Does Strava Local Legends Take the Joy Out of Cycling?

Comova Cycling is about finding joy through exploration by bicycle. What about cycling brings you joy?

For some, it’s the bike itself. I love my Black Mountain Cycles “monstercross” bike more than any bike I’ve ever owned. From my first ride on it when I took it felt as if the bike was anticipating my every move, to my local “dump lap” route (a gravel road around a retired landfill) where the bike transitions seamlessly from bike path to chip seal to packed gravel to loose aggregate. Riding this bike brings me joy.

I also find joy in identifying the perfect piece of gear–whether components, accessories or even clothing. Right now I’m running WTB Exposure 36 tires and they are amazing. What can’t they do? Just the idea of testing the limits of these tires by taking them out on a new route or different terrain gets me motivated to go out for a ride.

Cyclists have all sorts of reasons for riding. But at the end of the day, you have to identify the things about cycling that bring you joy. For some, joy is derived from setting goals and achieving them, something that apps like Strava strive to make easier and easier.

But gamifying every aspect of cycling to nudge people to compete with one another may also take the joy out of cycling. Strava’s “Local Legend” is an achievement “awarded to the athlete who completes a given segment the most over a rolling 90-day period regardless of pace or speed.”

In other words, Strava has created an incentive, at least for those motivated to attain Local Legend status, to go out and repeat a particular segment as many times as possible. Sort of like Everesting, but where the elevation gain is unimportant. Where’s the joy in that?

As someone who used to hold some KOMs, about 10 years ago when local pros had yet to discover Strava, I understand the addition of this feature. I don’t compete for KOMs any longer. And since most of my PRs were set in my prime, and aging has a way of slowing us down, these days I don’t even bother to look at a ride to see if I’ve bested my own time on a segment. So how does Strava keep a cyclist like me actively engaged with the site? They have to find new ways to motivate us.

As DC Rainmaker says, “The whole point of this is to effectively award participation points as opposed to awarding fastest time points.”

Caley Fretz at CyclingTips supports the idea of “a leaderboard dedicated to consistency and frequency of activity,” because “it opens up ways to ‘win’ on Strava to more than just the fastest riders. It makes the service more inclusive.”

But what happens when we use this premise to imagine how Strava’s Local Legends might shape other aspects of cycling? Fretz would like to see device makers add features to leverage this new Strava achievement. “How cool would it be if my Wahoo/Garmin/Karoo/whatever device,” asks Fretz, “popped up a message that said ‘You just became the Local Legend!’, just like it does for taking the KOM?”

Need motivation before you’ve actually achieved Local Legend status? Fretz imagines GPS devices that determine when you’ve crossed a segment and give you an encouraging message like “5 more times on this Segment to become the Local Legend.”

Has Strava become so dominant that a new feature has a trickle down effect, first to GPS devices and then to the actual style and spirit in which we ride? We already have the answer in the form of “KOM Hunting” tips (see herehere and here specifically for triathletes).

When Fretz confesses that such a feature might motivate him to “game the ride a bit more,” it is apparent that Local Legends is likely to have the same effect on how people plan and undertake a ride. Gamification of cycling is the natural outcome of the premise that narrowly defines cyclists’ motivations in terms of quantifiable, and thereby rankable, achievements.

Strava doesn’t seem to be in the business of supporting cyclists in finding joy in cycling. They are in the business of manipulating our need to be seen and to be ranked favorably by those who see us. Stimulating this need with the lure of new badges, icons, and notifications seems unlikely to nurture joy in cycling over the long haul and may even snuff out other ways of finding joy, especially for new cyclists.

In the end, Fretz redeems himself and I agree with his conclusion that both gamification and exploration (presumably without gamification) have their merits:

“Any ride is a good ride,” writes Fretz. “We simply hope that this is the first step in Strava branching out into more types of competition, suited to different types of riders, who ride in different ways. That’s what makes the service fun, after all.”

What if Strava or another platform created segments or routes not for the purpose of generating competition and comparison, but with the intent to crowdsource and share local knowledge about highlights or features of a segment or route that might be valuable to other riders looking for new places to ride or new experiences to have while riding?

Along with watts and VAM we could be tracking pavement quality, shoulder width, sights, scents or even wildlife observed. There are a wide range of potential characteristics for ranking routes instead of (or in addition to) riders. What if a platform allowed users to filter and find routes by dialing up or down the characteristics important to them?

The beauty of it is that we can have both features to track fitness and mark personal achievements and features to enhance our ability to discover roads and routes that make a ride more enjoyable.

I won’t mind if KOM hunters want to come out to race around my “dump lap,” as long as they don’t mind if I stop to watch the red tailed hawks circling overhead in search of the elusive landfill jackrabbit.