cycling · Guest Post

QoM v KoM: Strava’s Genders (Guest Post)

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Sam recently wrote about her experience joining Strava, the internet hub for sporty men and women who want to measure their success against one another, and “compete” even when we aren’t officially competing (as in, when we’re just going to work and stuff). Her post resonated, in part because Sam and I are having an ongoing conversation about what it means to be marked as “female” on Strava. Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or an infinitely complicated thing – something that taps into the trickiness around gender and sport in so many areas?

A few months back I joined Strava. It was my partner’s idea: he had been using Strava to keep up with friends and to test himself on known stretches of road (we are both cyclists). He always glowed, I noticed, when we returned from a ride and he uploaded his data to discover new personal bests (or the besting of friends – coveted). Alternately, when The Strava Gods did not shine, he was blue. But I succumbed anyway: he convinced me that it would be helpful to track my progress using something; I needed data for the lovely, talented semi-pro cyclist who was coaching me (the brilliant and funny Jo McRae), and I definitely needed to let my competitive spirit loose in order to improve on my existing personal bests, which I’d been timing with my – runner’s watch. Plus, there was a handy Strava iPhone app, for when he was bogarting our shared Garmin bike computer. What’s not to love?

So I joined, and for the first couple of weeks I just let Jarret upload my data and tell me stuff. Mostly I didn’t notice; it hadn’t sunk in yet that Strava was a way for me to test myself. (Like Lisa Simpson, I respond extremely well to tests.) Then, around week three, something thrilling/troubling/discombobulating happened: Jarret told Strava I’m a woman.

Instant change. Like, kaboom. Suddenly, I wasn’t just some person called Kim who rode some rides in Surrey and East Sussex. I was in, like, third, fifth, ninth place overall on a bunch of segments and – holy mary jane! – queen of the mountain (QoM) on a particularly gruelling stretch of road near Chipstead that features a bitch of a climb sandwiched between two rather impressive stretches of steady incline. More shocking yet: to achieve this QoM I had bested a really talented category-one cyclist (NB Strava addicts – this is no longer the case; she has bested me right back). I was overwhelmed, and, of course, incredibly proud of myself.

Jarret was a bit dejected. He kicks my ass on many of these segments, but doesn’t rate at all on Strava; not only are there loads more men riding to compete with him, but of course he’s not as strong as the strongest men (hey, Mark Cavendish!) and so cannot break the top-ten in most cases. So I glory in my amazing achievements, and he discovers what it’s like to be on the short end of the gender stick for a change.

So what’s the problem? I’m awesome and Strava tells me, right? Not so fast. First of all, I’m not entirely convinced the semi-automatic division into men and women is a good thing on Strava. True, when it imagined I was a man (because I had not specified a gender, and of course default in cycling = man), Strava let me be the anonymous, me-against-the-world cyclist that Jarret and so many of his pals have to be. But once I specified a gender, Strava got excited. Now, when I upload ride data, it lets me know immediately what I’ve achieved – against other women. Which is fine. But why does the gender-specific data need to be the default? What if I want to know how I’m doing overall? More important, what if I feel like my main “competitors” aren’t (just) other strong women, but also men of similar build and strength as me? (I’m tall, muscular, and I weigh 70kg. My frame is not exactly girlish.) True, Strava offers the option to look at “men”, “women”, and “all” for any segment very easily in its navigation, and true too that more information about you and your linked friends is available through the Premium service (about $60 a year). Nevertheless, as a woman on Strava I don’t get the feeling that I’m being encouraged to use a gender-neutral approach; I feel like I’m being encouraged to measure myself primarily against other women.

Second, I’m genuinely concerned about a certain amount of gender bias against men within this system. It’s true that most people into road cycling are men, and of course it’s true that this has to do with gendered expectations about sport in general, about this sport in particular, and with a host of other things that weigh in men’s favour on the road. (Hello, giant quads and incredibly ripped calf muscles.) But it’s also true that men who cycle need to take a huge gulp when they start out, and be willing to feel extremely bad about themselves while other, more impressive male riders grandstand around them for a while. (And man oh man, do riders ever grandstand!) Women, meanwhile, often get points just for showing up. Yes, sometimes we feel we are genuinely not welcome – cycling can be a cravenly gendered sport, full of plain-spoken stereotypes. But mostly I get approving nods from men on rides who wish their wives or girlfriends would ride, too. I also know that loads of men who aren’t very talented may well drop away from the sport because they feel they aren’t man enough to ride the bike fast enough, to keep up with the pushy racers. Macho bike culture is cruel to anyone it doesn’t think makes the grade.

So what’s the solution? I do not blame Strava for its set-up; in fact, all things considered, it’s a fairly equitable site that lets me choose quickly and easily between data that places me against all athletes or against just women, and that shows me quickly how I’m doing against myself – probably the most important measure of all. But I can’t help but notice that it’s become, for me, another crucible of all the challenges we face when we try to untangle the gendered world of sport: how to measure men and women equitably, in a way that celebrates all of our achievements without condescending, and without shutting doors on those who aren’t immediately and obviously talented, regardless of gender?

Kim + Jarret in Dover, July 2013

9 thoughts on “QoM v KoM: Strava’s Genders (Guest Post)

  1. Very interesting piece. You finish on a question which is pretty tough to answer…certainly beyond me. I can vouch for the cruel macho culture that surrounds some cycling; not something that bothers me (by now, I know my level…usually somewhere outside the top ten!) but I can see how off-putting that might be.

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  2. this blog has a profound and ongoing* problem with men and their hurt feelings. The problem is that it misinterprets men’s gender-induced hurt feelings as “systematic bias against men.” Second, it sees caring about and for men’s hurt feelings as a feminist issue. All that wouldn’t be a “problem” except that this blog promotes itself as a feminist blog. Please, anyone, tell me what constantly worrying over men’s mussed emotional tranquility– and even going out of your way to inform the women readership that they, too, should be Very Concerned about men’s gender-induced hurt feelings– has to do with feminism.

    I will re-use part of a comment from a past post, because it applies here as well:

    It is playing into patriarchy and the gender/sex roles patriarchy enforces to assume that when a problem arises, male feelings are very very important, and it is women’s job to give succour / do the emotional labor.

    And, yes, those male feelings of sadness / shame are real. And, yes, managing them is part of growing as a male athlete and person. But do women have to continue raising men and boys, even outside of their families (in which women disproportionately do unpaid “care” work, as I’m sure we agree), even outside of their workplaces (women work disproportionately in “care” sector jobs and are underpaid for it, as I’m sure you know), and even in their free time when they’re just trying to ride a freakin’ bicycle up a freakin’ steep hill? When do women get to rest from this mandatory emotional and care labor for men? When do women get to focus on their own goals and strengths and accomplishments, and their own feelings? Not when they are cycling, even?

    *For a sampling of such posts from the archives, see:

    https://fitisafeministissue.com/2014/05/16/on-getting-chicked-and-why-strong-female-cyclists-need-to-have-sympathy-for-the-guys-guest-post/

    https://fitisafeministissue.com/2014/08/16/men-and-skin-cancer-risk/#comments

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Swiz. My feminism includes an interest in men’s experiences, since men are also impacted by the patriarchy in profound ways. This is not everyone’s version of feminism, of course, but it is a recognized one and, I think, an ethical one. So I appreciate your thoughtful engagement with the issue, but I think you are wrong to suggest this or any other blog has a problem because it makes space for thinking about gendered experience as part of its feminism. Feminism isn’t a closed shop, and not all feminists are women.

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      1. I think many people would disagree with you Kim that “gendered experience” is equal to “feminism”. Perhaps consider calling this blog “Experience is a Gendered Issue”. What issue is it that some men can’t/don’t compete on strava? It is not an issue of feminism.

        If, for example, we were having a discussion about domestic violence and you wrote an article about how men get hit sometimes too, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you also wouldn’t be centering women and the politicized nature of women being hit by men. If you did not center women in your discussion it would not be a feminist discussion. It would be a-poliical.

        And your article heads that way, centering mens feelings and saying “Women, meanwhile, often get points just for showing up.” Damn, you make it sound as if we have no institutional, physical, emotional or interpersonal barriers to our showing up! There is a reason women are so few in cycling and on strava. that reason is men.

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    2. Swiz, I think it’s pretty awesome that you follow this blog and have thoughtful analysis to share.

      I love reading the various viewpoints and experiences as well as writing the occasional post.

      I don’t have a degree but I’m not sure 2 examples from hundreds of posts constitute evidence of “a profound and ongoing problem”.

      I wince from even replying as I’m assuming the lead sentence was crafted to illicit a response and here I am, hoping I’m not feeding a troll.

      I’m a big fan of sharing knowledge & building each other up.
      I’d love to read more of what you’ve written on the burden of care, if you have links to share that would be great.

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  3. How interesting. I love this gender analysis of strava–the pros and cons for its approach. Thanks for this. I think for me it would make me feel worse because as long as I wasn’t being compared to other women I could just believe its because the other riders are men that I come out at the bottom. But you! I bow to you, Queen of the Mountain!

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  4. The problem of Strava promoting competitive pressure that could be off-putting to (not just male) beginner riders is valid. I love competing but have friends who get extremely freaked out by the pressure. As far as getting rid of the gender/sex categories, it would be nice if there was a third category that didn’t just default to male. Unfortunately, under the available binary categorizations, there are measurable physiological differences that make direct competition between the average, middle-of-the-bell-curve male and female athlete unfair (although obviously many female athletes can kick male athlete’s butts, many male & female athletes can train together easily, and the competitive impact of physiological differences varies by sport).

    If you feel that your male, beginner-cyclist friends are disadvantaged by the pressure from fast peers perhaps encourage them to look into age-and-sex graded performance calculators – these let you compare your own performance to other athletes while adjusting for the (average) effects of sex and age. You can even compete with younger versions of yourself 🙂 And if you feel bad about your male cyclist buddies being overshadowed by the likes of Cavendish, just find more pro female cyclists that you can follow (or hunt down QoM’s off!): http://blog.strava.com/12-queens-to-follow-on-strava-7714/, etc. These pro female cyclists could probably use the accompanying growth in fan following & name recognition!

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    1. Great observation! A big part of this story is, I think, bringing things that are not part of our default gender binaries (men and women, compete in your designated categories!) into focus. Women pros need much more exposure as awesome athletes, full stop: the amazing Emma Pooley, for example, does critical outreach work on media attention to women’s cycling, working on improving both quantity and quality. Because, you know, men need to see strong women cyclists as strong cyclists, period, so that we can all ride and compete together more equitably.

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