Striving for fitness

I wrote a year ago about Strava, and about how it was then providing me with something to strive for in my cycling. Since then, a lot has changed. I was fit at that stage, having just done a LEJOG cycle in 12 days. There weren’t that many people using Strava in my area, there were consequently far fewer segments, and thus getting up to reasonably respectable positions on the leaderboards was possible.

Fast forward a year, and the situation has changed. The number of Strava users has mushroomed, and so has the number of segments. The ride I remarked on a year ago had four segments then, with each having, from 7 to 30 riders on the leaderboard. That same ride today has 20 segments, some of which have up to 700+ riders. It’s a different ball game (to the extent that cycling is a ball game at all). Strava has received a fair bit of bad press due to the way it encourages cyclists to go all out and disregard safety in pursuit of the top spot. There’s a good, balanced article worth reading here. The point is, though, that there are a lot of really good, professional (or quasi-professional) cyclists out there hogging the leaderboards, and a rank amateur such as me doesn’t really stand much of a chance at all.

So, I’ve switched to using it as a way of measuring my own progress, and fitness level. Instead of competing against the other cyclists directly, I aim for my own personal best, with a sideline goal of getting into a certain percentile band. I also focus on the hillier segments – the flat and downhill ones are just there for flat-out sprinting, which I’m just not much good at at all. The first time I ride a segment, I’m usually not aware that it’s there – you only find out when you get back home and review the ride. I’m happy if I’m in the top half, and rather pleased if I’m in the top third. On subsequent rides, then, I’ll focus on a few hills that I think I’ve got a chance at improving my time on. I’m finding that three or four intense hill climbs each hour of cycling does wonders for strength and endurance. I aim to get into the top quarter, with a mental gold star for a top 10% place.

As an example, here are my times from one of those segments I managed to get second place on at first attempt. It’s quite clear to see the drop in fitness over winter, followed by the subsequent steady improvement over this season. I finally managed to beat my time of last year, and am now a bit nervous of trying it again.


My times on Henley Road

My times on Henley Road

That time of 14:42 was good enough for second out of about 24 riders last year (first place was 13:42). Now, 14:22 only gets me 24th out of 202. Not quite gold star yet.

What I really wish for, though, would be an overall ride measurement, apart from the total average speed. Something that takes all the segments ridden, works out what percentile your time was for that ride, and calculates a weighted average. If there’s anyone out there who knows how to do magic with the Strava API, please let me know – I have all the calculations required in my head, but don’t know how to get hold of all the data.

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5 Responses to Striving for fitness

  1. Jason Bice says:

    I really think you hit the nail on the head in your third paragraph. For us mortals in the cycling world, PR’s (rather than raw rank) are where we can truly find value in the segment. Like you, I don’t pay any mind to downhill segments, as they’re little more than games of chicken, and rather dangerous ones at that. I do enjoy sprints, though. I also ignore any segment that crosses an intersection or stop sign.

    I’ve come to accept that my fitness level and my progress are both entirely unrelated to the performance of others. As long as I set the occasional PR from one week to the next, and as long as my average MPH increases over the long haul, I’m progressing – and that’s all I’m really out to do.

    I still value seeing what others can do, as the leaderboards can serve as a reminder of what we’re truly capable of.

    Great article!

    • Nick says:

      Thanks for the comment – I do enjoy seeing my average speed increase over time, but it’s a small increase – going from 16 to 16.5 doesn’t feel like a lot, even though it’s a fair bit of extra effort. I agree with your last point – seeing what the real cyclists can do is decidedly humbling, yet still motivating in a masochistic way.

  2. Great article. I agree with much of what you say. The Tour of Britain in 2012 used my local roads and quite a number of the riders are on Strava – it’s fascinating to see the kind of speeds they were doing on my regular climbs, but between the likes of Kristian House (Rapha-Condor) and the usual local hotshots those leader-boards are now pretty well locked down.

    I get the argument around the recent Strava bashing, but as usual with these things it’s been blown out of proportion. A lot of cyclists are super-competitive and love to push themselves, and will always ride in a risky way – others ride sensibly and don’t get into all that…c’est la vie.

    Agree with Nick (above), downhill segments are a strange way of trying to prove yourself and i can see how that could end in tears.

    • Nick says:

      Thanks. There are a lot of segments around my area that are included in the annual Shakespeare 100 – while not quite in the league of the Tour of Britain, it’s very popular, and it means that the top 150 places are out of my reach:). These ones are easily recognisable by having 750-800 riders on the leaderboard, rather than the more usual 100 – 200.
      I certainly agree with you on the super-competitive bunch – occasionally come across one or two of these, and it gets tiresome very quickly. It’s primarily about enjoyment and staying in shape for me, especially as I know I’ll never be in that top league anyway.


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