Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Strava Vs. Bike Racing: An Analysis

The White Whale finally captures a Strava segment!  So a friend just wrote.  Although the self-proclaimed White Whale has raced this year, he's more a post-bike racer than a current bike racer.  With a newborn, a demanding job, and series of physical injuries, on paper he doesn't have a reason to throw his body into a field sprint.

It makes one wonder if the rest of us still have reason to throw ourselves into a real field sprint.  This brave new Strava world allows us the thrill of racing each other without the full danger of racing each other.  We need not fear anything like the mad swerve that brought down the world champion yesterday.  Ours is a race blissfully free of real cyclists.

A win in Strava also has a permanence that, say, taking a sprint point on the Goon ride doesn't have.  Strava records have the feel of virtual, but lasting accomplishments.  If the White Whale attacked especially hard across 14th Street bridge and down the path to Hains, and the bits of data recorded every two seconds were ordinally sorted by duration, and the particular duration of the particular bike rider was smallest...the White Whale is assigned a number,"1," and his name and data are listed above all others.

Wins happen in real bike races, but the results listing is always after the fact; the real race happened and was captured in memories and a couple of still photos, if you're lucky.  The real accomplishment is the actual pushing of the wheel in front of all others.  The raising of the arms.  Essential to real bike racing is the defeat of others.  Real bike racing is captured in subjective sensations of the participants doing battle with each other.

Is virtual competition of the type found in Strava real?

If we think of competition in the strictest sense, it isn't.  A competition loses something by being virtual, by it being a race of individuals striving for numbers.  For one, we react biologically to face-to-face competition.  One specific example of this is the release of testosterone that precedes and follows competition.  As one researcher noted, testosterone is a social hormone.  Another researcher has found that the release of hormones--parituclarly testosterone--in the body is about the same after (1) sex as it is (2) after winning a physical competition.

But who's to say these surges don't happen before virtual competition?  They happen before events as seemingly placid as chess matches.  They probably happen before Strava users approach known Strava segments.  My guess is that racing a Strava segment does release some of the same physical sensations as racing Bunny Hop.

Some of the effect is simply from exercising, not necessarily competition.  Humans are among several species found to release hormones during running.  In a study I read recently (but can't find the citation to), researchers put humans and several other species on treadmills and measured the release of "feel-good" hormones.  After 20 minutes of jogging, humans and several other species released such hormones; weasels and other species did not.  This led researchers to conclude that humans are hard-wired to run--toward prey and away from conflict or danger, whereas other species are not rewarded for running from danger or after prey.

In fact, the effects of even watching competition on the body is surprisingly similar to participating.  One study found that Spanish football fans respond to watching their team play in the same way they do to a night of lovemaking.

All of this is to answer the question--Strava competitions are probably, at least in terms of the response of the body to competition, good proxies of real racing.

The comparison between virtual bike racing, actual bike racing, and sex goes even further.  It's no secret that global access to pornography has exploded in the past two decades, but the assumption was always that virtual sex (Strava for the bedroom, so to speak) was no substitute for the real thing.  Of course, it isn't, but the effect of pornography on society has been profound: as one researcher states, "a massive increase in available pornography in Japan, the United States and elsewhere has been correlated with a dramatic decrease in sexual crimes and most so among youngsters as perpetrators or victims." 

In other words, virtual sex, for many people, makes them less likely to engage in violent or unhealthy sexual acts.  Would-be rapists are less likely to rape when they can easily get laid, even if only virtually.  The hormone release they seek from real sex, they can now at least find some approximation of through virtual sex.

But if racing a bike and making love are simply quests for chemical dumps of endorphins and serotonin, then the simplest course--Occam's course--of action would be to manufacture such chemicals and dump them straight into the veins.  This is, of course, the purpose of drugs.  And it's also why drugs are bad.  The junkie life--whether in pursuit of runner's high or just a plain old crack cocaine high--is not a good life.  Racing a bike should feel good only when it should feel good, in the way that sex should feel good only when it's healthy sex.  (Don't ask me to elaborate further on this--I'm from the Midwest.)

I have no problem with Strava as a nice auxiliary to really racing a bike, but let's remember its limitations.  Strava cannot fully capture the insane difficulty of real bike racing any more than porn captures love between two people.  On the other hand, a little Strava action is better than no action an all.

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