There was a lot of crowing emanating out of San Francisco last week when Strava announced that their well received Route Builder was now available to ALL their users, having been rolled out in August to only their Premium members.
For those of us who enjoy a good quality freebie, then my first impressions of Route Builder suggests it is a bargain. Clear, quick and intuitive to use (both in the automatic and manual modes) the mapping device is straightforward and you can tweak and add until you are happy with the length, route and balance of your ride. Once complete, your saved route is easily shared with your cycling mates via email, Facebook, Twitter, your Garmin Edge (500-810 models) or directly with your followers on Strava.
It does, however, have a few flaws but one would expect that Strava are well ahead of their detractors and working on improving the tool and responding to criticism. More of that later.
I use Strava for the majority of my rides, but essentially it is to record my routes and statistics. I certainly check out the rides of my cycling friends and regularly dish out kudos and comments if I am suitably impressed, but beyond that my use of it is limited. Premium membership has never appealed, though I can see the benefits of some of the tools. With the introduction of Route Builder last week, however, I have discovered the benefits of being a member of this far larger 'Strava Community'. Route Builder is a tool that owes its life, indeed its whole raison d'être, thanks to the accumulated data of the thousands of cyclists now using Strava on a daily basis.
Apart from the ease of use, the fact that Route Builder uses data recorded by other cyclists to help you plan routes* is one of its main selling points - the 'power behind the tool' so to speak. When you start to plot a new route, switch on the 'Use Popularity' toggle and the Route Builder will take activity data of rides from the Strava community and use that to select roads that local cyclists prefer or use on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, these are generally going to be on safer, quieter and more rural roads.
Exploring undiscovered backroads in your locality is one thing, but Route Builder is even more valuable if you are plotting a route in unfamiliar territory as you are essentially tapping into a wealth of local knowledge! It's a great feature and coupled with the handy 'Heat Maps' toggle (that highlights popular cycling routes) you feel like a benevolent spirit is guiding your route marker around your screen!
This may not be the most exacting examination of how good the 'Use Popularity' toggle is, but on a route plotted between my base in Oxford to the centre of Swindon (see image below), it was interesting that the busy A420 was completely factored out of the route. Take the 'popularity' toggle off and you would have to endure a five mile stretch on this busy 'A' road. Local cyclists know only too well that to venture onto the A420 is something you do at your peril and Route Builder is reflecting the caution and apprehension of local riders.
With the Popularity toggle off (left) the Route Builder takes you into Swindon on the busy A420. Switch it on and the route takes a northwards deviation - a longer, but safer route for the road cyclist.
There are also benefits for those of us looking for a more sedate, less challenging route. Simply switch on the 'Minimize Elevation' toggle at the top of the page and Strava will automatically favour roads that have the least amount of climbing*. For many, that could prove to be an exceptionally useful tool! Again, a quick sample of my local environs using the 'Min Elevation' toggle and the route circumnavigates some of the more brutal little hills - great if you are planning a recovery ride too.
As I said before, Route Builder is intuitive but it also comes with a host of useful tools to aid you in your route planning. You can search for specific locations, or for segments in the area you are building your route, you can include distance markers on your maps (in kilometres or miles), view heat maps to see the most popular roads with cyclists and search for specific climb categories from 4 to HC. Together they allow you to plot a route particular to your current fitness levels and training schedule.
Before I move onto the shortcomings, I should quickly mention the panel that runs along the base of the Route Builder screen, which provides basic information about the ride you are plotting - distance, elevation and the estimated time it will take you based on your last four weeks of riding. The latter information is useful, but if you are building a route for a road bike ride yet your Strava activity includes commutes or mountain biking, then the estimated time could be seriously misleading. Room for improvement here and perhaps the ability to specify the type of rides in your activity feeds and sync that information to the Route Builder would be the simplest solution.
To the right of side of the bottom menu bar is a elevation profile toggle that you can switch on and off as you build your route - a useful tool to ensure your route is well balanced and that you dont include a brutal climb right at the end of your 100 miler! [Thank you to member Robert Woolfson for pointing out this very useful tool, which I had not spotted sitting all alone on the baseline].
So, what of the flaws in this initial manifestation of Strava Route Builder?
Firstly, and this is where Strava have really let themselves down, you cannot copy an existing ride from your activity feed (or that of another Strava member) directly into Route Builder. This would be SO useful and was one of the main criticisms levelled at Strava when they first introduced Route Builder to their Premium members. Like many of you, I am often led on group rides near where I live and discover roads that I am totally unfamiliar with. Fresh routes that I would want to ride again or let other cycling friends know about. The facility to copy these routes from the activity feed to Route Builder is just a no brainer. You could then share it with your cycling friends with any notes you want to add and they could download it, print cue sheets etc.
Another benefit of sourcing routes compiled by other Strava members would be when you are planning a trip to an area you don't know. Wouldn't it be great to check out the routes uploaded by local riders and copy them into your own database of routes? But at the moment you cannot do this automatically - you can only see a route if its creator shares it with you. Strava are developing this facility already and hope to build search and discovery tools that they will introduce in the not too distant future. Watch this space.
Another weakness is that you cannot download your routes to your Strava app. Again, this will come in good time and it will allow you to do away with cumbersome and impractical cue sheets.
It has its weaknesses, but Route Builder has the foundations of a very useful tool.
So, there are a few shortcomings, but as Strava are keen to point out, their Route Builder is very much a work in progress and we should expect to see some fine tuning and improvements over the coming months as they react to user feedback and technical innovation. I would also suspect that leaching out improvements over the coming months is all part of the process of keeping Strava members engaged with Route Builder and encouraging them to continue using it.
In conclusion, planning your routes online is not exactly a revolutionary new concept and Strava's version is not particularly innovative. It will, however, appeal to enthusiastic Strava members who recognise the benefits that can be reaped from being part of the Strava community that the company is continually trying to foster. It also, very conveniently, brings your riding stats and your route planning under one roof - that certainly will add to its appeal to many.
Putting aside the negatives above, I'm impressed by Route Builder. As I said before, I tend to use Strava to view the ride data of myself and the cyclists I follow. I hate to get sucked into the whole 'Strava Community' thing, but the strength of Route Builder is due to, not to say reliant, on the continual activity feed of the cycling community in one's area and beyond.
Improvements need to be made, but the foundations are there for a very useful tool that all cyclists can benefit from.
Check it out and let me know if you agree or disagree with me. Is Strava's Route Builder an momentous addition to the armoury of the road cyclist or still very much in Beta phase?!
* not available in manual mode
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