now.

If I want to feel better I can view the results by age group.  There are only six of us in the 55 to 64 age group for this segment so I am definitely in the top ten!

The ability to virtually compete against others should be a boon, and it is for most riders.  Strava was created to encourage cyclists to train, to climb higher and go faster.  I get a kick out of achieving new personal bests, and this is true for many others as well.

I don’t have the physical gifts to challenge for King of the Mountain (KOM) status.  So there is no chance of seeing one of these, which signifies being atop a segment leaderboard,  on my Strava profile.

Strava KOM

I have been known to push hard for the fastest time in my age group for certain segments though.  Social facilitation in action.

The same social facilitation effect can be a bane as well.  There are people out there who are so competitive that every ride is a do-or-die race in the hunt for KOM crowns.   In some cases literally.  William Flint was killed when he collided with an oncoming car on a downhill stretch of road while apparently trying to reclaim his KOM status.

And in a sad reflection of the recent state of affairs in the professional peloton, riders so inclined can now even artificially enhance their Strava results by giving their data a boost with the help of the website

I’ll leave the KOM sniping to the insanely driven Type A personality riders.  But I do wonder if I can knock two seconds off my time for the Puchong Jaya climb tonight.