On two wheels

This is how you get a Strava KOM without cheating. I’m an average cyclist. I hold 12 of them.

They say that winning Strava KOMs honestly is a big achievement. I say it's all about picking your fights wisely.

It’s common knowledge that if you don’t post your ride on Strava, it never happened. Additionally, snagging a KOM is next to godliness and is only reserved for the most matching, most hairless and most dedicated cyclists. (Active.com)

I’m sorry, but I don’t shave my legs. Still, I did not just get one KOM accidentally. Over the past year and a bit, I got 12 of them. I actually got more than 20, but many of them I have lost again in the mean-time. And I also have a bunch of podium places.

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There are lots of people out there already to tell you how to earn a Strava KOM. Use a tailwind, test it out, ride in a group, know the segment’s start and end to focus your effort on the right section of the street… you name it. I have some advice for the average guy or girl in Lycra. Because, you know: I’m just like you.

How average I am

To put this into perspective: I’m a really average cyclist. My FTP currently sits at 3.07w/kg. For cyclists, FTP is the much criticized standard to determine how challenging a workout should be. Basically, it measures what power one could do over an hour with a short 20min time trial, embedded in a longer workout that contains some warming up and cooling down. The resulting value, in watt, is then divided by weight. Watt per kilogram can be compared across riders like horse powers of a car.

And I’m really rather average. Well, across competitive cyclists who continue to train in winter using a specific online training platform and who use a power meter. Further evidence: In a race I did earlier this May, I could cruise along with the lead group at 40-45km/h for about half the race. When the field got split after a crash, I found myself alone and hammering hard to sustain just more than 30km/h. On crit races, I’m satisfied when I get looped only once. I’m terrible at cornering and I descend slower than Sebastian Reichenbach or any other old lady. I’ve never managed to sprint with more than 55km/h (and that was with a tailwind). I’m not the worst climber, but that means that I usually reach the 40% percentile of cat2 and cat1 uphill segments on Strava (roughly let’s say climbs between 3km and 8km). On very, very long climbs, I might be a bit better than that, but only when I manage to skip breaks (worked on the Stelvio, didn’t work on the Gavia).

I shouldn’t have any Strava KOM.

But I have 12.

So, how did I get a KOM? And how can you?

To be clear: I don’t cheat. I haven’t even always had tailwind on my Strava KOMs. I find cheating for a Strava KOM incredibly low. I haven’t even bothered to gain back KOMs that I’ve lost. I know I’ve earned them at the time and not all of them are easily accessible to me from where I live now.

I also don’t include KOMs on private segments. Furthermore, there’s a segment in which I hold the KOM that is based on bad GPS data. I’ve flagged that segment. No, I hold the KOMs on legitimate segments. They don’t require passing traffic lights or junctions. (Safety first!) They are no downhill segments. But they have something in common.

They are on roads less traveled.

Not all roads are equal

I got my first KOM by accident. I didn’t even try to go for it. On that one, I only enjoyed a tailwind and cruised with about 31-32km/h between some rice fields just out of Milan. Then I uploaded the ride to Strava and saw that no segment had yet been created for that bit of street. So I created the segment. The next time I rode the segment, I was just a tiny bit faster than the first time. A second or two. And when I uploaded the ride, it told me I earned the KOM – which I had apparently taken from myself.

Below is a map of  that segment. The segment is blue. It’s a path only for bikes, and it’s incorrectly mapped with a gravel surface (i.e. not road-bike friendly). There’s a barrier at the entrance and there’s some dirt on the street. Just parallel is a more direct street. You share it with cars, but it’s in much better condition. Also that street has a segment.

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Actually, both routes have a segment in either direction. Here’s how many participants have ridden either segment.

Pista ciclabile da Mirasole a Opera: 48
Pista ciclabile da Opera a Mirasole: 37

Rotondone Opera > Mirasole: 204
Mirasole > Rotondone Opera: 120

Now, if I look across all my KOMs, they are on segments with on average 48 other cyclists. This number jumps up to 78 if I look at KOMs and podium places. Only one of my current KOMs has been ridden by more than 100 cyclists. Among the KOMs that I’ve lost, however, there had been three with more than 300 cyclists each (and one with 650).

strava_segmenthistogram.png

I don’t have data at hand about the average number of people within a segment in and around Milan. But let’s approach this. This Spring, I’ve mostly been riding in the mountains. There are three rides that I managed to do in the cycling-friendly South-West of Milan. Along and between the Navigli towards Pavia and Abbiategrasso, you’ll find the majority of cyclists. So let’s just take the average of all segments that I passed on these three rides. I’ve cleaned the data: there are stretches with segments that you would usually ride sequentially. In those cases, I’ve taken one and not considered those that overlap in order to avoid a bias towards higher segment popularity.

The average segment Southwest of Milan from these three rides has about 1,150 riders classified on Strava. None of them had less than 100 riders listed. Usually, you’d find me anywhere in the 15-30% percentile. For my Strava KOMs, I competed against a fraction of them.

The take-away is simple: the fewer people on a KOM, the weaker is the competition. So far, that’s obvious. But the difference is massive. On a segment with around 100 people, I’d usually be 25th to 30th. On a segment with 50, I should then have a chance to make it into the top 10. But not to get the KOM. So, that’s not the full story. It seems that on these less popular segments on which I hold the KOM, faster people are more likely not to ride it than slower people. The fast riders get lost on the lesser known streets.

Why is this happening?

Ask yourself for a moment: how do you plan your training trips? Where do you go? How much effort do you put into it? And what makes a good route for you? I suppose that you’d prefer little traffic, no traffic lights, few crossings, not too many turns (and certainly not many sharp turns), and some nice country side. You might plan the route with Garmin or using Google Maps for bikes. Maybe you have an account with Komoot or you make use of Strava’s popular routes feature.

Stop right there.

Popular routes are those that are chosen by most people. They lead to pretty heat-maps. That doesn’t mean they are the best choice. They are only the most contingent choice.

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Personally, I have a thing that I don’t want any two rides to be the same. I always try to add some element of novelty to keep me motivated. Could be a new combination of roads I’ve used already, but at best it includes a road I never tried before. To that end, I need to have a deeper look at the map. And I can’t just rely on any of the tools mentioned above. My go-to source for route planning is GPSies.com which allows me to use OpenStreetMaps. I use Google StreetView to validate the road surface and to assess the traffic on main roads.

This has helped me to find lots of interesting little agricultural roads around Milan that are just a tiny bit wider than a delivery truck. Those roads link farms with villages. They also helped to get away from the traffic and to bypass busy roads. Sometimes, they are quite a bumpy ride along potholes (and sometimes they are running over smooth and fresh asphalt). Often, they will include sharp twists and turns.

They are roads that are mostly known to riders who live in the neighboring villages. They are not really known to the crowds of cyclists that depart from Milan. Most importantly, they are not attractive to people who want a very fast average speed, and they are not suitable for larger group rides. They are awesome for a casual ride which is mostly about enjoying the landscape. What’s happening is a simple selection bias.

And for that very reason, they are the optimal terrain to score a KOM for an average cyclist.

The next map below shows the location of nine of my KOMs in Milan (in red) and the path of the most popular roads (in blue) on GoogleMaps’ terrain layer. (Hence, you also know where you can steal some easy KOMs from me. Go ahead.) Of these most popular roads, the majority of them are actually main roads.

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I find that noteworthy. There are actually a big number of interesting quiet roads around Milan, particular in the Southwest and in the Southeast. Just nobody uses them, because they are a tiny bit off the grid and not as easy to find using established route planning tools. So, many people pass by, but few people know about it.

So, at some point I started to explore these streets systematically. That’s why I got all my KOMs in a rather short time frame. I also scored many near-misses, but usually I didn’t get around to give it a second try; though, there are six segments where I’m within two seconds of the current leader. Anyways, I didn’t magically turn from a random weak cyclist to a Strava pro with big legs. I just understood how the game works and then I played it. So can you.

What about the populated KOMs that I once held?

Among the KOMs that I hold and once held, three stand out with very high participant numbers. That doesn’t contradict my story. It’s still about the location. Two of these three are on the same path – they are just one segment and its reverse. They lead through a park in the outskirts of Milan. At many times, there might be pedestrians. When you come from out of town, you’d usually stop riding at speed here – and reversely you’d pick up speed just after the park.

Same for the third populated KOM that I’ve held and lost. It comes at the very end of my training rides when I entered town back from the West, following the Naviglio Grande. At San Cristoforo, I’d turn left and pass the train line. Then, there would be 600 final meters with a 90 degree left turn on a street with no traffic, at the end of which you’d run into a traffic light. The majority of cyclists will have stopped their workout already when leaving the Naviglio. They’d spin home easily and cool down. I’ve often used it for a final sprint.

So, all of this comes together at the end.

This one tip put simply

Go hard where others are not likely to go hard.

And isn’t that essentially the way how you would launch a successful attack in a race? Racing is about tactics as much as it’s about raw power. The same is true for Strava KOMs. It’s not always the cyclist with the strongest legs who wins a race.

It’s occasionally a very average cyclist who can get a KOM. Or even 12 of them.

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3 comments

  1. Interesting! I hold a handful of KOMs down here in Tasmania. I think I held just one in England during my years there. The difference being most segments in England have upwards of 1000 riders on the list – a big talent pool including professional cyclists. In Tassie there are super fast riders for sure, just less of them! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On top of that, I didn’t write about how Strava-competitive your local crowd is. I’d expect UK Strava users to care more about KOMs than local Italians around Milan. I’ve only experienced one case of a KOM battle where I took a KOM, lost it, got it back a few weeks later, and then instantly lost it again to the same guy. So, likewise I expect the number of capable cyclists who don’t even try and go all-in on one segment to be small compared to those who just go fast steadily for a good overall average speed. A focus on average speed might then as well be a function of a lower adoption of power meters – with causality in either direction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I don’t usually “hunt” KOMs, but tend to just ride my ride keeping the speed high as I can for most of it (the average speed junkie in me). I use a few segments and testers for myself though and there are one or two KOMs I am thinking about!

        There’s one guy local to me who always goes out and takes back any KOM’s that I take of his. I’m more chilled about it these days.

        Like

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