Strava, KOM Rankings and Hard Truths

My first 3rd cat race came as a shock. I had won my second 4th Cat race and thought I was unstoppable, my legs were on fire! I soon learned differently, I was good, but not that good. Competing against fellow cyclists has that effect. You can buy a bit more speed, you can learn and refine tactics, you can improve your training and yes you can cheat, but if your body and mind can not keep up with the guy in front, you will win nothing. Competitive cycling forces you to be honest about your physiological and mental limits, and you soon face an uncomfortable truth, there will always be someone who can stretch a little further. Simply put, their engine is bigger than yours.

Over the years I have learned where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I am an average time triallist and my sprint is fading with age, but give me a gradient and I am in my element. Long steady climbs are best, something I put down to formative riding against Fenland headwinds.

Given my reputation for plotting lumpy club run routes, several guys in my club suggested I sign up for Strava. Perhaps they sensed I would find satisfaction on the King of the Mountain league tables (hopefully near the top), and in return I would appease them with flatter routes?

So, back in the Spring I downloaded the app, only to discover it didn’t really work with my phone. Other GPS cycling apps recorded my routes fine, but Strava would mysteriously stop recording or transport me by direct line to a place hundreds of miles away – I wasn’t fooling anyone with an average speed of 732mph.

A couple of months ago I got a new phone and downloaded Strava ready for the weekend club run. That first Sunday morning I forgot to fire it up, the next Sunday I didn’t and arriving back home I was like a child at Christmas. I uploaded the route and waited with anticipation. It worked and I had a bunch of achievements waiting for me to gloat over. Well, not quite. Sure, I had set new personal bests for a number of segments, not surprising since it was the first time I had Strava’d them, but for most, I was way down the KOM leader boards. To make matters worse I could see names above me that I know I can beat, even on a bad day.

I came up with several arguments to justify my terrible positions. I had not known where the route would coincide with segments; I was not trying to be fast on them, just coasting along at club run pace; I was on my single speed (although I don’t think that is such an issue for the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire segments I had ridden). Still, being somewhere behind 100th place rankled. These were segments on my local patch, but complete strangers had had the temerity to ride them and dared to post quick times.

I stewed for a bit.

I studied the leader boards, analysing the names and the times. A lot of the names were familiar to me, being either fellow club members or from rival clubs. This was both a heartening and demoralising exercise. There were names quite high up the KOM rankings that I knew I could beat, so I deduced, anyone below them or near to them I could also beat, certainly the majority. However, the top of the leader boards filled me with gloom. I knew the names, some I had raced against and knew to be strong. Stronger than me. I did not fancy my chances for winning any of my local KOMs.

The next evening I devised a short route to target some of my local segments. Sad I know, but, I wanted to see how I would compare against other riders. For some names it was to get ahead of them, for others, how close could I get to them. The following day I rode out on my fixed gear. Conditions were dry but breezy, and this certainly helped on a couple of climbs.

I was confident I had posted some good times, but wanted to know just how good, so as soon as I got home, I flicked on the wifi and awaited the results. I got a 10th (disappointing), a 3rd and 2nd. Not bad for an hours work.

I have since tried them a few more times and added a few more climbs. My 10th has improved to a 3rd and I have achieved one KOM, but it is a puny climb and shared with 2 others. For now, I’ll leave trying to improve until the summer and my race bike comes out of winter hibernation.

Strava has added a new dimension to my usual rides. OK, the GPS timing is never going to be 100% accurate, and conditions are not controlled. While I am one of the stronger riders in my club, it has reminded me that there are many better riders out there. And then, there may be the rider lying in 30th place who happily spun along, hardly breaking a sweat. Where would they be had they tried?

Despite the flaws in Strava KOM rankings, it is still nice to see where I stand against other riders. It is a reasonable benchmark, but if you really want to know how good you are, enter a race, do a reliability ride and try to keep pace with the fast guys. Better yet try the real race of truth and compete in a TT or Hill Climb. That is where the real kudos is to be gained. Strava is just a bit of fun. Isn’t it?

About richardjostler

Data Scientist working at Rothamsted Research
This entry was posted in Club cycling, club run, Cycling, Cycling routes, Hill climb, racing, Strava and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Strava, KOM Rankings and Hard Truths

  1. geoffrey smith says:

    Excellent article Richard, even at my age i really like having a go on segments i know i can do well on,,,,keep up the good work….G


  2. When I’m out I currently like using it to try and improve myself but I do admit to having a look at the list to see where names I know are. My high point was something like 6th on the Bushmead Sprint segment before I joined the club which was semi amusing, and knocking a neighbour off his spot on the length of Bushmead Road.

    The seamless integration for Garmin files I find to be great and the fact that current circumstances allow me to add in my turbo trainer times for reference.


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