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Strava 'Routes' review

29 May 2020
Verdict:

Forget paywalled segments, it was the overhaul to ‘Routes’ that was Strava’s big change and it's got plenty of room for improvement

Cyclist Rating: 
Price: 
£4 per month
For 
New phone routing is good • More user-friendly desktop interface • Interesting new features
Against 
Off-road feature needs cleaning up if it's to work properly

Fitness app Strava’s decision to place its segment leaderboards and analysis behind its subscription paywall was one of the most divisive decisions the company had ever made.

It got people talking, a lot of our readers were interested. In fact, I’ll let you into a secret, our story on Stava’s recent mass overhaul is the most-read story on the website ever.

Some were angry that Strava had placed these features behind the paywall, believing they deserved something for nothing, while others understood that nothing comes for free. In order for Strava to continue being a successful, and one day financially-viable, company its users will have to start dipping into their wallets.

While segment leaderboards and analysis becoming a luxury of those paying for the product was what grabbed the headlines, it was nowhere near the biggest change Strava made. No, that lies with the updates to its routing system.

Strava has been able to capture the active crowd for what seems an eternity as the number one place to store and post your training data, however, it has often struggled in being the number one place for route planning and mapping.

In fact, a considerable number of Strava users would often go across to rival, paid-for apps such as Komoot or even Map My Ride for ‘superior’ route and mapping capabilities before then using Strava’s free services to compare segments and times.

But now, with Strava asking for its customers to pay for the privilege of comparing segments leaderboards, it also realised it would have to improve its full package, which meant improving the much maligned routing and mapping capabilities.

Or, as head of Strava in the UK Simon Kilma puts it, ‘We want to provide as much value as possible and we don’t want users to feel compelled to build their routes somewhere else.’

Strava has done this with a mammoth overhaul of its mapping and route system which it aptly calls ‘Routes’ and Cyclist has spent the Bank Holiday weekend exploring the changes and whether significant improvements have been made.

Getting to grips with updated 'Routes'

Firstly, the route service that Strava now offers on its desktop platform looks entirely different, even down to the typeface and colour scheme, a full makeover has been had.

The ‘Route’ platform now uses OpenStreetMap - like competitor Komoot - with allows users to design routes on three base map styles - OSM, satellite and standard.

The usual stuff is also there, such as the elevation profile along the base of the route and the ability to overlay segments onto the maps. And, of course, all of your routes can be made into GPX or TCX files and sent directly to your bike's GPS unit.

But as I am now paying for the route feature, I can also place Strava’s global heatmap onto the map to check out the most popular roads and routes where I am planning to ride.

Now, I didn’t need this for any of my weekend road rides - my local knowledge trumps Strava here - but it certainly came in handy for planning my one off-road adventure. The light purple stream acting as proof that certain tracks were rideable, expanding my network of local off-road offerings.

Like Google Maps, you can also set Strava to adjust the course based upon either the most direct route - if you’re in a hurry - or the most popular route - particularly useful for mapping in areas not known to you. You can also set the route to track minimum or maximum elevation, too. So far, I’ve found both of these things to work.

Crucially, falling in line with Komoot, Strava Routes now also allows you to opt between a preference of paved, dirt or ‘any surface type’. This will see Strava use its algorithms and previous data to adjust your route depending on what you are after, even giving you a tarmac to track breakdown at the bottom of the page.

Does it work? Well, no, not really.

Can I cycle here?

It seems that the software was unable to distinguish between footpaths and bridleways which is quite a problem in the UK as you’re technically not allowed to ride on footpaths.

This meant that my 20km route included about 5km of ‘off-road’ riding that was either on footpaths I really shouldn’t have been riding on or on completely impassable routes, even with my chunky 40mm tyres. This is a definite teething problem that Strava needs to address immediately. As proved by my first-hand experience of being shouted at by a farmer for cycling through his footpath last weekend, it’s certainly a problem.

Another teething problem was Strava’s automatic route planning feature that will recommend a user three routes based upon the amount of time and elevation plus the type of terrain you planned on tackling.

A very clever concept first rolled out in late March/early April and that is available to 'Summit' users via the phone app, it seemed to have some chinks in its armour, not least reports of some routes directing users onto motorways.

Mobile route mapping

The other big change was mapping from the phone, potentially the best improvement to come from Strava’s route overhaul. Users can now design a route or a course on the fly via the phone app.

It’s pretty simple, all you do is open up routes, click on the pencil, then roughly draw the direction in which you want to follow before sending it directly to your GPS computer.

 

It’s rough and doesn’t allow you to adjust specific parts of the route - meaning it’s not suitable for crafting an entire ride - but it certainly does the job if you find yourself lost on a ride and looking to get back home. It’s a welcome addition and something that will certainly come in handy to many users.

At £4 per month for its subscription service, Strava is hardly asking a lot from its users, especially as most of us freeloaded for so long. I mean, really, what’s £1 a week? Nothing. That’s coming from someone in their mid-twenties steeped in university debt, trying to buy a flat in London!

With the changes to the Routes system, especially the new routing from the phone, I’d almost suggest that it is paying for itself.

Granted, it feels like Strava is still a long way from cracking the mapping and routing systems and there are still a lot of improvements along the way but, if my £4 per month helps towards it getting better, then I’m pretty happy to pay it.

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