Strava Cycling Climbing Challenges

Strava is a popular service for logging bike rides and other activities, which provides a way of comparing one’s achievements with those of other cyclists and runners. Competition is a powerful stimulant and a main driver behind the success of the service. Monthly “challenges”, such as a Gran Fondo (a ride of at least 100 or 130 km, depending on the time of the year) or a monthly cumulative distance or elevation gain challenge, are particularly popular on Strava.

While I regularly participate in the Cycling Distance and Gran Fondo Challenge, I do not normally sign up for the Cycling Climbing Challenge, which is meant to encourage you do ride hilly courses. I love hilly courses. In fact, most of my weekend rides are hilly, usually going from close to sea level to over 900 m and back.

Last year I averaged one century ride (at least 160.9 km / 100 miles) about every other week, so the Gran Fondo challenge is not really that much of a challenge for me. My typical centuries are about 170-190 km with 1800-2100 m of elevation gain. Yet at 7500 to 8000 m the goal for the Cycling Climbing Challenge is set so high, I could do a hilly century ride four Saturdays in a row and still miss the climbing goal. So how do other people, who do not ride 170 km into the hills every other weekend complete the climbing challenge?

I think the Strava climbing goals are designed for people who record their rides with phones or other GPS devices that rely only on satellite data for elevation. GPS-based elevation data is much less precise than lattitude-longitude data. Other popular GPS units like the Garmin Edge 1000, Garmin Edge 520 (or my o_synce Navi2coach) use a barometer for more precise elevation tracking. The problem with GPS-based elevation is that it’s noisy, it will go up and down pretty randomly but all those little ups will be added up by Strava, resulting in a considerably inflated climbing total. If you’re using a GPS device measuring relatively accurate barometric elevation, you can’t really compete against all that noisy data 🙁

I could confirm this in group rides with other people who were using mix of equipment, where I had a chance to compare the posted stats on Strava afterwards. The iPhone or Android-app recorded totals were often 50-100% higher than the Garmin-recorded totals, for one and the same course.

Here is one random example of 4 people doing the same course up a volcano in Tenerife, Gran Canria yesterday. Note, this not my ride, I just randomly stumbled on it while looking at high scorers in the March Cycling Climbing Challenge on the Strava website. Two of these cyclists were using the Strava iPhone app, the other two were using a Garmin Edge 520:

Strava iPhone App:

Strava iPhone App:

Garmin Edge 520:

Garmin Edge 520:

As you can see, the two cyclists using the phone app posted almost double the total climbing for the course as the Garmin users, despite riding the very same roads and posting the same elevation profile for the activity (i.e. no hill repeats).

Based on evidence like that, I don’t think elevation gain competitions on Strava are happening on a level playing field! 😉

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