Micky McMahon meets some of the UK’s most prolific virtual trophy hunters
Whether you actively resist it, are a regular user or upload even the two-mile commute to work, most cyclists would agree that since its 2009 release Strava has become one of the most significant technological and social innovations cycling has seen.
Last year UK users clocked up over 521,000,000km. When you consider that the global total was just over five times that, it’s clear how popular the American website has become with us Brits.
However, once acquainted with Strava, you begin to notice that your local ‘segments’ feature the same names in the top spots. So who are these users, and how exactly do they manage to ride 100 miles and return with more gold than the Aztecs?
London and the South East
After the sun and spectacle that accompanied last year’s Yorkshire Grand Départ, the final drizzly run-in to London on stage three was always going to struggle to match the previous two days for grandeur. For the outsider looking in, it may have appeared that the Great British bike boom was something of a northern affair that barely stretched to the capital.
Those who ride regularly in London and the surrounding areas know that this is far from the truth. Indeed, one need only upload a five-kilometre commute into the city to see that the number of people using Strava, and the number of segments, serve as proof that the city boasts some of the most ‘competitive’ riding in the world. Here, we profile some of London’s most prolific Strava users.
Melanie Wasley, East London – 385 QOMs
Melanie Wasley joined Strava three years ago after purchasing a road bike. She says the initial appeal lay in the social aspect of the app.
“I live in East London but ride with a club called Blackline London, who are based in the South-West [Wasley also races for Epsom CC]. When exploring segments you are often visiting somewhere new, or somewhere you might not otherwise visit. You end up exploring more segments and you get a greater sense of how you stack up against other people. I became aware of Maryka [also featured] via Strava. We sort of knew each other through our performances before we’d ever met!”
Four top tips to get you to the summit
Most Strava users are familiar with the concept of giving ‘kudos’ — a way of congratulating another user. You can even upload a photo or leave a comment covering a notable aspect of a ride. It may sound a bit like Facebook for cycling, but Wasley believes the effects are largely positive.
“I think the fact that you can give kudos and general encouragement is a really positive thing. I’ve connected with other cyclists I hadn’t known previously simply through exchanging kudos and comments on each other’s rides.
“I also use Instagram a lot, and having a feature that allows you to upload photos from a ride is great. It gives the ride a bit more character than simply the numbers you did.
“I also enjoy the challenges Strava sets. I think Rapha Rising was the first one I did. I realised how hard it can be to get the climbing done in the number of days for the challenge, but I completed it and have continued to try the other challenges that are set.”
Jon Hughes, Godalming – 217 KOMs
While the long, flat segments are prone to being hijacked by chain-gangs, the uphill tests are generally seen as the true tests of individual effort, as climbing specialist John Hughes points out.
“I knew I was a reasonable climber from riding with others and from a few sportives I’d done, but Strava offered a degree of objectivity — and who doesn’t like a bit of competition?
“The way I use the site has changed quite a bit as my own approach to training and racing has changed. For a year or so, I used it primarily as a way to compare myself to others on climbs, the steeper the better. Friendly competition with local riders, whether you’ve met them in person or not, is still half the fun of Strava.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve become more focused on time trials and especially the autumn
hill-climbs. Strava has become one of the ways I monitor training; very few of my rides are now about attacking a specific KOM, but I will often incorporate maximum efforts on known segments almost as a form of interval training in the run-up to a big competition, such as the Bec CC Hill-Climb in October — which is one of my favourite events.
“Although I know I have quite a lot of KOMs, I’m pretty relaxed about them and will rarely go out and specifically try to reclaim one if it gets beaten — at least not straight away. That said, living in the Surrey Hills, there is a lot of competition, and there are a few segments, such as Whitedown Lane, where I’d love to steal a KOM.
“Overall, my advice would be not to take it too seriously. Think about using Strava to monitor overall fitness and strength and, if you haven’t already, to set goals that go beyond Strava — sportives, TTs or races, or riding with a club. There’s only so much satisfaction you can get from a ‘virtual’ achievement.”
Maryka Sennema, Kingston Upon Thames – 2,390 QOMs
Regular Strava users will be aware of a few notable professional cyclists who use the app. The likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Taylor Phinney and Alex Dowsett are regularly uploading rides for other users to gawp at.
While their training numbers are recorded and logged by team staff and personal coaches, the rest of us must record and analyse our own data, which, as Maryka Sennema explains, means dispensing with the old log-book.
“I first started using Strava in late 2010; a few months later, I joined the premium service. I used it to replace my own method of testing my progress in training on climbs and various loops. Creating and comparing the same segments was much easier than keeping track manually in my logbook.
“With more racers uploading their rides, I now use it for things like Flyby, which can show how a race developed, or to compare TT course segments to see how people paced it.
“I don’t tend to chase QOMs, as I know how dependent the leaderboards are on factors like group riding or wind speed and direction, or Garmin Smart Recording and phone signal for very short segments. The one exception to this are climbs [which are] more reflective of real fitness and ability — and I like climbing!”
The impact of having hundreds, or in London’s case thousands, of users vying over top spots on certain hotly contested segments is that speeds and times are constantly being bettered. As Sennema points out, this kind of competition is not always positive:
“One thing Strava has done to ordinary cycling is made it very speed-obsessed, which isn’t ideal, both from a safety and performance point of view.
“It has made quite a few people take their riding more seriously. For better or worse, people can get carried away with chasing QOMs or racking up miles to be at the top of a club leaderboard.
“While I do believe that chasing QOMs and the whole Strava thing is a good bit of fun, I just can’t take them too seriously from a competition point of view.”
It’s just as well, then, that Sennema has proved her credentials on the race circuit too. She’s a double national hill-climb champion.
How does weight affect climbing?
Richard Cope, High Wycombe – 328 KOMs
In 2012, after 20 years of smoking, and with the determination to get fit, Richard Cope bought his first road bike. Three months later he joined Strava, and what had begun as a plan to start regular gentle exercise quickly developed into an obsession.
“If I ride through a segment for the first time and rank well in it, I might make a mental note of it and have a crack at it next time I’m on that road. I have got involved in a few little friendly ‘battles’ with friends and other local club riders where the KOM has changed hands a few times.
“Favourable wind conditions and the occasional lucky slipstream obviously can help, and sometimes enable the bar to be raised considerably when a segment is strategically attacked!
“I have used short sprint and easy gradient climbing segments as good interval training with some success. You know about it when you’ve put out 700 watts over a two-minute segment! Repeating a segment and improving on a time has kept me interested in getting faster and fitter. Getting ‘results’ on Strava is definitely motivational.”
Cope reiterates the importance of separating oneself from the numbers on your bike computer from time to time.
“Ride with your Garmin in your back pocket sometimes. Enjoy your time on the bike, out in the fresh air. Listen to your body, eat and sleep well, rest and recover. Don’t take unnecessary risks for any segment; there’s nothing to win, and nobody is going to give you a medal for any of it.”
The South West
We caught up with some of the South-West’s most prolific Strava kings and queens to find out how the app enhances their training.
Ben Davis, Bristol – 282 KOMs
One criticism Strava occasionally comes in for is that users become hooked on the numbers they are uploading, and forget about riding for pleasure. Bristol Road Road Club rider Ben Davis started racing in the junior ranks shortly after coming into cycling. While Strava has helped inform his training, he says it cannot be a sole point of reference when it comes to preparation for races:
“I started using Strava about two years ago, shortly after I began cycling. Some of my friends were using it and recommended it as a motivational tool.
“I find it interesting to see how others are training and over time I have used some of the extra features, such as heart rate data analysis,” he says.
“I generally use segments to test form before and during the racing season. It’s on these rides that I may get a few KoMs. Most others come during races themselves.”
So how would Davis improve Strava?
“I think Strava needs to have a tool to de-clutter the timeline — it’s often filled with people joining or getting partway through random challenges, rather than rides themselves.”
Despite being the holder of 282 KOMs, Davis explains that users who are racing, or looking to generally improve their performances, should not base their level upon how they rank in the Strava leaderboards.
“I think Strava is an interesting tool to see where you are, but it’s very dependent on condition. This means it’s sometimes hard to directly compare times. It is always good to get a KoM but actual racing results are much more important.”
Gillian Taylor, Bristol – 766 QOMs
Bristolian Gillian Taylor has been using Strava for the past four years. Riding for Fusion RT in the UK Women’s Team Series means racing against the likes of Laura Trott over the course of a season. New locations mean new Strava segments, and when elite riders are tearing around your local roads, the QoMs come thick and fast.
“When I first started riding Strava it was one of the only means I had to measure myself,” Taylor says. “I didn’t have a heart-rate monitor or a programme or anything, so it was always nice to be able to go and race up some local hills and see where you’re at compared to other people.
“Now that I’m racing at a fairly high level I have quite a specific training programme, which means that I target segments less and they happen more incidentally as a result of riding a lot, and riding hard some of the time.
“Segments come now more as a result of smashing yourself out on a ride with a quick group and favourable winds. There’s a chaingang of blokes that I go out with in the summer, all knocking 10 bells out of each other. I sort of cling on as long as I can. Unless you’re out with a strong group on a particular route you’re going to struggle to get that QoM back.”
Taylor notes that the balance between the sexes has been redressed in recent years.
“There are way more women using it now so there is a lot more competition for segments, particularly the more prestigious ones.
“When you use Strava a lot you tend to notice a lot of the same names coming up, people you haven’t necessarily met before. You often get to know each other through riding before you’ve even met, which can be quite nice.
“One of the downsides can be that if you are ill or at work and you’re getting notifications that someone is out riding, it can get a bit annoying. But it definitely motivates you in that sense,” she adds. “When you see that someone did 18 hours last week, or a series of hill reps at the end of an 80-mile ride, it’s motivating.”
So what advice would Taylor give to someone looking to climb up the club leaderboard?
“If you don’t have a heart rate monitor or power meter then just pick a local climb that has a Strava segment. Then once a month go and do that climb and see how you improve. It gives you a general sense of progress and it’s good to look back on how far you’ve come as a rider.”
Gary Latchem, Wells – 332 KOMs
Not all cyclists who ride at a high level are keen on racing. The commitment, chaos and prospect of damage to bike and body are just some of the factors that put people off. For those cyclists, Strava can be good way to test oneself against other local riders, safely and on your own terms, something Gary Latchem explains:
“I became interested in Strava around 2011, partly because of the nature of friendly competition. I’d always recorded my mileage, but when someone told me about the app and I became aware of some of the local segments. I thought ‘I definitely fancy having a go at that’.
“The club feature, where local cycle clubs can create their own group is excellent. I’m a member of three or four in the area and it makes getting to know and ride with other people so much easier than it was before.
“I’m a bit past it for racing,” he says. “I’m 52 now, but through Strava I have got to know a team called Live2Ride Cycling Team. They’re doing really well on the circuit and I’ve chosen to sponsor them for this year.”
With 332 KoMs Latchem is certainly no slouch. So how exactly does he go about conquering the segments in his local area?
“For those hunting KoMs, my first tip would be never try to go for it in the winter. Wait until summer when the weather’s better. You’re fitter, your muscles are warmer and the air is thinner. That’s the time to get out and really give it a go.”
Robert Thorne, Weston-super-Mare – 320 KOMs
It is not only the major cities of the South-West that find themselves hotbeds of competition on Strava. Robert Thorne, based in Weston-super-Mare, has over 300 KoMs and has been using the app for the past two years. “Most KoMs I have just picked up without knowing that the segment was there, then after a while of riding over the same roads you get to know the start and finish of some of them.”
“I may target a segment if somebody beats my time, but normally only if it’s local,” he says. “I’ve lost as many as 10 in a week, and I’m not going to chase every one I lose.”
So does the idea of having all the miles you ride recorded and shared encourage you to get out more?
“I’m not sure if I ride any more because of Strava, but logging your rides makes getting out on the road easier. A good feature would be for the Strava app to give you updates if you’re down or up on a pre-set segment, or a route you normally ride.
“Strava is great for meeting other riders, locally and nationally.
Thorne continues: “I personally view KoMs as a bit of fun, as there’s always somebody out there who can go a bit quicker than you.
“As far as advice for those looking to improve their performances on Strava — I’d say first of all don’t cheat. Low air pressure and warm conditions will always produce faster times, but fitness is the key.”
Jo Knight, Bristol – 301 QOMs
Jo Knight has been riding with Bristol South CC for several years. A keen and experienced road racer, she enjoys TTs and occasionally ventures out on the tandem with her partner, Andy.
Recently, Knight’s club began using Strava as a means of creating a monthly competition. “There are several hills around Bristol and the club determines which one of them will be designated for that month’s segment competition,” she says. “It’s mostly just a bit of fun. I’m a bit older than some of the other women, so it’s more about beating my own times than directly competing against others.
“If I notice that someone has beaten me by a couple of seconds I may try to get out to better their time.”
Being able to view what kind of training other riders are doing via Strava can influence how and when you ride, as Knight explains. “If it’s a nice day and you see that someone has been out and you haven’t you feel like you’ve missed out. But it’s also a good way to catch up after a ride and find out how other people fared.”
When it comes to recording your fastest time on a segment, or going for a top 10, several theories have been bandied about regarding the best approach. But with 301 QoMs to her name, Knight has some idea of how to go about it. “At the start of the racing season it’s too cold, wet and windy to really record any good times. Summer is the best time to go out and go for some top 10s or PRs.
“Unlike other people I often find that my best times come when I’m riding on my own, rather than with a group. If I’m doing a TT and I’ve got a number on my back I just tend to ride faster.”