By now, most semi-serious cyclists have at least heard of Strava – the online application + community service that allows you to upload your GPS data from cycling and running workouts in order to see them mapped out, segmented, timed, and compared against the results of others who have covered the same terrain in the past. For cyclists and runners who are also gadget geeks, the service is an excellent way to gain additional insights into your workouts.
But if (in addition to being athletic and gadget / technology addicted) you also happen to be a competitive sort, Strava offers a whole additional level of entertainment. For those who train solo (which I do more often than not, via bicycle commuting), Strava allows you to answer the age-old nagging question in your head “wow, I wonder how fast I went up that hill compared to X”. (Where “X” can be anyone from your riding buddies to all of humanity.) Now, so long as the object of your aggression is also a Strava user, you can “race” against them and compare best times on a given section of road, regardless of whether or not you were there at the same time.
For anyone who has ever played a video game with a leaderboard, this is the same idea but in real life. I work in the videogame industry (I helped stand up the Xbox Live online gaming service and I’ve helped make a few racing games) and I’m keenly aware of the fun factor involved in adding the element of a public leaderboard to a game; it makes the fun of the game itself somehow feel more “purposeful” because you’re motivated to improve your standing on that list. The holy grail of leaderboards, of course, is the coveted #1 position. On Strava, that’s the “KOM” – short for “King of the Mountain“, a term reserved for climbs in major stage races where points are awarded to the top finishers of those individual stages. KOM points earn Climber’s Jerseys in real life. On Strava, they earn you online glory and bragging rights among your riding buddies. Plus it helps paint a giant bullseye on your back because those same Strava buddies will want to knock you off the top of that leaderboard.
The most mercinary Strava users engage in the sport of “KOM Hunting” – ruthlessly searching out climbs and their corresponding segments on Strava, then posting up top times and bagging the KOM medals accordingly. As of May 2012, Strava encourages this now more than ever, recently they added KOM achievements to their notifications stream. So now KOM hunting prowess is even more widely recognized. But KOM tropies remain elusive beats, how best to stalk and bag them for maximum glory? Well, I’m not much of a climber myself and can only watch in admiration of the true KOM cut-throats in my world, but I am a competition junkie and am always looking for ways to win. Even though at 6’4″ and 185lbs I can hardly expect to ever wear a climber’s jersey, I can still find KOM candidates for my trophy case if I look hard enough. Here’s how I KOM hunt:
1) Find a suitable target
Not everyone can climb like Contador, Schleck, Armstrong, Pantani, etc. so I’m mostly talking to the rest of us. For the not-so-skinny, it’s important to know what kind of terrain you do best on. TT monster? Find a nice stretch of road with no intersections or stoplights, and have at it. Power climber / sprinter? Focus on short ‘n brutal climbs that aren’t long enough to allow the real climbers to really shine through. Mad-skills MTB downhill champion? Yes, you can have a “reverse KOM” for the fastest time down a hill also!
2) Make sure it’s a “meaningful” segment.
Don’t just go make a segment on some super-secret road to nowhere that nobody else ever rides on, what’s the fun of being the king of a leaderboard with only 1 entry? To be a real King, you need subjects to rule over. Pick a segment that’s already got some traffic on it, the healthier ones already have a good number of Strava junkies making runs on them so it’s a fair “race” to attack.
Here’s a perfect target for me, for example. A short and semi-steep segment along my normal daily commute, that gets a decent amount of traffic from a wide variety of riders including several folks I race with. It’s not L’Alpe De Huez, but for anyone who commutes along this route in the Seattle Eastside region, it’s enough to get your heartrate up every morning for sure.
3) Scope out your competition
Ideally the segment of your affection is one you ride often (and therefore see often on Strava when you upload your data). This allows you to keep a close eye on the leaderboard, to see who the “big dogs” are. In my case, the leaderboard has been fairly static at the #1 position, held by a former racing teammate of mine (John Sindell, from Garage Racing here in Seattle) who is a MUCH stronger rider than me. There’s been a lot of churn below that #1 slot, and as of 5/15/2012 there have been 175 individual Strava riders on that segment, and 1278 runs up that hill. But for nearly a year, John’s held the KOM. I decided he’d had it long enough, and plotted a short term fitness peak that would allow me to potentially steal the KOM crown from him. He’s got plenty of others, he won’t mind losing one, right?
4) Strike without warning
All was going according to plan. After a winter and spring with very little training, I finally got in a few weeks of semi-regular riding and felt that I was ready to make an attempt on one of my morning commutes. But then the day before I planned to hit it with everything I had, I noticed a change at the top; someone had stolen the KOM from John and it wasn’t me!!! KOM hunting is merciless business, and another shark had entered the pool without my even knowing it. Who was this KOM ninja?!?!?
This KOM hunter had never before appeared on the leaderboard, but was clearly in the game. John’s record was 1:01, and this usurper beat it by 1 second for a new record of 1:00 even. So be it, this is the way of the hunt! The only problem (from my perspective) was that now John would eventually notice via Strava that he had lost his #1 on that segment. That would increase the likelihood of a retort, which (I feared) would push the top time out of my reach. I took notice of my new enemy, who was being praised online by his own subjects:
Oh yes, they will stand for quite some time. IF YOU ONLY MEASURE TIME IN HOURS!!!! BWUAHAHAHAHA!!!! <rubs hands together and laughs menacingly >
My new quarry had employed rule #4 and had struck without warning, but I knew that rule also. The next morning I had an extra scoop of EPO in my coffee before heading out for my own surprise attack: a 59 second long assault on the segment to take the crown. I had intended to steal it from John, but stealing it from the one who stole it is almost as much fun.
5) Taunt and heckle the vanquished mercilessly
A gentleman may not subscribe to rule #5, but as a longtime fan of the world of videogames I find it absolutely necessary to finish off a victory with a wee bit of smacktalkery. In this case I took to the internets, first via an loud and proclamatory email to my friends and teammates on that leaderboard who deserved to hear of my victory (including John, the original target of my attack). Some may feel this is disrespectful, and that KOMs are a private affair. To that I say “go back to France, Loser McLoserface!” because that’s a whole lot of loser talk. The whole point of the #1 spot on the leaderboard is to unlock the happy dance. And you better damn well believe I danced.
But what of the usurper, the surpise attacker from the day before who only managed to hold onto the crown for a day? I don’t know him personally, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give him a friendly jab from out of nowhere to serve as salt for his fresh wounds:
(I’m a big fan of http://sadtrombone.com – I suggest you become one as well.)
6) Await the inevitable counterattacks
If merely taking over the KOM isn’t action enough to ensure the swarm of enemies ramping up in your face to try to steal it away from you, then properly following step #5 above will guarantee it. This is the nervous and sweaty palmed dark side of KOM hunting – living in fear with a bullseye on your back. The pressure is too much for most people, but luckily for you dear KOM hunter you are NOT most people or you would’t be reading this. Just weather the storm from high atop your throne carved from a solid block of awesome, and enjoy your new KOM as long as you can. As of this writing, I still hold the crown from the KOM battle described in this post. I’ll update it if (when) the hoard takes me down. On that note, you’ve nearly reached the end of this tutorial, we’re on the the 7th and final step!
Update: hah, that was fast – my taunting stirred up the hornet’s nest and I was quickly relegated to 3rd on the leaderboard; my rule only lasted ~ 7 hours. 🙂
7) Repeat from step #1
What are you still here for? Get back to #1 ASAP!!! You’ve got riding to do, KOM hunter! Get cracking, your enemies are out riding RIGHT NOW. The KOM crown isn’t welded to your skull, keep moving or someone will grab it!
So long as I have breath in my lungs I shall wheeze my tired fat ass up climbs as fast as I can, in search of KOM points. A great fictional warrior once belched forth “Every rider dies, not every rider lives.” KOM hunters truly know life because they breathe harder and deeper – for increased oxygen, for increased power, and for more Strava KOM glory!!!
Found a good article on KOM hunting over at CyclingTips!
Updated 06/21/2012 with more related reading:
Old news to some (but was new to me) – William “Kim” Flint was killed in 2010 going after a downhill road KOM segment, when he lost control while braking to avoid a car. GPS data from his bike showed he was traveling faster than the posted speed limit. Yesterday (2 years after the incident), the family of that rider filed a lawsuit in San Francisco against Strava, claiming they were negligent and therefore partially responsible for the cyclist’s death.
As I am any time I hear about a cyclist dying in a riding accident, I’m saddened that someone lost their life while participating in a sport they love. But at the same time, in this particular incident I’m disappointed that his family is attempting to go after Strava for this. The rider owns responsibility for how they ride. That means you have personal responsibility for obeying the speed limits, traffic signals, stop signs, etc. If you ignore those rules then get hurt or killed as a result of ignoring those rules, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself. Cycling is dangerous enough already, you’re taking risks every time you head out for a ride. Manage those risks accordingly to maximize your odds of having a good time and minimize your chances for injury or death. Going after a downhill road KOM on Strava is (in my opinion) a ridiculous risk, one I’d never try myself even though I’m a pretty good descender. It’s just way too risky (not to mention illegal if you’re speeding) on roads that aren’t closed to traffic – if you really want to go for downhill KOM attempts leave it to offroad (MTB) or closed-course riding sessions if available. Me, I’m sticking to traditional KOM work – going UPhill.
My condolences go out to William Flint’s family. But please don’t blame Strava for the excessive risk taking of some of its users. William took those risks all on his own, and paid dearly for them.
There’s a nice blog entry on the Strava site that makes a lot of sense when thinking about this incident:
“We know the rules. Laws and rules are created for our protection. Cycling, running and swimming are inherently dangerous and following the law, and common sense, when it comes to traffic, weather, or conditions, reduces our odds of getting hurt or hurting others. It’s as simple as that.”
Update 7/23/2013: The fine folks at Peloton magazine (along with Specialized, BMC, SRAM, and Assos if my informercial absorption skills were in tune just now) have put together an impassioned plea and a counterattack towards a newer problem among the Strava KOM hunting community: segment whoring by professionals.
Nicely done #MrH!
Update 12/2/2016 – great article about retired pro Phil Gaimon going KOM hunting in SoCal, specifically targeting some “suspect” KOMs posted up by a ex-doper / banned rider who many suspect was on the juice when he set them.