Is technolology ruining our outdoor experiences, or are they not complete until the visuals and the electronic evidence are recorded?
i’m halfway through a 30-mile ride with a good friend—white, puffy clouds dot the sky, humidity is low, my legs feel strong for the first time in weeks, and the entire afternoon is mine to pedal away. My chain drops, I pause to pop it back in place, we high-five, and then head off again up the mountain.
An hour later, back at home, I grab a glass of water, take off my shoes, and pull out my phone: time to record the ride on Strava, to check out my annual mileage and see how I’m stacking up compared to last year. Who is the QOM of that one gnarly climb, did I get a PR anywhere, what was my average speed?
But no—the ride is only half recorded. The GPS dropped or my phone glitched or who knows what, but only half a ride is there and I’m crushed. As they, whoever they are, say, pics and Strava, or it never happened, right?
That experience made me pause and wonder how many of us are starting to define our passions by our stats. While I occasionally race, I don’t consider myself a racer. I ride my bike for fun. I ride because I need to justify my fish-tacos-and-margaritas habit. I ride because it keeps me sane and often introduces me to awesome new friends. My first date with my husband was over mountain bikes and mud at Carvins Cove. Riding is my life—but how much of my life am I starting to compartmentalize (or even trivialize) with PRs or how many miles I’ve ridden since June?
It turns out, upon reflection, that I am a digital native when it comes to cycling. When I started riding 12 years ago, I picked up one of those cheap cycling computers that only tracked speed and mileage. It wasn’t fancy, but it motivated me to push myself harder, to attempt longer rides and, in a way, during long, solo rides, cheer me on when I felt like I was failing.
Over the years, I acquired a Garmin or two, and now with my iPhone and Strava, I can’t imagine a tech-free life. Chain lubed? Check. Tires pumped? Check. Strava on? Check.
For my friends, it’s the same. In fact, I’ve met some of my closest friends through technology like Strava and Facebook. When we ride, we snap pictures that we then share on Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat and Strava. We compare live stats and chat about power meters over a beer. We set up times to meet and ride online. We compete over segments for fun, swapping titles like Queen or King of the Mountain like trading cards. When I moved to Lynchburg, unfamiliar with the roads, I checked RideWithGPS.com and Strava for good routes. Life without digital cameras or social media or Garmins is unthinkable at this point.
So does that make it bad? I don’t think so. It’s different for everyone. When I was first approached to write this article, I assumed I would research, interview people, both athletes and tech experts, and then present the idea that technology is either evil or amazing, that we’re all going to hell in a Strava-lined handbasket, or that we’re all going to become the next Sir Bradley Wiggins and win gold thanks to our computers. Instead, I found myself fascinated by everyone else’s perspectives. Technology, it turns out, is a highly personal subject.
So instead of telling you what I think of technology and the outdoors, let’s just listen to a few differing voices from all over Virginia speak out. Some are highly competitive racers, others just folks who want to get outside whenever their schedules allow and enjoy the best of mountain life. Whatever their backgrounds, everyone’s story is a little bit different, just like the mountains and valleys and rivers that we spend our days enjoying.
1. Brandon Montgomery
Based out of: Roanoke
Day Job: Shipping & Receiving
Sport of choice & for how long: Road cycling, 3 years
Favorite part: Waking up at 6 a.m. to go climb mountains.
Least favorite part: “The amount I’ve invested along the way is pretty substantial.”
Technology, yes or no? Yes. “On my race bike I have a pioneer power meter/head unit. I use that for any rides longer than 20 miles. My data is then uploaded to CycloSphere, and Strava. For commuting or just taking an easy spin around town, I run Strava on my cell phone.”
On the role of social media and cycling: “I don’t post a lot of specific numbers on Facebook, because a lot of my friends aren’t cyclists and wouldn’t understand. But I do post about races and share photos of long rides with friends. My Instagram account is solely for cycling photos, so I’m a bit more likely to post about training on there.”
Has social media contributed to community building? “Absolutely. While I love riding my bike, there are a lot of days when I wouldn’t ride if I wasn’t motivated by friends tagging along. Once I started using Strava, that also became very motivating. I have an addictive personality, so I’m always trying to beat one of my times, ride longer, faster, etc.”
Best tip for a new cyclist: “Don’t ride without a chamois. Ever.”
Final thoughts on tech and cycling: “Download Instagram. Instagram is a sensory overload of kits, gear, style, etc. If you’re part of a smaller community like Roanoke, you don’t necessarily see what’s ‘cool.’ Social media solves that and you can find out about that sweet new jersey that just dropped, or learn that your sock game is super weak.”
2. Luke Johnson
Based out of: In transit
Day Job: English teacher and cross country coach
Sport of choice & for how long: Fly fishing since spring, 2016
Favorite part: “I like to think the small difficulties and joys and patience cultivated by fly-fishing prepares one for the difficulty and joy and patience of being a sentient human.” But also: “catching fish. My favorite part is catching fish.”
Least favorite part: Tangled line.
Favorite place to fish: “For beauty, I’d say the Rapidan in the Shenandoah National Forest, just downstream of President Hoover’s fly-fishing camp.
Technology, yes or no? “You mean like bait? I do not. More than once, I’ve found myself begrudging the guys fishing spinners from the banks (they usually catch more fish). I’d definitely call baitcasters and fixed-spool reels technology. I worry something ineffable is lost in their efficiency. I suspect my interest in fly-fishing has to do with it feeling ancient and ritualistic and uniquely human. It’s like poetry in that way. We’re all just trying to get our lines right.”
Thoughts on selfies: “If you’ve got a good fish in the frame, why not? That said, I’m more often taking a picture of just the fish, or just the river.”
On the role of social media and the internet: “The internet has been amazing as a learning tool: from casting to tying knots to choosing flies to knowing where to fish. I’ve watched so many YouTube videos and now have this strange reverence for fly-fishing figures like Lefty Kreh and Tom Rosenbauer. This digital library has made it possible for me to pick up things in a year that would have taken my father a decade, which may contradict what I said above about baitcasters and efficiency, but I think it’s been instrumental in developing both my skills as a fisherman and my affection for the activity.”
Favorite post-fishing snack: “Coffee and donuts. Always coffee and donuts.”
3. Melanie Fleenor
Based out of: Bristol
Day Job: Office manager for Community & Economic Development for the City of Bristol, Virginia
Sport of choice & for how long: Running since 2007
On what led her to start: “I was in my mid-20s, overweight by a good 30 pounds, and then I broke my leg. Being overweight and on crutches was a total wake-up call. I was exhausted, sweaty and miserable the entire time. As soon as I could walk again, I started running to drop the weight.”
Favorite part: “No matter where I go, if I’m outside, there is always something beautiful or interesting to look at.”
Least favorite part: “The first half-mile just sucks.”
Technology, yes or no? Tech-free.
On tech-free running: “I think the root of why I don’t use technology is that I’m just not terribly competitive as a runner. I generally don’t gauge runs on how fast I ran a specified distance. I gauge a run by how good I felt, how far I felt like going, what cool stuff I saw while I was out.”
How about social media? “Um, yeah! I’m a runner. That’s what we do (I mean, besides running). I don’t post on Facebook about every single run, but if I’ve just signed up for a race, I’ll share a link to it, and you best believe when I finish a race there will be a victory pic.”
Mantra that gets you through a tough run: “This sounds dorky, but in Drake’s song ‘Headlines,’ he says, ‘I had someone tell me I fell off, ooh, I needed that.’ I totally relate to that lyric. It’s like, yeah, tell me I fell off. Tell me I’m not rocking this run right now. I’ll show you.”
Favorite place to run: “I love running in downtown Bristol with my Bristol Brewery Run Club buddies because we have a fantastic downtown.”
4. Chad Howard
Based out of: Roanoke
Day Job: Bartender Extraordinaire at Local Roots and Parkway Brewing
Sport of choice & for how long: Kayaking, 10 years
Favorite part: “The build-up before the trip, especially getting the group together, getting the gear right, doing the research on the river, etc.”
Least favorite part: “Nearing the takeout. For one, there are a lot of takeouts that require a pretty big hike with a boat on your back, but knowing that the trip is over always gets me a little bit.”
Technology, yes or no? “Yes, a GoPro Hero Session 4. I’ve always got my GoPro on me. Because if it’s not documented it never happened...”
Any other tech? “Aside from my GoPro, I don’t really see any need for technology while kayaking. While running, I always want to know the distance. When biking I want to know the speed. When I’m kayaking I really don’t care about those things, don’t need to know the elevation change or how many miles I’ve traveled. It’s all about getting out on the river, and getting out into nature.”
On social media and kayaking: “I don’t necessarily try to talk about my training, successes or failures on social media. But if we have good footage of a good rapid, a particularly nice rock jump, or rope swing we always post it.”
Tips for a kayaking newbie: “The river can be a very dangerous place and you don’t have to run class 5 Rapids to be a badass. Also, get in with a group of like-minded boaters with experience. A great way to do that is through social media. I would like to plug the Float Fisherman, the Creek Freaks and also the Facebook group Boaters of the 540/434.”
Favorite place to kayak: “Central Virginia for sure, there’s a stretch of 81 from Natural Bridge to Staunton where most anywhere you get off there’s a good river close by.”
5. Kim Parker
Based out of: Roanoke
Day Job: Cycling Maven at East Coasters
Sport of choice & for how long: “Run, ride, swim. Running for all of my 42 years, riding for four-ish years, swimming my whole life.”
Favorite part: “Freedom, experiencing the environment; both urban and natural, empowerment, pushing my body, communing with fellow athletes or my own crazy, being fit and strong.
Least favorite part: “Chafing and the occasional argument with my saddle.”
Technology, yes or no? “Totally. If it’s not tracked with GPS, it didn’t happen. I use a Garmin Forerunner 920XT for run and swim and a Garmin Forerunner 910XT for bike. I use them for every single activity except for bike commutes. Because who wants to see my boring three-point-one-mile ride every single day?”
How social media/the Internet has influenced her training: “People I follow (on Strava) and people who follow me create a community of friends. We may never ride together or run together but I respect every activity they do and it gives me an opportunity to speak to them about it when we are in person. It gives us an automatic conversation.”
On meeting new people through social media for rides: “That would require being less of a hermit and meeting new people. Yikes!!!!”
Best tip for a new cyclist: “Use data to track but don’t find value from it. It is simply a tool. Enjoy the little moments in the activity.”
Favorite place to ride/swim/run in Virginia: “Wherever I am.”