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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?

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