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21.02.17 / Nathaniel: Sucked in by the Strava Data Sets

Alex [10:45 PM]

“I’m watching world cup track cycling from Colombia. I feel the Kilo is the event for you, @nathaniel . Looking at the skill levels on show from minor nations, your speed wobbles would fit in comfortably”

Cheers Alex. I had a near death experience and you wheel out the Bantersaurus-Rex routine! Thanks bud.

The speed wobble in question (and I call it speed wobble because it makes me sound really fast) was while I was punching out a 60 second burn in the hope of picking up the Strava KOM (King of the Mountain) for the first segment of my commute to OneFifty.

I was cycling home, headwind the whole way, it was a bit late but I was thinking “right, no traffic and this should be a tailwind for the KOM I want. Too good an opportunity to pass on”. I ditched my bag and went back out for the scalp. Lined it up, banged it up the bank (eased up on power – had given it too much on Saturday’s attempt) hit the top, head downhill and start getting shake on the bike forcing me to bail out of the time-trial half-way through. Shocker. Loop back round and 4 mins later hit the segment again. Same approach, slight hesitation at base of bank to avoid a car, and hit the initial hill just about right. Fighting wobble, not going to let this fucker of a bike kick me off. Two thirds in and shake coming in again, I won’t bail but I ease off a touch to maintain – bottle pushing on. Hit the last 150m on the flat and now savage wobble on the bike, being thrown around the road like my-first-bike-ride and cross the line hoping a HGV doesn’t crush me. 2 seconds short of my best, 3 seconds off the record. Gutted. Way off and now my confidence in my bike is blown. I’m praying it’s due to me riding like a plonker and not the bike. I can change, I hardly want to fork out a couple of grand on a new bike just to eliminate speed wobble for a Strava KOM.

This slight obsession with Strava and a KOM started when we were looking for different ways for each of us at OneFifty to live this month’s trend – cycling, specifically winter/commuter cycling. The data was showing that the fastest rising trend within cycling was fair-weather riders sticking it out into the winter for the first time.

I’ve already been riding most days since starting at OneFifty and so “commuting to work” was hardly a change. So instead, I looked to what committed commuters were doing; Strava. I’d been on Strava for a while but I don’t think I’d ever logged a ride, and hardly explored the functionality. If I ever wanted to track outdoor activity I just used my Polar GPS watch. It logs most of the data points and I could compare my previous efforts with ease. I’m used to using numbers to quantify a physical effort having joined OneFifty after eight years as a Lottery Funded athlete on the British Rowing Team. We’d have sport scientists measuring the translucency of our pee in the morning to account for our hydration levels (really!), so recording the time it took to cycle into work was hardly ground breaking. Strava, I was told, did so much more. So fifteen password attempts later and a reset with my mum’s maiden name, I was back on Strava, ready to check out what all the hype was about.

I enjoy the grind as much as the next guy, so pushing out a punishing speed run was something I was aiming at from the start. Only the arrogant (or stupid) thinks that a dry run is unnecessary, so with that in mind I rode as hard as I could from the word go (well not quite but as hard as the traffic would allow me). I ride a carbon road bike with plastic pedals, trainers and a large backpack. Only panniers would upgrade me to level 10 “functional”. I pull it off because even an £8k bike being ridden by a Rapha clad jockey has trouble pulling away at the lights with a gusto to match. I’ve got 12 years of three sessions a day in a power endurance sport to fall back on, so Dave from acquisitions is going to struggle even if I am carrying a laptop, packed lunch and enough bric-a-brac to supply a Blue Peter charity sale. I pushed out a few fairly decent commutes and discovered any hopes of posting a ranking time would require a more professional approach.

In 2015-16 Strava users logged nearly 8 million cycling journeys in London; 22,000 a day, every day. In recent years London has played host to a number of major street cycling events where pros have tracked and published their race data on Strava. It’s made for cool reading and savage competition as amateurs and pros can go head to head on the same track. Large numbers of well trained cyclists have logged rides over every inch of the capital, making the opportunity to log a KOM quite a tricky feat. Riding on public roads with traffic, pedestrians, changing weather and road conditions actually means you need a perfect scenario to take that scalp. Pelotons, group efforts and the use of ‘dirty bikes’ (mopeds) to give riders a slip stream make the most iconic of segments out of reach to the lowly plastic pedal rogue.

Last Saturday I switched out the PVC for cleats and headed out for a segment exploring ride. Proper pedals, no backpack and minimal traffic meant three debilitating factors were removed as I sprinted my way across London to log better times on my usual commute journey. I made my way to Regent’s Park and gave myself two laps to log on Strava; a quiet lap where I worked out where the lights were and then a hot lap to see what I could do against the many thousands that had already set a time. I was pretty pleased with my solo effort and once I got home I went to town analysing the data output Strava could give me. I could see speed and elevation, yes, but the real perk is the calculated power. In rowing we used power output all the time to measure any individual work on the WattBike. Strava may be an imperfect power calculation, but from what I read I don’t think it’s that far off. Absolute and average power is interesting but to produce a fast sustained effort it’s all about the power distribution. If you’re able to pitch in on a power output and just maintain, timing exhaustion for the mark at the end of the course you’re on to a winner. I knew my power had been variable, some of it couldn’t be helped with traffic and red lights, but what I really liked was to ability to see how others had paced their fastest laps.

I learned that my hunger to front load the piece (work very hard on the uphill at the start and then hold on) wasn’t how the best guys had done it. The power consistency, and speed difference, would suggest the top times were all done while part of a larger peloton, but I also noticed that I probably fought the terrain as much as the bike and overall this isn’t the most efficient way to produce a hot lap. It means on my next hot lap attempt I can use the mass of data already available to adjust my own riding style. I don’t need to do 50 variants to discover what works best, I can just draw out the conclusions from the 1,178,233 million attempts everyone else has done. This wealth of shared data is rare in sport as is the access to consistent and professional grade analytics. Strava have done a really good job, I highly recommend. If I was to ask for one update it would be the ability to rank solo segment times (no peloton or dirty bike allowed), Unfortunately I think asking for a “plastic pedal” rank index is probably a step too far.

So, what’s my plan for the last week of the month? Tomorrow I’ll pick up my dropped shopping and build up for another run at my local KOM. I’m at my parent’s in Durham this weekend so that will give me a chance to take out my brother’s mountain bike and have a pop at some of the road segments up there; it will be good to see how close I can get to the stages up there. You can find me on Strava as Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell.

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