How I use Strava to learn a new trail
What is Strava?
Strava is web accessed software and a mobile app that stores and processes data collected from athletic activities through GPS. Strava has many features and uses. Users are tracked by the signal on their phone or other GPS enabled device. Strava takes your data and compiles it with maps and other users’ tracks to provide you a variety of metrics and analysis including ranking the fastest times for a particular segment of a trail or route.
Strava has become controversial in the mountain biking community. One negative outcome from Strava is that people are creating “cut throughs” by leaving the proper trail and taking a short cut. The short cut is close enough to the proper trail for Strava to think the user is still on it, and still record their time as if they followed the same path as the other Strava users, when in fact, they have taken a faster route. They do this just to improve their own Strava rankings. This creates trail braiding, negatively eroding and scarring the trail system.
Another issue with Strava is that it creates a public display of any activity that the user uploads. Trail access and use are sensitive issues. Public land is limited and managing those areas often creates controversy over how trails should be built and used. Strava can potentially expose covert trail building efforts, which frustrates the trail builder, and antagonizes the land manager, sometimes leading to access issues for bikers.
Tyler Mill (The Trail)
My current residence offers a lot of options for mountain biking. Within a 20 minute drive I have at least half a dozen trail system options. Tyler mill is about a 15 minute drive from my house, but more importantly, it is right off I-91 in the middle of CT. It is a great option for me to get a ride in after work, no matter where I’m working during the day. My sales territory covers the entire state of CT, and having a central spot to sneak in a ride in the morning, at lunch, or on my way home to wait out traffic would be great. Sounds pretty ideal, right? One Problem. I don’t know my way around Tyler Mill at all. Tyler Mill is one of the oldest and most well known trail systems in the state. And like many other old school mountain bike trail systems, the mountain bike routes aren’t marked well, and it covers a large area.
Not Getting Lost
I rode there for the first time last year will some other riders from the area. Following someone who knows where they’re going is a great way to ride an unfamiliar area without getting lost. However, if I came back to the same trail system a week later, I wouldn’t remember which way to go. When I follow someone else, I focus on following them, and don’t focus on the trails and how they are laid out. So, even though I have a great time and ride a new place, when I’m following someone else, I’m not really learning how to navigate the trail system for myself.
When you don’t know where you’re going, wrong turns often lead to climbs up ridiculously steep grades, dead ends, or other pitfalls. I have had many experiences where I carefully planned my work day, printed out maps, packed up my car the night before with all the gear and supplies for work and riding, and then arrived at a new riding destination only to wind up frustrated after turning back after a few miles of wrong turns, walking my bike, and profanity. Paradoxically, the best way to learn your way around a trail system is to ride by yourself, maybe with a map, get lost, find your way back on course, and then find your way back to your car. Repeat that a few times, and you end up with a route you become comfortable with, and then ride that route until it becomes boring. The problem there is that it takes repetition and and a lot of stopping to figure out which way to go, which takes a lot of time and is not the most efficient use of your limited time for recreation and exercise.
What I’m attempting to do is kind of a hybrid of the following another rider method and go out and get lost method. Early this year, I had the chance to ride Tyler Miller with a group called the Endos. Like I do with most of my rides, I recorded the ride using the the Strava app on my phone:
As I mentioned previously, Strava has both an app interface and a web interface. By logging into Strava, you can access all kinds of data about your tracked activity. From my browser, after logging in to Strava, I found that ride under Training>My Activities. If you click on the wrench icon,
you have the option to export your activity as a GPX file. I exported the GPX file to my handheld GPS device, the Garmin Oregon 450t. My Garmin is a handheld GPS device which has a rugged water resistant design suitable for mountain biking. I have a handlebar mount that I attach it to, and can use it to follow a track that either I have previously recorded or I have downloaded from another source.
So, one Thursday evening, on my way back from work, I decided to hit Tyler Mill and try navigating my way around. It has been a while since I’ve used my GPS and I forgot that you need to give it a few minutes to find the global positioning satellites, which I remembered after I’d already entered tree cover, where you wont be able to find them. A quick ride back out and around the parking lot fixed that. One of the cool features of my handheld GPS is that it has a compass feature which points you in the right direction to follow the GPS track with a swiveling arrow. Unfortunately, I must have started “Navigation Mode” too far into the track, and it was trying to lead me in the direction of the second half of the ride, or back to the car. I made due with the map view:
Eventually, the GPS self corrected with the right direction, and I was following the compass arrow. I think if I had started the navigation mode when I was still out in the parking lot, it would have led me following the track from the beginning, in the right direction.
The evening I chose to ride was hot and humid. I wasn’t feeling all that great, but decided to give it a go anyway. I was on a tight schedule as I had to pick up my son from camp about 20 miles away from Tyler Mill. About half way through the track, I was physically done. I ended up walking several uphill sections, and just made it back to the car in time. I’m not sure how well I would have done without the GPS. Actually, I wouldn’t have attempted an unfamiliar route like this in the first place without it.
Using the GPS allowed me to do some exploring and help learn a new trail. Without it, I would have had to spend a lot longer figuring out the trails, and I wouldn’t attempt that with a time crunch like I had. The nice thing about using Strava is that you can record tracks using just your phone, and you don’t have to remember any extra equipment or batteries, assuming that you would carry your phone with you anyway. So, like I did, you can record a ride when you are following someone else around an unfamiliar trail and then come back later by yourself, using the GPS track you recorded as a guide.
In addition to tracking and navigating, Strava logs your activities and compares them against your own efforts and the efforts of other users. It also has a social function to it and you can “follow” other Strava users, and see what they are up to, and give them “kudos” on their activities, similar to a Facebook “like”. You can also leave a comment on their activity like “Lay off the tacos, slowpoke” or “You rock, McLoven!”. I often find inspiration in my Strava feed when I don’t feel like exercising. I spy on what all my friends are up to, and when I see how they are all out getting fit, I don’t want to fall behind, which motivates me to get out and do something, even if it is just a quick 2 mile run on the loop near my house. Many times this has gotten me out to exercise when I would otherwise skip it because I “didn’t have enough time”.
I’ve been nursing a sprained ankle for almost 2 weeks now and haven’t been cycling at all. Hopefully next week I’ll get out there and see how comfortable I am navigating Tyler Mill. I think I should do alright, but I’ll have my GPS with me just in case.