I’ve pondered the nature and the value of Strava segments. Probably more than I should have. I really like the way they are beginning to give us names and labels to describe what we do and where we go. I like that the process is giving us, as a community, a sense of a shared cultural narrative in the landscape.
But I’m going to take that a step further and try and wring an extra layer of meaning out of them.
Bear with me on this
This is going to be a thought piece where I explore a few ideas as I write and see what happens. I may well come up with something interesting.
Then again, I may disappear down the rabbit hole.
This all came about because someone I follow on Strava got a KoM on a local segment I didn’t recognise. More than that I have, apparently, never ridden it. That alone piqued my curiosity: my local woods are my backyard and I must have ridden every inch of trail in them at some point over the last decade. So, to have never ridden a segment got my attention.
The segment runs along the edge of the woods, down the bridleway from the corner, turns left at the T junction, right at the next cross roads and then stops at the bottom of a hill in the middle of nowhere. It’s over one and a half kilometres long. It’s a real curiosity.
And it got me thinking.
Which is always dangerous.
Talk to me about segments
Mountain bikers are developing a lexicon all of our own, that label the features in the landscape that are significant to us. While some names pre-date the arrival of Strava, its importance is not to be underestimated. In the olden days (by which I mean anything before about 2012), groups rode and named things we thought were important. Those names stayed within the group and meant nothing to anyone else. I remember meeting riders at parties and spending a goodly part of the conversation trying to translate between our different terms for the same place (I have “fond” memories of spending months searching for a stretch of secret singletrack I heard described at a party, only to find that I’d been riding it for years and thought everyone knew about it).
The true power of Strava is that it shares those names. The segment names become part of a shared lexicon: everyone who rides “Villains” has it drawn to their attention, even if they’ve never met me. As I said in a previous piece, they are now such common currency that people have started creating segments with names that reference those segments.
Names are important. That’s why I care about them.
[warning: rabbit hole disappearance imminent]
What are you talking about?
Ok, the point is that, while Strava was created (and is used) as a training aid, the major difference it’s made to our community is the creation of a set of shared place names for where we ride.
And that’s why I’m thinking about this segment that goes down the edge of the wood, along a couple of bridleways to finish at the bottom of a slope. It doesn’t really add anything to that lexicon.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the segment should not have been created. What I’m suggesting is that not all segments are the same.
I’m proposing a threefold system of grouping segments.
Natural segments are pretty much what they sound like. They are the things that you think of when you think of a segment. It’s probably something you would think of as a single trail.
A natural segment usually has a clear start and finish point. You probably know when you’ve crossed the start line and it’s fairly obvious when you’ve reached the end.
By and large they have a unifying characteristic that is present the length of the trail. That might be following a landscape feature such as a river, a ridge or a wood edge. The nature of the trail may vary but it’s definitely a single place.
In most cases, the way ahead is obvious when you are riding. So, if there are junction, it should be clear which way to go.
They are unlikely to cross roads or any other barrier that is likely to make you stop or force you to dismount.
These segments are the trails whose names get remembered and used to describe a place outside of chasing a KoM. These are the ones that will enter the shared lexicon of places and trails that we use to describe our riding. They are the building blocks of our understanding of the riding landscape.
Composite segments are ones that comprise a number of natural segments.
If you describe them as something then something else, the chances are it’s a composite segment.
If you have to give someone directions the first time they ride it (as opposed to beta), then it’s probably a composite segment.
If it can’t be guaranteed to be ridden without stopping to negotiate an obstacle such as a gate or road (rather than trail features) then it’s likely to be a composite. This obviously ignores new features such as a tree that has fallen across the trail. They are a whole different article.
In short, if it’s made up of smaller, discrete sections, then it’s probably a composite. If you can identify a couple of natural segments that make up the route, then you’re looking at a composite.
I am not attempting to denigrate or devalue composite segments. They are a good thing. They show how segments can be linked together into a worthwhile bit of riding, they can be really good training aids, they can be fun link-up routes. It may even be that they end up like a multi-pitch climbing route where individual pitches have names but you don’t stop between each one.
Eliminates are a funny group. They are part of a natural segment, but there are good reasons for them existing.
Want to know who is fastest on that really steep pitch on a climb? That’ll be an eliminate.
Interested in seeing how fast you went on the rocky bit in the middle of a descent? Or the weavy bit through the trees? That’s probably an eliminate if you’re planning to bomb down the whole thing.
If your description starts with “just the” or uses “of” something else, then it’s probably the territory of the eliminate.
If you’ve got a climb or a descent that changes character partway through, then eliminate sections of it will feel almost like a natural segment.
But what’s the point of them? Curiosity, I suppose. Seeing how you did on a small (or not so small) section of a trail can be very informative. If you’ve got a climb or a descent that changes character partway through, then eliminate sections of it will feel almost like a natural segment.
Remind me what the point of all this is
Strava, and its segments are now part and parcel of riding culture. But they’re still kind of new. We’re still kind of working out how to use it.
This categorisation helps us know what we’re talking about when we describe those segments. The categorisation is intentionally centre defined: in the middle it will be fairly obvious but, as you reach the edge cases it will be more open to argument. And that’s fine: we need something to argue about in the pub that’s more interesting than wheel size.
I can think of a couple of local segments that are worthy of an argument. But that argument will help us get an even better handle on the ground we are riding over.
And getting to know the world better is a good thing.