Salt Lake City, 11 June 2013 - Attempted Stravacide
I am a witness to attempted Stravacide: the act of self-harm, sometimes resulting in death, while a bicyclist is attempting to increase one’s Personal Record (PR) score or achieve a King of the Mountain (KOM) on a Strava ride segment.
In hindsight the event seems to have been predestined since a buddy got me interested in using Strava to track our cycling performance. Late in 2011 David (not his real name) who had been bitten by the cycling bug pretty hard had told me about Strava and the App’s genius in allowing riders to compare their performance with other riders on segments. Segments as defined by Strava are, “Segments are user-created, user-edited, and designate a portion of route where users can compete for time.” I embraced the idea of Strava and personal achievements wholeheartedly. I was so hooked I even uploaded all of my old ride data from another App to make sure I got credit for every foot I’d climbed and every mile I’d ridden since I began tracking my rides. David likes to sprint and in order to have some KOMs to his name enjoys creating and finding off-the-beaten-path segments where he can be the segment leader on short sprints. As a segment becomes more popular though, as in most things in life, someone better will come along and beat your fastest time. One can easily be dragged into the obsession of continuously checking their rank and pushing themselves harder to cut off that extra second or two so they can move up to the top of list.
The day of the attempted Stravacide David and I had been having fun pushing hard on segments trying to improve our standings while we talked about bikes, families and being competitive.
We’d been riding for a few hours along the East bench of the Wasatch mountain range that borders the Salt Lake Valley and were heading north to one final Strava segment before heading home. The segment goes down a long last fast downhill that then meanders through a winding wooded park on a paved roadway. The ride avoids a number of streets and issues with cars where the only hazards are people and their unleashed dogs. The park begins as you cross two bridges, one over the I-80 going to Park City and one over the I-215 belt route heading North and South into the valley. As a rider crosses the second bridge they have to slow down enough to make a hard right turn or risk driving straight into a concrete retaining wall that sits six feet from the end of the bridge. After the turn off of the bridge there is a long downhill slope where a rider can easily descend at 30 miles an hour. It’s an exhilaratingly fun downhill end to any ride. I know that turn well because I cross that bridge after almost every one of my rides. It’s a welcome sight and means there are only a few downhill miles to go before I’m home.
I’m not sure what David was thinking but I’m sure it had something to do with the Strava segment in the park and improving his PR there. This was not his first time riding over this bridge. I can still picture him getting up out of the saddle, leaning far over the bars to get as much energy into the pedals as we crossed over the second bridge. I remember yelling, “You go,” as he crossed the aluminum threshold of the bridge. It makes a satisfying clack-clack as you cross and I love to stand up over my pedals as I hit the threshold flying over the cars as they speed by below. I remember as I watched David in slow motion go over the bridge thinking he was going too fast and that he seemed way too far forward over the bars. And then I remember seeing him grab the brakes and then put his left arm up to stop the inevitable collision with the wall after he realized the bike was not going to stop. I remember hearing the skid, the crash and watching him crumble into a heap on the ground with his bikes shifter twisted angrily in and eaten away by the stone wall. As I pulled up to him, I asked if he was ok. He said he was but was holding his left arm cautiously. As I put my bike down and walked over to him asking if he could get up I saw that he couldn’t. His arm was shifted off its axis right at the elbow. He said it was going numb and I knew we weren’t going anywhere without help. I grabbed my phone and dialed 911. The operator was very nice asking me if we were on the I-215 that sat 20 feet below us. I tried to explain that we were on the walkway into Tanner Park, my GPS signal not giving her a clear reading. While I gave the operator the details of the crash and our location other bikers came by. One offered David water that he drank insatiably. I remember the same rider came back with more water, probably from home. I remember being told to “get out of the fucking way, asshole” by another bicyclist as he sped over the bridge as I stood there trying to help my friend who was crumpled against the wall and going into shock with his broken bike lying nearby. I guess that guy was trying for his PR in Tanner Park as well.
I had to tell the 911 Operator how the fire department could find us and explained the trek they would have to make to get down to where we were, in the middle of the city we were out of easy reach of medical help. She asked if they could come up the road that sits directly on the other side of the retaining wall. I told her they would have to rappel over to get to us. I explained that the fire trucks should come up 3300 South turn left at the school and stop near the gate entrance to the park. There, I said, they’d have to haul their gear and a gurney down the grade and over two bridges where they’d find us. After we were set waiting for medical help, I gave my phone to David who gave his story to the Operator who was really trying to make sure he was coherent. I took his phone and texted my partner Greg telling him why we were not home yet. Then I called his wife at work. I was able to tell the maître d’ at the restaurant where she worked that I needed to speak to his wife and it was about her husband but we were cut off when I was put on hold while someone went to get her. There was a delay in my calling back because Greg called to ask what happened. I quickly explained that he should come get the bikes, and hung up. When I reached the restaurant again, I heard the voice of the staff who nervously answered the phone, “halloo?!” I asked for David’s wife who was by then anxiously waiting by the phone for my call. I could imagine the staff huddled around the phone with her in this swanky place all waiting to hear the news. “David was hurt, he’s alive, he’s ok, and we’re waiting for the paramedics. It will be a while, we’ll meet you at the hospital,” I said as calmly as I could.
In the meantime we heard the wail of fire trucks coming up 3300 South not far from us. We watched the lights of three trucks lit like Christmas trees celebrating David’s achievement pulling up next to the park entrance. And we waited as they began unloading everything they’d need to rescue David. The wait seemed like forever. The sun was setting and David was quickly going into shock. I didn’t have a blanket and moving him would have moved his arm, an unthinkable act. He was turning white and I tried to say and do what I could to comfort him as we watched members of the Salt Lake Unified Fire Department come bounding over the bridge. The paramedics carefully took David’s vitals trying not to move him while they assessed his condition and decided how to stabilize his arm before moving him. We waited again, me chatting with the firemen as the morphine took effect and David relaxed, as they placed a deflateable brace around his arm. He was put on the gurney and we all began the long hike across the bridges and up the hill to the ambulance. Until then, I’d never walked over those bridges and up the hill. It’s a lot faster on a bike; it must have been painful sitting on a gurney with a shattered arm. I rode in the front of the ambulance with the driver and David with the paramedics in the back. I don’t want to have to do that ride again. I’ll never forget questioning whether I’d done all the right things or if I should have done more.
I asked the Paramedics about the hospital I’d chosen to tell his wife where to meet us; they would have suggested an alternative they said. But we were almost there. I understood why when the charge nurse said rather rudely, “Why are you here? You didn’t call,” as we walked into the Emergency Department. They did call because I was there to hear it.
Not only did David drink the two or three bottles of water from the helpful cyclist while I was on the phone with 911 but he’d had a protein bar sometime during our ride. The surgeons who saw him told him it would take about eight hours for the bar and the water to digest before they could fix his arm. While we sat at the hospital, he said he’d learned his lesson that PRs and KOMs were not the only important things in life. He’s young and I knew it was the painkillers playing with his head. It wouldn’t be that easy for him to ride with less bravado. He slept with his arm in a temporary cast holding its precarious position overnight. Early in the morning the surgeons cut his arm open from behind and pinned the bone together before stitching him back together. He wore a brace for several weeks and was eagerly doing all he could to regain his riding abilities. David could not ride until the middle of August last year.
Every time I ride into Tanner Park over those bridges I am reminded of that day. The skid mark leading to the wall when David hit the brakes and the helter skelter skid marks of the wheels as David and the bike met the wall is still there a year later. I spent three months after David’s crash forcing myself to get back on the bike and to ride. It took even longer to not fear speed and turns. Only now, a year later, can I relax on a downhill and enjoy the wind in my face as my bike races down. I rode with David in February, one of our first rides together since his crash. I stayed behind him and watched as he shook his left arm regularly to alleviate the cold and pain from the steel brace holding his arm in one piece. I think I’ve ridden with David twice since the crash. I wonder if riding with me brings back painful memories of that day and of his declaration about having learned his lesson about chasing KOMs. Since recovering from the crash he’s come back full force and I cannot compete with his war chest of quarter-mile sprint Strava KOMs. And to assure his segment standings he’s prone use two separate GPS devices, an iPhone and a Garmin, on one ride so that he can record the better of the two datasets. These are the consequences of attempted Stravacide.
I don’t think this story is unique. At least one rider died trying to regain a Strava KOM on a downhill where he was reportedly on the wrong side of the road hitting a car and ending his life on the way to personal glory. We’re not going to debate the legality of any lawsuits here but Strava is not a silent witness to the pursuit of KOMs. If you happen to be the KOM of a Strava segment and someone breaks your record on that segment Strava will send you a friendly email informing you of your loss of status, “Uh oh! Julian just stole your KOM!”
The troubling part of all of this is that there’s a little glitch in the Strava data stream. GPS device data is not perfect but Strava uses the data from dissimilar GPS devices such as your iPhone, Garmin Edge 200, 500, or Android phone to document your segment times, PRs and KOMs. Each of these devices records the data differently. As Strava’s Support Team Member, Elle A., told me in an email, “The Garmin Edge 500 and 800 has a barometric altimeter built in, which provides a higher level of elevation accuracy. Your device depends on relative locations of the satellites to estimate your elevation. I’m really sorry if this doesn’t make sense, but we accept the Garmin Edge 500 and 800 elevation data as is, but auto-correct the Garmin 200 elevation data according to an elevation database. In basic terms, your elevation data compared to the Edge 500/800 is not apple to apples in the first place, so that is why we treat them differently.”
In another email I wrote to Strava asking why they didn’t normalize the altitude data for hills since mapping companies such as Google document the height of every hill. Elle answered that, “discrepancies can occur, naturally.” Elle also told me that Strava’s switch, “to 1-second recording intervals with [their] Mobile Apps will improve segment matching accuracy… So, we hope that our users feel a greater degree of confidence when looking at a segment leaderboard with results from iPhones, Androids and Garmins. Often, we hear of users that feel that some segment times are inaccurate simply based on what device was used to record the data!”
If, as Elle so kindly stated, you’re not comparing “apples to apples in the first place,” why does Strava promote competition by informing people they’ve lost their KOM? Wouldn’t it be better and safer to let the rider find they’ve lost their status since the data is not accurate across differing devices anyway? Since Strava admits that we’re looking at apples, oranges, and pears to determine KOMs perhaps they should be a bit more cautious about how far they go to compare riders’ standings.
I think Strava is a good product in general. The ability to compare your progress on a recorded segment over time is wonderful for watching your own fitness and enjoying personal improvement. The program tracks your annual, weekly, and monthly altitude and mileage. And it allows you to create your own personal segments. This is a nice feature that gives the rider some control over the information the software reports.
But if Strava is going to promote competition they need to make improvements in the data stream comparison from differing devices. Strava own millions of data points that are encoded with the device that generated the record. One would think Strava could figure out how to program some algorithm to turn the pears and oranges into something that looks more like apples. Until then, Strava should not be announcing lost KOMs to riders via email which is what I’m sure they did to the rider who died running into the car.
Strava allows a rider to compare segment competitors in several ways including filtering by people the rider follows, or by age or weight class (if you’re a premium member). I suggest that until they can compare apples to apples, Strava allow a rider to compare their results only to riders using the same brand and model of GPS device. This would give a rider a bit more confidence that they’re comparing similar information.
The Internet is a fickle place to do business. And in order to remain the key player in its market segment Strava will have to improve their product so that, as Elle said, “users feel a greater degree of confidence when looking at a segment leaderboard.” If Strava cannot improve customer confidence they’ll find their revenue stream from premium members drying up quickly. Riders like David will move to a program that can guarantee data accuracy so they can rest assured they’ve actually earned their KOMs rather than winning as a consequence of potential data errors or having to resort to double dipping on a single ride. If you’re going to commit Stravacide vying for a KOM you should be confident you’ve won with accurate data.