William “Kim” Flint was a 41-year-old electrical engineer who died in a cycling accident in the summer of 2010. It appears he was descending a road in the Oakland Hills in California, braked hard and lost control and the crash proved fatal. It’s a sad story by itself but the difference here is that Flint’s family are now suing Strava for negligence.
As a reminder, Strava is a California business with a website where users can upload data from their rides captured by GPS devices, whether a bike computer or even a phone. As well as the route, the distance and the speed, what seems to have made Strava such a runaway success is the creation of “segments”. These are sections of road, for example a recognised climb, where riders can compare their times to those posted by other cyclists. For example there is the most frequently-used climb in the Tour de France, the Col du Tourmalet. But the beauty is that users don’t need to visit lavish locations, instead they can define any section of road from a flat road to a descent and the fastest time posted by a user gives them a “King of the Mountain” title. Even if it’s a canal bridge.
There’s a saying that one rider makes a ride and two makes a race but with Strava it seems that even solo rides can succumb to the competitive urge as users can log their rides to compare it with others. Here’s the San Francisco Chronicle on William Flint’s accident, with Susan Kang, the attorney for the Flint family saying:
Kang says Flint was “obsessed” with the bike-times website maintained by Strava Inc., the company being named in the lawsuit. He had learned the night before he died that someone using the site had beaten his record “King of the Mountain” time on the same hill
Before you leap to comment on the chances of the lawsuit, ask yourself how well you know California law. I don’t know the law at all so will wait to see how this is tested in court because the subject of negligence is a tricky one. I suspect the case will depend on whether Strava is merely a platform to host data logged by riders or whether it actively encourages people into faster riding. Above all there’s plenty for lawyers to dispute, it’ll also depend on the small print terms and conditions involved when Flint signed up. Today the lawyers have put a lot of text into the sign-up process.
Old challenge, new platform?
Comparing times is not new, for years many riders would test themselves on a well-known climb. For example pros and amateurs alike timed their ascension on the Col de la Madone, it was such a part of Lance Armstrong’s preparation that the climb gave its name to a range of Trek bikes. In the 1950s Fausto Coppi set a record time up Alpe d’Huez. For years cyclists have been able to buy special postcards at the foot of Mont Ventoux and get them timestamped at top to record their time.
Strava’s technology seems a modern version of all of this. It offers a chance to time any piece of road giving the user the choice rather than relying on a famous climb or a French tourist office. I suspect most cyclists don’t see the trouble with this service but imagine if this was sold to motorbikers and you might see the problem. Non-cyclists might be concerned about cyclists “racing” on the roads. Certainly the use of downhill “King of the Mountains” has its risks. Going uphill limits the risks because it is hard to overcook a hairpin bend and cyclists can rarely break the speed limit but obviously it’s another matter during a descent when you could exceed the speed limit without pedalling and be tempted to use the full width of the road. But Strava have responded and users can flag any risky roads.
By its nature cycling is done on public roads and trails and so any route can become a sports venue. Cyclists have long timed themselves on sections of road, drafted trucks and buses for high speed thrills or finished a group ride with a sprint for bragging rights. But Strava has enabled solo riders to compete on a virtual basis. Is the company to blame, is technology at fault or the user?
With or without a GPS device accidents happen but the lawsuit in California will test Strava, it seems like a well funded start up but a ruling against it could be very costly for a small business. It’s tragic that one rider has died in an accident but this is a case that many cyclists around the world will be watching.
In memoriam Kim Flint