The New Truths Of Cy­cling

Liv­ing with apps with­out los­ing your chill.

Bicycling (South Africa) - - Contents - By Paul Roberts

NOT LONG AGO, I went on what may have been one of the most glo­ri­ous rides of my life – a three-anda-half-hour ru­ral loop with a steep 10-kay climb that’s fa­mous among lo­cals. It was one of those days when ev­ery­thing – weather, train­ing, rest, group chem­istry, and caf­feine – came to­gether per­fectly. I soared up the val­ley at a scorch­ing pace that I knew would earn me a Strava PR – per­haps even a place in the hal­lowed Top 10. As I ped­alled, I could al­most see the ku­dos rack­ing up.

Alas, when I down­loaded the file, it was empty. In my post-ride bliss, I’d for­got­ten to save my ride be­fore pow­er­ing down. The ride – and all my prospec­tive glory – had van­ished. There’d be no rit­ual post-ride data wal­low. No analysing of watts or heart rate. And cer­tainly no PR or ku­dos: as far as Strava was con­cerned, I’d never even got out of bed. Hell, I’d been so busy hav­ing the ride of my life that I hadn’t taken out my phone, so I didn’t even have a photo to post. I spent the rest of the day in a se­ri­ous mope; and as em­bar­rass­ing as it is to ad­mit, the loss still an­noys me.

The abil­ity to mea­sure, doc­u­ment, and share what I do on the bike has added enor­mously to ev­ery­thing from train­ing to bike-re­lated so­cial­is­ing. Yet for a long time, I saw this dig­i­tal side of cy­cling as se­condary: the pri­or­ity was al­ways the ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence. These days, I’m not so sure. Some­where along the line, I – and a lot of other cy­clists – be­gan to prize the dig­i­tal ‘out­puts’ al­most as much as the ride it­self.

Look at how rou­tine it’s be­come for us to doc­u­ment ev­ery­thing. I’ve seen dudes whip out their phones for self­ies in the mid­dle of a road race, and even so­cial rides start with a cho­rus of chirps from Garmins and Wa­hoos. Ev­ery 60 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to Strava, an­other six cy­clists sign up for the app.

Record­ing and post­ing is be­com­ing so re­flex­ive that many of us are also ask­ing the ques­tion: for all that our apps have given us, are we los­ing some­thing, too? Are we for­get­ting about the im­pos­si­ble-to-track feel­ing of be­ing on a bike that drew us to rid­ing in the first place? And if so, what can we do about it with­out go­ing full Lud­dite?

There is a mid­dle ground. But find­ing it re­quires an aware­ness of how tech af­fects our rides. Here’s how we got to ‘Strava or it didn’t hap­pen’ – and how we might strike a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween the real and the dig­i­tal.

1. This was more or less in­evitable.

CY­CLING’S DIG­I­TAL REV­O­LU­TION com­bines two of the most pop­u­lar trends in con­sumer cul­ture – so­cial me­dia, and self­track­ing. And frankly, it would be hard to find a sport bet­ter suited to mea­sur­ing, mon­i­tor­ing, and quan­ti­fy­ing. The bike it­self, with its stan­dard­ised com­po­nents that move in con­sis­tent ways, is eas­ily equipped for mea­sure­ment. (No sur­prise that cy­cling had some of the ear­li­est data-gath­er­ing tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing the ‘cy­clome­ter’, in­tro­duced in the late 19th cen­tury, which used ro­ta­tions of the wheel to mea­sure dis­tance trav­elled.) The sport’s me­chan­i­cal na­ture also tilts it to­wards the tech-savvy. And cy­cling cul­ture has al­ways re­volved around the idea of go­ing fur­ther and faster.

What’s more, com­pared with other ac­tiv­i­ties, cy­cling ar­guably gives us more rea­son to mea­sure and share. The bike’s me­chan­i­cal ad­van­tage mag­ni­fies our own nat­u­ral power – which means we can cover more ground than ath­letes in most other sports, and can tackle ex­tremes like long climbs and blis­ter­ingly fast de­scents. Cy­cling can put us in places that prac­ti­cally cry out for quan­tifi­ca­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion.

2. Feel ‘ad­dicted’? It’s not a co­in­ci­dence. AS WITH SMART­PHONES

and other per­sonal tech, cy­cling gad­gets and apps are en­gi­neered to feel in­dis­pen­si­ble. (Poll: when do you check Strava – be­fore or af­ter you change out of your kit?) In a fas­ci­nat­ing blog post from 2014, mar­ket­ing ex­pert and ‘be­havioural de­signer’ Nir Eyal breaks down the way com­pa­nies such as Nike use ex­er­cise data to en­cour­age users to forge a psy­cho­log­i­cal link be­tween ex­er­cise and their apps and gad­gets. The goal for Nike, how­ever merce­nary it sounds, is to “own the in­stant just be­fore the user heads out the door to work out,” writes Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Form­ing Prod­ucts. Eyal calls this mo­ment the ‘trig­ger’. As he de­scribes it, “De­sign­ers should be able to fill in the blank for the phrase, ‘Ev­ery time the user (____), they use my app.’ The blank should be the in­ter­nal trig­ger.” A habit-form­ing prod­uct also of­fers a re­ward, he says, or what psy­chol­o­gists call ‘in­ter­mit­tent re­in­force­ment’. In Strava, PRs and leader­board no­ti­fi­ca­tions per­form this func­tion. →in­ally, the prod­uct asks for what Eyal calls ‘in­vest­ment’: ac­tions that in­crease the like­li­hood of re­turn. When you log a train­ing ac­tiv­ity on Strava, or even fol­low other rid­ers, Eyal says, you’re mak­ing an in­vest­ment.

3. Tech le­git­i­mately helps us to en­joy the ride more.

IT’S NOT JUST that we’re ad­dicted to data. Be­sides be­ing use­ful for train­ing, dig­i­tal apps can ac­tu­ally make cy­cling more sat­is­fy­ing. Any­one who’s ever used a note­book to record how many kays they’ve rid­den knows how af­firm­ing and mo­ti­vat­ing it is to keep a ride log. As Eyal points out, “Ath­letes want to know their ef­fort mat­ters.” These apps, he says, al­low us to feel that “all that sweat­ing isn’t go­ing to waste”.

Snap­ping that ’gram can ac­tu­ally up the ‘whee!’ fac­tor on a ride, too. A 2016 study in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy found that tak­ing pic­tures dur­ing sight­see­ing tours and meals made those ac­tiv­i­ties sig­nif­i­cantly more en­joy­able. Why? When peo­ple snap pic­tures, says Kristin Diehl, one of the study’s au­thors and a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, “they have to de­cide ‘What is it I want to take a photo of?’ and that shifts how they look at the world.” Diehl, who also hap­pens to be a com­pet­i­tive triath­lete, tells me that when that men­tal process hap­pens on the bike, we be­come more men­tally and emo­tion­ally in­vested in the ride.

4. It can even help us en­joy the ride longer. CY­CLISTS HAVE AL­WAYS

re­hashed their epic ad­ven­tures, in lov­ing de­tail, and of­ten over beers or cof­fee. But thanks to dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, our rit­ual re­caps can now oc­cur vir­tu­ally, any­where and any­time.

In 2015 and 2016, a team led by Deb­o­rah Lup­ton, a so­ci­ol­o­gist from the Univer­sity of Can­berra in Aus­tralia, spent months closely ob­serv­ing 18 self-track­ing cy­clists as they rode around the cities of Can­berra and Mel­bourne.

Lup­ton was keen to un­der­stand ex­actly how cy­clists were us­ing data – for ex­am­ple, when they re­viewed ride data (dur­ing the ride ver­sus af­ter) and how they in­ter­preted it. Rid­ers wore GoPros as they pre­pared for the ride and af­ter they fin­ished.

Lup­ton found that rid­ers re­lied on data not only to as­sess their per­for­mance, but also to re­live the ride – for ex­am­ple, by us­ing surges in speed, power, or heart rate to con­firm their mem­o­ries of the sen­sa­tions and emo­tions they’d ex­pe­ri­enced. Data can be used for anal­y­sis, “but it can also just be about re­mem­ber­ing the ride you’ve done,” Lup­ton told me, “the plea­sure of it, or the mis­ery of it.”

Hours or days af­ter a ride, from the quiet soli­tude of our homes or desks at work, we can post and peruse pho­tos and videos. If the ride was fast and com­pet­i­tive, we can com­pare our seg­ment times against our friends’ and ri­vals’ – and make a few play­ful digs in the com­ments.

→ea­tures like →lyby on Strava even al­low us to watch a group ride hap­pen all over again: we can see how peo­ple rode to the meet-up, who got dropped, who went off the front.


5. Thanks to so­cial me­dia, we prob­a­bly ride more, and faster.

IN­DEED, DIGI­TI­SA­TION HAS added a new com­pet­i­tive dy­namic to cy­cling. See­ing what oth­ers are do­ing – how fast some­one rode a par­tic­u­lar seg­ment, or how many hours they put in this week – can mo­ti­vate us to ride more our­selves. And know­ing that our friends can see where we’ve rid­den, how far, and how fast – on­line train­ing pro­grammes such as Train­erRoad even al­low you to share your power tests – can push us to ride harder.

Si­nan Aral, mar­ket­ing and so­cial me­dia ex­pert at the MIT Sloan School of Man­age­ment, calls this a ‘con­ta­gion’ ef­fect. In a 2017 study he co-au­thored for Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Aral found that our friends’ so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­i­ties can mea­sur­ably in­flu­ence how much ef­fort we put into our own train­ing. By ob­serv­ing the be­hav­iour of 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple in a global so­cial net­work over five years, Aral found that on the same day, on av­er­age, an ad­di­tional kilo­me­tre run by one’s friends can in­flu­ence an in­di­vid­ual to run an ad­di­tional 0.3 kilo­me­tres. There’s a sim­i­lar cor­re­la­tion for speed: see­ing a fast run post from a friend on so­cial me­dia can en­cour­age you to up your pace, too.

6. Prob­lem is, rid­ing more and faster doesn’t al­ways mean hav­ing more fun. MO­TI­VA­TION IS ONE

thing, but non­stop com­pet­i­tive pres­sure can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, to say the least. The ef­fort to shave sec­onds can cause some cy­clists to ride reck­lessly, risk­ing crashes and other in­jury to chase QOMs or KOMs on de­scents. But even ca­sual rides or solo ses­sions that should be fun can feel un­com­fort­ably like a race, with a con­stant need to ‘per­form’ for fol­low­ers, or match our friends’ (or fren­e­mies’) weekly mileage or seg­ment times.

In fact, the al­ways-on-dis­play so­cial me­dia el­e­ment of cy­cling can ac­tu­ally in­ter­fere with train­ing, says Joe →riel, a vet­eran coach and train­ing author. That’s es­pe­cially true for com­pet­i­tive cy­clists, who are most in need of time to re­cover. “If you’re train­ing for KOMs or PRs, well, that’s fine,” →riel says. “But if you’re train­ing for road races, there’s a lot more to it than beat­ing your time up a Strava climb.”


7. And some­times we to­tally miss out on the ex­pe­ri­ence. WE NOW ROU­TINELY

split our cy­cling into an ex­pe­ri­en­tial ‘dur­ing’ mode and a datadriven ‘af­ter’ mode. We col­lect ride data and pho­tos dur­ing the ride, and en­joy them af­ter­wards. That’s great – ex­cept that some­times, it may feel as if the point of the ‘dur­ing’ phase is to cre­ate that stuff we can use ‘af­ter’.

In the In­sta­gram era, it’s con­sid­ered essen­tial to come back from a ride with The Shot – a pic­ture or video that you just know “is re­ally go­ing to res­onate” with other rid­ers, says Andy Bokanev, an am­a­teur racer and pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher with a large In­sta­gram pres­ence. The prob­lem, of course, is that search­ing for that one photo may di­lute your cur­rent ex­pe­ri­ence. Or as Bokanev puts it, “You’re think­ing, ‘Oh, this is a re­ally cool sun­set spot;’ but then in­stead of just stand­ing there and view­ing the damn sun­set, you’re try­ing to take the per­fect pic­ture on your iPhone, which is never go­ing to hap­pen any­way, and you’re miss­ing out on the ac­tual mo­ment.”

And, of course, that risk of dis­trac­tion is hardly lim­ited to pho­tos. When we’re rid­ing in full geek mode, it’s hard not to be con­stantly aware of the way the ride will be viewed later on, by our­selves and by oth­ers, and how that will make us feel. Men­tally, we’ve left the bike al­ready.

8. In ex­treme cases, rides start to re­volve around con­tent cre­ation. “FOR SOME FOLKS,

the num­bers and the images be­come the ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Keith Camp­bell, psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia and an ex­pert in tech­nol­ogy, iden­tity, and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. As a se­ri­ous am­a­teur surfer, Camp­bell wit­nessed a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion in his sport, where the preva­lence of GoPros turned rank am­a­teurs into would-be YouTube stars. On re­cent surf­ing ex­pe­di­tions, Camp­bell says, each day’s ses­sion is fol­lowed by a group re­view where the ath­letes, some of whom hope to turn pro, re­view and pick from the day’s pho­tos and videos to post. “In the old days you’d be­come a lo­cal leg­end by word of mouth, or by do­ing some­thing leg­endary that peo­ple saw,” he says. “To­day, to be a leg­end, you need video.”

Clearly, we’re not all look­ing for pro con­tracts. But for some, cy­cling can be­come a per­sonal brand­ing en­ter­prise. Our data and pic­tures be­come a form of ‘so­cial cur­rency’, says Camp­bell, and “the ride is sim­ply a way of gen­er­at­ing that”.

Ouch. Camp­bell ad­mits that the idea of so­cial cur­rency is pretty mech­a­nis­tic – yet it does help ex­plain the in­tense feel­ings we have for our dig­i­tal prod­ucts, and how painful it is when our pic­tures and data go miss­ing.

9. The con­tent from a ride can even change how we re­mem­ber it. YOU KNOW THE

sce­nario: you fin­ish an epic ride only to dis­cover that ac­cord­ing to your data, your per­for­mance was merely av­er­age – no tro­phies, no PRs, no ku­dos from ad­mir­ing rid­ers. Sud­denly, you feel less ac­com­plished and even dis­ap­pointed. In what I’ll call the Strava Over­write, the dig­i­tal ‘re­sults’ may un­der­mine our ac­tual mem­o­ries and feel­ings.

This over­write phe­nom­e­non is ac­tu­ally quite com­mon in the broader uni­verse of self-track­ing gad­getry. Kate Craw­ford, a Mi­crosoft re­searcher and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the MIT Me­dia Lab who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on self­track­ing, says any­one who uses the tech­nol­ogy is po­ten­tially cre­at­ing a ‘split nar­ra­tive’ in the way their lives are mea­sured: there’s the ex­pe­ri­ence of the ride, and the ac­tual hard data, and these nar­ra­tives can di­verge.

When that hap­pens, we’re con­fronted with what feels like a stark choice: ei­ther re­ject the data, or re­ject our own mem­o­ries and per­cep­tions. And since nei­ther is very at­trac­tive, we’re of­ten left with a sense of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance.

But Lup­ton, the so­ci­ol­o­gist be­hind the Aus­tralian study on self-track­ing cy­clists, sees a sil­ver lin­ing. Any time we en­counter a con­flict be­tween mem­ory and data, she says, it’s an op­por­tu­nity to re-ex­am­ine the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our real and vir­tual selves; and per­haps, to ad­just that re­la­tion­ship.


10. Bal­ance is to­tally achiev­able. FOR A FEW

of us, re­tain­ing the things we love about the ride means jet­ti­son­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy al­most en­tirely. But to most, our ride apps are sim­ply too use­ful and en­joy­able, so we’ll seek a bal­ance.

→or some, that may in­volve tem­po­rar­ily un­plug­ging. “Peo­ple go through these phases where they get burned out on data and so­cial me­dia,” says pho­tog­ra­pher and cy­clist John Wat­son. De­spite Wat­son’s heavy pres­ence on In­sta­gram, he has con­sciously min­imised tech­nol­ogy in his own cy­cling life: he tracks no per­for­mance data, and uses Strava only to find cool new trails to ride. Wat­son says he’s watched many of his rid­ing friends make sim­i­lar tech down­grades. One year, they’re “datahun­gry road rac­ers”, Wat­son says. The next, “they’re bike-pack­ing and wear­ing san­dals. We jok­ingly say, ‘Oh, you’re a hip­pie rider now. You haven’t shaved your legs in three months and you don’t use a Garmin any more.’” Wat­son’s point isn’t that we should re­ject data, but that maybe we need to broaden our def­i­ni­tion of data. “If your legs are tired, take a rest day,” Wat­son says. “It’s still data – it’s just not on a screen.”

Bokanev takes a sim­i­larly util­i­tar­ian ap­proach. He re­lies un­abashedly on his dig­i­tal tools for train­ing, es­pe­cially dur­ing the win­ter months, when most of his rid­ing is “the mo­not­o­nous, in­door, dayto-day stuff”, he says, and when cy­cling data keeps him hon­est about how many hours he’s putting in. But he ig­nores his data for races and group rides, “when none of that mat­ters”.

11. Aware­ness is power.

DUR­ING A RE­CENT trip to Europe, Bokanev had a chance to ride the sportive edi­tions of the Tour of →lan­ders and Paris-Roubaix. Both rides were ex­tra­or­di­nary – among his best cy­cling ex­pe­ri­ences ever. But he was on a bor­rowed bike, with­out any gad­gets. “There was a mo­ment where I re­ally wished I had a power me­ter so I could know how much power I put out there,” Bokanev told me. “And then it’s like, ‘Oh, screw that.’” He laughs. “Thank­fully, it was just a fleet­ing thought.”

Bokanev and Wat­son sug­gest that cy­cling in the dig­i­tal age re­quires us to draw dis­tinc­tions be­tween raw data and real knowl­edge. As of­ten as we check our screens, we need to be check­ing on the ex­pe­ri­ence of the ride and whether we’re en­joy­ing our­selves.

Ask your­self: do your rides shape the kind of data and pic­tures you come home with? Or has the goal of get­ting data and pic­tures changed the shape of your rides?

In the end, the most im­por­tant ques­tion may be: who are you rid­ing for? Your so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers – or your­self? And if you’re rid­ing for your­self, is it the self who is on the bike now, or the one who will be re­view­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence later?

→or Bokanev, the key is re­mind­ing our­selves that our own ex­pe­ri­ence and mem­o­ries are in­her­ently more valu­able than any dig­i­tal prod­uct. “Those rides when you were just too tired to take out your phone, and later you’re like, ‘Man, I should have taken a photo’? ” he says. “That shouldn’t take away from the ac­tual ex­pe­ri­ence; be­cause in the end, who are you try­ing to im­press? If you were there, that should re­ally be the end of it.”

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