Before the advent of social networking, bicycling was a local activity. Cyclists either rode solo or as part of a group, usually socially.
A distinct group of cyclists, who wanted to ride fast, got involved in racing. They could be seen training on local roads, often in the early morning before traffic became heavy. Their attire and their speed set them apart from average cyclists.
Other than aspiring racers, no one paid much attention to fast moving cyclists. Most cyclists only cared about themselves or how they rode in relation to their friends. Competition among cyclists was usually friendly, and since it occurred face-to-face, riders had some concern for one another’s welfare.
In fact, when cycling was a local phenomenon, any bragging rights occurred in the context of a social unit. A cyclist could develop a reputation among cyclists in his or her town or state. But aside from those involved in national competition, no one outside of an established circle of cyclists would know who a particular cyclist was, or even care.
Then came the Internet. With it came instant communication, first via e-mail, then via message boards and forums, and finally via social networking.
Unlike the first two examples, social networking is really nothing more than a set of tools which allow people with similar interests to connect with one another in an instantaneous and ongoing basis. These tools opened a whole new world for recreational athletes, hobbyists, and in cycling, Lance wannabes.
For most activities like running or hiking, social networking sites are relatively harmless. Cycling is another story.
Unless they have been living under a rock, most avid cyclists have heard about the cyclist in San Francisco, CA who was charged with killing a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Among the things discussed was his participation in a social networking site for cyclists called Strava. On the day in question, he was trying to beat his own speed record when he raced through an intersection into a group of pedestrians.
The site allows cyclists to upload data from their GPS units showing their riding statistics, such as their speed on a particular stretch of road. This seems innocuous enough until one looks beneath the surface of things.
Legend has it that the idea behind this site was to allow cyclists to compare their performance with previous performances and to other cyclists who rode in the same area. Such information was advertised as useful for weekend athletes who, without access to professional training facilities, had no way to measure performance.
The only problem with this arrangement is that there will always be people who are never going to be the next Lance Armstrong, but who want to have some claim to fame. Being the best at something, even if it is only known online where most people are anonymous, appeals to them.
And Strava takes things one step too far. It allows riders to create “segments,” in other words, designate any stretch of road or trail as a commonly ridden segment. Once a segment is created, Strava searches its database and ranks every recorded ride along that stretch.
With tools like Strava at their disposal, weekend warriors can “compete” with others to become King of the Mountain (KOM). This is where the problem arises.
To be King of the Mountain has a certain connotation. It goes beyond sharing data on a website. It dares participants to do things they might not do if no one was dangling a macho title in front of them.
As if the death of a pedestrian wasn’t enough, a Strava participant, Kim Flint, of Oakland, CA was killed a couple of years ago while trying to regain his record on a steep descent. Flint was traveling downhill when he broadsided an SUV. As he was going around a curve, his bike traveled into the southbound lane and hit the left side of the SUV. According to the accident investigation, he braked suddenly and lost control of his bike.
His GPS showed the speed of his previous record as 49.3 mph in a 30 mph zone. Fifty miles per hour is awfully fast to be riding in a residential area. One must wonder what Flint, and the other Strava riders, were thinking when they descended this hill at such a high rate of speed.
Flint’s friends say he wasn’t a reckless individual. He was an avid cyclist who knew the local roads well. What happened that day was a tragic accident, an accident which might have been avoided were it not for a social networking site where average cyclists can participate in speed competitions.
A few days ago, it became public that his family is suing Strava for his death. The family believes Strava is negligent and contends that the site encouraged him to speed.
Strava has no system in place to determine the safety of any segment. Shortly after Flint’s death, Strava changed the downhill KOM records to allow the marking of segments as “hazardous.” Once flagged as hazardous a segment’s comparison ratings are automatically removed from the site.
Although they may have made this change to increase the safety of the downhill rides, it’s more likely that they did it to place the onus on the riders; if the riders are responsible for marking what they can see and experience as “hazardous,” then Strava can’t be held accountable for unflagged segments.
Liability aside, encouraging competition via the Internet may not be a good thing when that competition involves speed and daring. Other tracked sports, like running, don’t put participants at the same level of risk. And, even more importantly, they don’t put innocent bystanders at risk.
Since Strava was founded a couple of years ago, in 2009, one Strava participant has died, and one bystander (pedestrian) has died as a result of the addictive nature of the site’s competition. Anyone who participates, or knows someone who does, also knows that the regulars upload their data for every ride. It becomes an obsession.
Should Strava be held accountable for the downside of its success?
The company did provide a platform which fostered reckless competition. Their business model revolves around the Internet and the prevalence of smartphones and GPS devices. However, they do not have a physical presence in the places where the competitions are held. The competition occurs wherever the riders are, not in a predetermined location.
Due to the inherent danger involved in speeding downhill on a bicycle, it’s irresponsible to put peer pressure on riders to compete for a speed record. One way around this would be for the site to only allow users to compete against themselves and show them what percentile they’re in, in terms of performance. Showing raw data, instead, could be where the company is liable.
As far as harming innocent bystanders, the blame must be placed on the Strava participant. Trying to attain a KOM record on a social networking site is no excuse for putting others in danger.
Further, the behavior of Strava riders shows all cyclists in a negative light. A cycling speed record is not more important than a human life. It is also not more important than making cycling a mainstream activity.
If a lawsuit doesn’t work to reign in the reckless competition this site fosters, maybe the cycling community should step in to curb this behavior. For now, the two deaths should serve as a reminder of how fragile life is; and maybe this sobering fact will put a damper on future Strava competitions.