These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry, baby, don't cry
Paul Simon - The Boy In The Bubble
I have a love-hate relationship with my cycling app. It’s called “Strava”. If you know a semi-serious cyclist of almost any stripe, ask her about Strava. I will almost guarantee that if she isn’t actually on it, she will know about it. It’s become almost ubiquitous in the Lycra-clad, shaved legs set.
So what is it? Strava, in its own words “turns every iPhone and Android into a sophisticated running and cycling computer . . . . Start Strava before an activity and you can track your favorite performance stats, and afterward, dive deep into your data.” And millions of us do.
Think of Strava as Facebook for the exercise-addicted. You post your run, ride, walk, hike, canoe, e-bike ride, hand cycle, ice skate, inline skate, kayak, kitesurf, (not making any of this up; it’s all there), rock climb, roller ski, row, alpine ski, backcountry ski, Nordic ski, snowboard, snowshoe, standup paddle, surf, swim, wheelchair, or windsurf stats along with pictures of your bike leaning against stuff and witty comments. You can give your friends “kudos”, which are little orange ‘thumbs up” attaboys that appear on your post like Facebook “likes”. And of course, the app will helpfully notify you when you get kudos and when your friends deserve them.
But wait, there’s more. Allow me to present the concept of the “Strava segment”. These are little virtual racecourses that are created by athletes on their local routes. Once created, they are open for anyone to attempt. Complete the segment in the fastest time? Kudos, you are the “KOM” or “QOM”, which stands for King or Queen of the Mountains. But better keep watching the app, because millions of your friends are now gunning for you and Strava will send you a nice reminder when someone steals your crown and encourage you to go get it back. Heavy lies the head that wears a crown.
Not stressed about earning crowns? Strava has you covered, too. Every time you ride a segment, Strava will either reward you with little medals: gold for a PR, silver for your second fastest time, bronze for third, or will just sit there and silently judge you if you had the gall just to ride for fun, not time.
This is why my supportive wife once said of Strava: “Congratulations; you found a way to make your hobby just as stressful as your day job.” She’s not wrong, at least not entirely. We cyclists do some irrational and downright silly things because of Strava. I know folks who will go back to the beginning of a ride if they forgot to turn the damn thing on before they started. Just today, a friend of mine posted his plane trip from Athens to Paris. There’s saying among cyclists that “if it ain’t on Strava, the ride didn’t happen.” Strava will even bail you out if you forgot to start your computer or aren’t even on the app (yet). Just ask your buddy to share her ride with you and voila, you have the data. It isn’t your data, but you can pretend it is. Who’s to know?
If the app has a glitch and eats your data or your battery runs out while you are riding, many folks feel the need to explain what happened on Strava. Even worse, many (myself included) will put up a defensive mea culpa on a casual ride, lest the Stravaverse judge your lack of effort harshly. “Recovery ride”, “EZ Spin”, “Greenway Ride with Hubby & Kiddos”, “First Ride Back after Broken Pelvis” all appear to tell the world, “Hey, I wasn’t even trying today.”
A LOT has been written about how Strava is killing cycling, so I won’t go there. What I was exploring as I rode this morning (with Strava running, of course: “Just Thinkin’ Ride”) is the question why the hell do we idiots keep doing it? Why don't we just turn the thing off, at least on casual rides? Why do folks post “activities” like taking a walk on their vacation with the family? Is it just narcissism? Addiction? FOMO? Anxiety? Are we data-sick?
And then, it came to me, along with the Paul Simon lyric that is still buzzing in my head. It’s ART. It’s cave painting. We are all Whos screaming to save our lives “WE ARE HERE; WE ARE HERE” to an uncaring world. Simon sang “Medicine is magical and magical is art”, and what we can do with data these days is nothing if not magical.
“The way we look to us all”. That’s the best definition of social media I’ve ever heard. The need somehow to signal to the universe that this is what we did in our flicker of time on this planet. It’s why oversharing trumps privacy every, single time. It’s why people, myself included, are still on the cluttered and yet barren landscapes of Facebook and Instagram. This is how I chose to spend my time; this is my tribe; this is what I looked like when I was at my very best; these are things that made me laugh, or cry or want to throw things at the wall.
Is going for a ride without a way to record the data the same as ambling down to the river to paint a landscape without your watercolors or a camera? Perhaps in some important way, it’s exactly like that. Whether I earned any kudos, bested myself or others on a segment or two, or took a picture of a funny street sign don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But when I record that data, I am scratching out a pictograph of that crazy world on walls of my digital cave. And for some reason, viewed that way, I no longer feel like an addict or a slave. I feel like an artist. Don’t cry, baby.