Jan. 4, 2019 12:00 p.m. ET
Mountain biker Trevor Shepherd was feeling triumphant after reaching the top of a steep, rocky trail near his home in Manchester, England—posting a personal-best time of 3½ minutes.
He took out his phone and quickly recorded the accomplishment on his Strava app, which lets cyclists see how their times stack up against others.
On the app later that evening, the 50-year-old advertising executive was stunned to see another rider had handily beat his time a few months earlier. Upon looking at her profile picture, he noticed she was sitting atop an electric-powered bike on the same gnarly section of trail.
“The lady in question is up there with a time of 1:55. It’s obvious that was on an e-bike,” said an exasperated Mr. Shepherd.
Trevor Shepherd's ride logged on the Strava app.PHOTO: STRAVA
The growing popularity of health and exercise apps have led to more people fudging on their fitness. They’re hacking fitness trackers like Fitbit, inflating their step counts and “forgetting” to record that afternoon bag of sour cream and onion potato chips.
On Strava—a social network for runners and cyclists, with 36 million users globally—many cyclists are in an uproar over alleged e-bike cheaters, who they claim are stealing their virtual trophies.
“You can be on a ride and think, ‘Boy, I’ve really got it going today,’ ” Mr. Shepherd said. “And then later you check Strava and you’ve been beaten by a 75-year-old on an e-bike.”
Strava’s app uses the GPS on riders’ devices to record cycling times. Many weekend warriors use it as a training log, as well as a way to track friends and encourage followers.
Some of the more elite athletes compete for virtual trophies, little gold-colored icons that are awarded when the rider’s time is among the top 10 fastest on a particular segment of road or trail. There is even a “trophy case” where users can show off their digital accolades, including the coveted “King of the Mountain” gold crown for capturing the No. 1 time slot.
Riders must now contend with the likes of Matt May, a 50-year-old high-school teacher from suburban Chicago, who bought an e-bike last summer. He has zipped from middle of the pack to the top 10 on about a half-dozen rides.
On one ride in September, he placed third out of 156 cyclists. The profile pictures of some of the riders he beat on that stretch show muscular athletes in action, wearing racing jerseys and intense looks.
Mr. May’s profile picture shows a bottle of vodka strapped to his e-bike with a bungee cord.
Matt May's Strava profile picture shows his e-bike with a bottle of vodka. PHOTO: MATT MAY
“I’m not sure what’s more fun, riding my e-bike or upsetting the purists on Strava,” Mr. May said.
E-bikes represent the fastest-growing slice of the U.S. bicycle market today. Sales totaled $135 million for the 12 months ended in October and are up more than eightfold since 2014, according to market-research firm NPD Group, Inc. Still, e-bikes account for just 4% of the $3.5 billion overall U.S. market.
Strava says users should designate e-bike rides via a drop-down menu on the app at the start of their activity, which keeps them off the leaderboards. It also uses an algorithm to detect what it describes as “obvious violations,” such as going too fast—say, if a user is actually in a car.
“The cycling segment leaderboards are for conventional bicycles and reflect human-powered achievement rather than unattainable, motor-assisted times,” Strava said in a statement.
Users who suspect cheating can flag a ride as suspicious, which yanks the virtual trophy from the rider. Alleged cheats are notified when a ride has been flagged. They can use a pull-down menu on the app to acknowledge they were on an e-bike, delete the entry or clear their names—and get their trophy back—by choosing: “The activity is fine, trust me.”
Some pedal-pushing purists are pressing the company to take tougher action. On message boards, some have suggested more-robust algorithms to flag likely e-bike entries, or a requirement that users must wear a heart monitor to qualify for leaderboards.
Robert Davis, a retiree in his mid-60s from Marfa, Texas, has lobbied Strava to make it easier for e-bikers to identify themselves. “I think a lot of them are just trying to goof around with people,” he said—which doesn’t go over well with the more competitive users. “Some people take this crap seriously,” he added.
A mountain biker in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California. PHOTO: BRIAN MELLEY/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Lennard Zinn, a custom-bicycle builder in Boulder, Colo., who writes for cycling website VeloNews, said he switched to an e-bike last spring due to a heart condition but continues to use Strava because he wants to track his rides.
He tries to remember to choose the e-bike setting on the app and said he wishes there were separate leaderboards for e-bikers.
“I get flagged sometimes,” he said. On the more competitive routes, he makes sure to designate his e-bike status, so “I don’t trigger anybody.”
Jeff Disbrow, another Colorado cyclist, is among those who have called Mr. Zinn out. While he had read about Mr. Zinn’s ailment and felt bad for flagging his rides, it was a matter of principle, he said, so he did it anyway—twice.
“I’m flagging people all the time,” said Mr. Disbrow, a 55-year-old entrepreneur and former professional triathlete who has won dozens of King of the Mountain crowns. He admits to having spent hours sifting through strangers’ Stravafeeds to flag likely e-bikers and other illicit rides, like tandem bikers.
Mr. Disbrow has trained himself to identify suspicious entries. Unknown names that pop up into the top 10 are a common tip-off. Riders who post top times but have skimpy training logs are another giveaway. Sometimes he’ll look at the data from a rider’s heart-rate monitor to see if there was sufficient huffing and puffing on a climb.
“I know that sounds kind of sick,” Mr. Disbrow said. “Maybe it’s my competitive nature.”
hahaha... yup. This is the climb I was talking about. The guy who took the KOM on his e-bike back in the spring ended up getting called out by his buddies and he pulled the ride down, or maybe switched to e-bike.