By: Scott Shafer and Catherine Borgeson
It's before sunrise on a chilly morning in the hills East of San Francisco. Forty-four-year-old Steve Biggs pushes a button on a GPS device attached to his bicycle, clicks into his pedals, and sets off for a 17-mile commute to work.
"We're kinda right in the middle of Walnut Creek. This is the Canal Trail and then the Iron Horse Trail, we're about to turn onto here. There's a great network of kinda trails that keep you off the busy streets if you like," says Biggs.
When he gets home, he'll upload the info on his GPS to a fitness website called Strava.
"When I started, not many people used it, I didn't know anyone else that used the site or anyone else on the site," says Biggs. "And I think how it's really taken off is when they came out with a mobile app and everyone could track their rides with their mobile phone."
Strava users track their bike rides and runs with GPS and upload their data to the web. They see their results, things like time, elevation gain and distance. But then Strava takes it a step further. It ranks the athletes in different segments by route. The app is designed to improve personal performance but it also brings out the competitive spirit.
"It's fun to see where you ride and see how you do relative to other people. It's called King of the Mountain segments," says Biggs.
King of the Mountain, or KOM, is the most coveted title. It's awarded to the person with the fastest time for a particular segment within a route. And it hurts to lose your KOM title.
"It's a little disappointing and now they've got it set out to send you an e-mail that someone stole your KOM. And usually around here it's someone you know," says Biggs.
"The word strava comes from the swedish word 'strava.' Strava means to strive," explains CEO and cofounder Michael Horvath.
Horvath thought of the idea for the software after leaving his college crew team. He realized the motivation he had to train came from the bond he had with his fellow teammates. But the time for Strava wasn't right until social media came along.
"We realized the time is right to go back to that idea of creating that sense of comrodery and social connectedness to the athlete with technology," says Horvath.
Strava launched publically in January 2010. Horvath sees his app as being more than just sharing stats.
"The interaction between the athletes isn't always about the data. It could be about photos you took on your ride, it could be about the fact you went on a ride, it was really rainy that day. And so you're really story telling. As an athlete, if you're only out there for accumulating the miles, it's pretty boring," says Horvath. "But if you're really out there getting experiences and having wonderful experiences with your friends then you want to tell that story. So Strava becomes that journal of the athlete."
But Strava isn't without controversy. The company has been criticized for fostering reckless competition. For example, two years ago a cyclist in Berkeley died in an accident trying to regain his KOM title. He lost control of his bike braking to avoid a car. Litigation is ongoing.
Strava user Brad Shackleton admits that he sometimes pushes the limits trying to better his time. He's an expert cross country and downhill mountain bike racer.
"When it comes to trails that are not necessarily the right trail to be pushing yourself on, I tend to not do that because I don't want to put anyone else in harms way that are on the trail," says Shackleton. "But I have found myself in situations, where I've kind of put myself on the edge and on the verge of hurting myself. In the process of trying to go fast."
Still, Walnut Creek bikeshop general manager John Kramer says Strava has changed the nature of biking for him for the better.
"And before you didn't know how good you were compared to everyone else. Usually mountain biking is a, you might go with a couple people at the most," says Shackleton. "But this way it makes you feel like you're riding with up to hundreds of people. And they're practically on the ride with you. They just rode it the day before."
Or on the same day, and as a team. Which is what Kramer, Shackleton and commuter Steve Biggs have done. Using Strava they formed Team Diablo and enjoy racing up Mt. Diablo together near Walnut Creek, all striving to be King of the Mountain.