he word “Strava” meant nothing to me one day back in May 2010 when I showed up at a leisurely ride in the Upper Valley and some new friends announced to me, “You’re on the team!”
“What team?” I asked?”
They told me that there was a start-up that was working on an app called “Strava” to track a cyclist’s route. Former Harvard oarsmen Mark Gainey and Michael Horvath, a local Dartmouth grad named Davis Kitchel and a few others were launching a fitness tracking app and wanted to begin beta testing.
“They are going to sponsor us. They’ll give us a kit and cover our race fees, but you have to start riding with a Garmin again,” my friends said.
Back then my use of technology to train would ebb and flow like it still does today. At that time, I needed a break and was enjoying not tracking my heart rate or rides or mileage or elevation gain, etc.
It was the year following my divorce and the pure volume that I had added to my training regime as therapy had undoubtedly added some new power to my legs and lungs. I didn’t need any additional stats to prove that, and I had no desire to keep any record of this difficult time in my life.
I had recently moved to Vermont and the Connecticut River Valley to start a new job teaching French and a new chapter. I was certainly grateful for good company, so I replied, “Sounds great!”
There it was laid out in front of me: my buddies Mike, Ben, Will, Brent and I had just become Team Strava.
My new teammates were as humble as they were fast. One of them later coined our group name on Strava: the “Ex Has Beens That Never Were”! We had all been racing as amateurs for the fun of it. None of us was ever going to make a living bike racing.
I was thankful to have a wheel to hang onto and a bunch of strong guys who were always there to lend a hand. They talked me through bike repairs, helped me move into my first home and got me excited to race again. I began to refer to them as my band of brothers.
And that is how this new thing in my life called Strava appeared.
I didn’t think much of being a pro bono Strava ambassador at first. I mostly felt flattered that these local legends were considerate enough to add me to their small team roster. Having some races to train for provided a sense of grounding that I was lacking in a new place. As Strava ambassadors, we handed out a lot of bright orange business cards with an invite to join the site and create an account.
Anyone with a Garmin computer on their bike or even just the mount on their handlebar was the perfect target. Sometimes we’d throw in a free pair of socks or a logo-branded cell phone sleeve. Nary a phone, not even the Apple SE, would fit into one of those small sleeves today but they were pretty trendy at the time.
We began registering for various events. For me, it started with regional mountain bike races and then I began targeting distance events. I was still a full-time teacher and seasonal cycling guide in Europe. I was not yet paid by Strava. Yet, I embraced the ability to do some free marketing in exchange for traveling to competitions.
The What and the Why
The Valley of the Sun stage race in Phoenix, Arizona corresponded with my teaching vacation and more importantly, had a big yellow sun on the poster, a definite attraction to any Vermonter wanting to escape mud season in April. The host family option also intrigued me. Often, traveling cyclists lodge with unknown hosts who want to support visiting athletes at local events. Staying with a host family would be a perfect way to create dialogue around Strava.
What is it? Why use it? And first and foremost, what the heck does Strava mean? Those were the questions I would often get asked.
“To strive, in Swedish” I would say, explaining that one of the co-founders, had Swedish blood and reportedly liked the sound of it.
The “What?” was also an easy question to answer as I explained the ability to see GPS evidence of your ride and track your progress and compare it with others’.
Strava was essentially a way to compete without having to show up to a race. What bike racer doesn’t love that?
In the early days, Strava was like taking all of your old handwritten PRs (personal records) and having an electronic place to store them. The difference however between Strava and other platforms like Ride with GPS, Map my Ride and Garmin Connect (other navigation apps) was always going to be the ability to share (and/or shall we say compare?) recorded times.
In its infancy, there was no privacy option for a Strava account, so all of your data was automatically shared. There was also no comment section (except for Kudos!) nor photo sharing. Truly, it was just numbers, names, thumbs ups and maps in the early years.
Today, in 2023 Strava is a social network that boasts over 100 million users. It is mostly synonymous with cycling and running but its athletic tracking has grown to include everything from surfing to pickleball. Its social features now include comments, group challenges, leaderboards, shared routes, live tracking, photo sharing and more.
But back then, it was just an online platform for cyclists to share their rides in a public forum. If you wanted to share a message with the world, cyclists slowly started figuring out creative ways to chart a course that would spell out a word or an image based on GPS points.
In 2011, I was offered a job working for Strava full-time in marketing and moved to San Francisco. Once there, I remember noticing the Bay Area made for a perfect Etch-o-Sketch playground for Strava art; for instance, on Valentine’s Day routes that mapped out hearts would appear. Nowadays if you search “Strava Art” on Google, you’ll find every picture or message imaginable, designed by runners and cyclists alike.
When folks asked me “Why Strava?” I had a little bit more difficulty answering until I could tap into a better answer than, “It’s a bit like Facebook for cyclists.”
I was not a great fan of Facebook and was a strong holdout among my friends. And I continue to see-saw with social media apps (athletic and non).
I sometimes question the ego wrapped up in it and whether online kudos have sadly replaced the importance of face to face, handlebar to handlebar, community.
On one hand, I appreciate that I have an online record of so many of the places that I have ridden and the personal goals that I have achieved along the way.
On the other hand, isn’t it just as sweet and sufficient to store these experiences in my memory along with an old bib number and my race time scribbled on the back to find years later?
And yet, I also love the ease of finding new and exciting places to ride or run by using Strava and staying in touch with friends around the globe.
All About the Climbs
Ironically, in order to officially join the marketing team at Strava as a full-time employee in 2011, I had to create a personal Facebook account in order to be recognized as an administrator on the company account.
I swallowed my pride and joined the site and right away received mostly “You caved!” messages. I continued to ignore the Facebook analogy and preferred onboarding new users by talking about what made Strava fun for me.
As a cyclist whose strength and passion was climbing, I loved that Strava’s calculations could objectively quantify my climbs with similar stats to the European rating system. While the UCI system has some subjectivity in how it ranks climbs ranging from Categorie 5 to the hardest, Categorie 1 and the very hardest HC (hors categorie), the Strava data allowed an objective measure of how tough a hill would be to tackle.
For me, the Strava “Why?” was all about the climbs. In addition to my love for the categorized climb feature that Strava incorporated from the beginning, I had also witnessed a primitive version of Strava in France that had already gained traction.
As a cycling guide in France, I’d had a chance to follow many of the routes the Tour de France often covered, catering to passionate riders who wanted to experience those same feelings of utter exhaustion, transcendence and triumph in the landscapes that make the Tour de France the most celebrated bike race in the world.
Year after year the tour route returns to its famous climbs, including the Ventoux, the Tourmalet, the Iseran, the Planche des Filles, the Madone, L’Alpe etc. And year after year, some of my same clients would return to ride them all over again.
It made sense for me to spread the Strava love while overseas and I cheerfully tacked on some time before and after my guiding stint to attend and participate in some French cycling events. I had long been curious about cyclosportifs in France (the equivalent of a Gran Fondo) meaning a long and grueling day on a bike that any cyclist is challenged to finish.
I decided that I would enter and train for La Marmotte. I remember thinking that the name sounded cute! The Marmotte is a 110-mile race with approximately 17,000 ft of elevation gain. It begins in Bourg d’Oisans and finishes atop Alpe d’Huez.
A gold medal recipient would finish La Marmotte in 8 to 10 hours depending on age and gender. The most difficult part of this event is saving your legs for the Alpe d’Huez finish. The last 9 miles pack in another 3,700 ft of elevation gain. It is why an average of 1,000 cyclists a day will flock to the Alpine town of Le Bourg d’Oisans each summer to experience the climb for themselves.
The popularity of this climb was not lost on the French tourism offices which began to offer timing chips in Le Bourg d’Oisans and towns near other iconic climbs. As early as 2007 anyone could walk in and rent a timing chip for 2 euros to record their effort and compare it to others who had completed the same climb. Results were posted on a public forum website that Timtoo maintained up until 2018. And hence the concept of an online Strava segment had already been born.
It was sometime during the Marmotte in 2011 while representing Strava that I was encouraged by a local to visit the tourism office and pick up an “I climbed Alpe d’Huez” certificate as an additional souvenir.
Cycling has always been more popular in Europe than in the U.S. While Americans grow up with the sound of the baseball game on the TV or radio, French families tune in to similar sounds of adrenaline, joy and excitement but in the form of bike races.
One July in France, I remember being awestruck while in the middle of running errands in a commercial center. Like a Super Walmart, this store sold everything from electronics to produce.
I was likely there to buy groceries but entered through the TV department by accident. Every television on display (and there were many!) was tuned into the live Tour de France stage.
I was astounded. Finding the right channel to watch bike racing in the states without having to pay for a special subscription is near impossible but in France it’s as common as American football. I guess it didn’t surprise me then that the French were already using technology to compare their climbing efforts on famous bicycle climbs.
After all, 8,000 people typically show up to race the Marmotte each year and when the gun goes off, it takes a good 45 minutes to an hour for all the riders to roll out in waves.
A Social Network?
When I think about my past experiences as a Strava ambassador and later, employee, the value for me came from the face-to-face interactions, and not just acquiring more online followers.
A chance encounter during a local group ride in Saint Paul Trois Châteaux was an unforgettable example of this. Saint Paul is a popular village in southern France that is often a Tour de France stage start or finish. During the Tour in 2011, I happened to show up to a local group ride that was advertised on a poster somewhere in the main square.
The camaraderie among this small group of perfect strangers (including the mayor) led to a dream invitation to join the Radio Shack team the next day on their rest day ride. Something about me being an American and living in California at the time had the locals convinced that I needed to meet popular American cyclist, Levi Leiphemer. So, there I was the next day, a guest of the mayor, riding alongside Levi in my white and orange Strava kit handing out orange business cards. And although I have no photo of it, nor a storm of comments, it doesn’t make it any less memorable.
It’s a reminder that my Strava use is no replacement for a true community. Whether my ride, run, ski, hike, or surf session is recorded or not does not take away from the value of it.
Strava can be a great way to find motivation and competition when we cannot find the time in our schedules to be with others, but relying on it too heavily for connection with others and self-esteem comes with a cost. When it becomes the thing that is making me get out the door because I feel the need to post something, that’s exactly when I know that I need to step away “now and then”.
The value of social media is a highly debatable topic at the moment and will continue to be. I know based on my Strava account’s url that I joined as user #367 back in 2010. I also know that for the last 13 years I have been on and off it.
When I think back, in the early years I was all in. But just as San Francisco living didn’t always jive with me and I moved back to Vermont, I knew that I need to take a break from Strava every once in a while. Sometimes, I still need to strip away the gadgets. I want to feel equally motivated to move even when I am not recording and posting it.
The popular saying that “If it didn’t happen on Strava, it didn’t happen” is a dangerous one. The surgeon general recently issued a warning to teenagers around social media use and it makes me wonder, do adults manage these mental health risks any better?
I love the motivation that Strava provides and always will, but like any other social media, its capabilities —especially as they relate to voyeurism/exhibitionism—can be a poor replacement for what is real life, on the trails, on the summits, and in the incredibly lucky moments that we have as athletes.
As we follow our favorite riders in the Tour this year, it’s worth remembering that these arduous climbs were fostering communities long before companies like Strava and Timtoo became global platforms.
We might consider showing up to a group ride instead of riding alone on a segment mission. We might consider picking up the phone instead of dropping a Strava comment. We might spend more time gathering before or after a ride to share stories and give kudos in the form of skin-to-skin, palm-slapping high-fives.
Nicole Marcoe lives in Wilder, Vermont and balances her time between teaching French, working as a cycling guide and a floral design business. She has spent over 15 years guiding and riding segments of the Tour de France with clients and has felt honored to share her love of France with fellow cyclists. Most recently, she joined KC&E Adventures and is looking forward to co-leading their mountain bike trip to Morocco this November.