Driven by Data, Pros and Joes Alike Vie for Cycling Crowns


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Amateur cyclists who upload their ride data can test themselves against professionals without ever crossing a finish line.

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Jeff Pachoud/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

L’ISLE JOURDAIN, France — The Tour de France pours out pages of standings every day. Not just the daily and overall rankings, but also a variety of secondary competitions for skills like climbing and sprinting.

For some cycling fans, however, that information is not enough. They instead turn to Strava, a social media site that started out catering to weekend warriors but has increasingly attracted professional riders who can engage with fans and participate in a bit of electronic espionage.

Strava started seven years ago as a place where amateur cyclists could boast and take part in virtual competitions that, say, ranked the best times for climbs up popular hills. Over the last two years, however, a growing number of professionals have joined, allowing the amateurs to see exactly how hard the pros race and train.

The company, based in San Francisco, said that about 15 professionals posted every day on the site in 2014. That is up to 50, with about 190 pros using it to varying degrees.

The consequences have been good and bad.

Because anyone can generally ride the same roads used by professionals to race and train, the pro results on Strava give amateur riders aspirational targets. But in areas where professional races are held or top pros regularly train, local heroes have been dislodged, likely forever, from the top spots.

And like much involving the social media world, the embrace of Strava by many pros has created a simmering intellectual property dispute.

But most people in professional cycling recognize Strava’s growing popularity and say that by introducing an element of competition, the site has drastically changed and improved training for amateur and professional cyclists alike.

“I used it this morning when I rode; it told me how far I went, how much elevation I did, how many calories I burned,” Jim Ochowicz, the president and general manager of BMC, an American team, said Friday outside its black and red bus. “It’s fun to use. I think it’s really helped people’s performances.”

Strava exists in large part because racing bicycles have become prodigious generators of data. About the time they made their debut, handlebar-mounted computers, particularly from the American company Garmin, began using GPS technology to go far beyond just capturing speed and distance. Among other things, they allowed riders to store detailed maps of their ride, complete with elevations.

Heart-rate monitors have been common among professional and amateur cyclists for decades, along with devices for measuring their pedaling rate. And over the last five years or so, many amateurs, like the pros before them, have installed special cranks or other systems to measure their power output.

Other sites have sprung up to allow cyclists to post all that material. Strava’s breakthrough, however, was enabling riders to designate any stretch of road as a competitive segment. Its software then automatically ranks all users and, on climbs, bestows on the leaders crowns for being King of the Mountain — or, as more commonly known, K.O.M.

“Strava is crack for cyclists,” said João Correia, an agent who represents several pro cyclists, including some Strava users. “It really changed how people ride their bikes. You can compete anytime. You didn’t need a number on your back, and you don’t have to be a specific place at a specific time.”

Correia said that for his clients like the Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam, Strava was also a far more effective way to build links with fans than conventional social media like Twitter or Facebook.

Lawson Craddock, 24, a rider for the Cannondale Drapac Pro Cycling team, has been a regular Strava user for most of his professional career.

He does it partly as a way to reach fans.

“Anyone can just log on to Strava and compare their fastest time with my fastest time,” he said. “They can see what kind of training we’re doing, how fast we actually go in these races. It’s just a really interesting perspective.”

But Craddock, a native of Austin, Tex., also uses it to check on the state of his competitors.

In Girona, Spain, where he and many other professional cyclists live, Craddock acknowledged that there were regular “Strava battles” among them.

Not everyone is interested, however. Mark Renshaw, an Australian who rides for Dimension Data, said that he already had too much social media to deal with and did not need more.

But even he acknowledged that Strava was “probably a great training tool for the average person or even some of the pros.”

Strava’s popularity wears better with some teams than others.

Ochowicz had nothing but praise for Strava, though he said that BMC had no interest in making any financial deals with the company. But Peter Reef, the communications manager for Giant Alpercin, ten Dam’s employer, said that his team believed the race and training data its riders post was team property being used without compensation. Giant Alpercin, along with other teams, is looking at ways to profit from that data.

“Strava is just a tool to publish the data, and it can be done by other means as well,” Reef said.

Gareth Nettleton, Strava’s vice president for marketing, said the company had been talking to teams about the issue and was sympathetic to their desire to raise money from rider data. But he also suggested that any such money would not be coming from Strava itself.

“We think that Strava kind of brings value to them,” he said, adding that its competitive element and other features made the raw rider data much more interesting. “We could bring contextual layers. It could potentially be a revenue stream for the teams.”

As for pros bumping mere amateurs down the Strava rankings, Craddock suggested Strava should allow users to filter out pro and race results.

Even so, Craddock acknowledged that he felt little remorse about knocking off the amateurs.

“When I log onto Strava after a race and I see all the little crowns I’ve taken the K.O.M.s for, I don’t really feel bad,” he said. “But it kind of sucks when someone else is out there doing the same thing with my times.”

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