Strava introduces new finger-swipe route mapping feature

by Iain Treloar


Strava has quietly rolled out a new route-creation feature for mobile app users, allowing subscribers to map routes with a swipe of the finger. The still-in-beta feature is available to Summit members – it appears to work for all levels of paid membership – and on both iOS and Android devices. It’s the first route creator designed for mobile devices from the fitness app giant, although there’s been a turn-by-turn desktop route creator in existence for several years.

We’ve had a preliminary play with it, and here’s what it offers and where some of its limitations lie.

Where to find it

The feature is a little hidden away, accessed via the following path: Record new activity > Routes button (squiggly line, left) > Add new route (plus button, top right).

From there, a map will appear with your current location. You can then move this around or search for an address, and select the field that you want to create the route in. Next, choose your activity (running or cycling), hit the pencil button and in a single swipe, draw where you want to go.

A few seconds later, your swipe will be transformed into a route that, Strava says, snaps to their Heatmaps – essentially a visual representation of volume of use. You can then save the route, load it onto your head unit and go exploring.

Why it’s exciting

This is pretty cool for a number of reasons, but perhaps most significantly so in the following scenario:

Imagine you’ve travelled somewhere new, have a bike with you and want to check out the lie of the land. You don’t know where you’re going or what’s good nearby, but you’re keen to find out. Within seconds, you can have a route to follow, ostensibly mapped to the most popular routes in the area. Hey presto!

Or maybe you’re making your way from A to B, but don’t have a clue what the most bike-friendly route would be. Rather than poring over other people’s rides or trying to pick your way along, a swipe between the two locations should – at least in theory – get you there pretty directly, using roads and paths that other Strava users have chosen previously.

Strava’s been collecting reams upon reams of data from millions of users for a decade, and last year said that 8 million activities are uploaded weekly. So whilst the Heatmap matching is cool, it’s also just the tip of the iceberg in what Strava might be able to do with this. The company could pretty easily figure out what type of terrain lies along a certain route, allowing users to pre-set the type of ride they want before swiping a rough route. Hills? No problem. Off-road? Strava can look for sections with lower average speeds and higher power figures (where available), which would indicate a rough surface.

Where it needs work

For now, the potential rather than its early execution is what’s most exciting. Whilst there’s plenty to like about the new feature, Strava are perfectly upfront about it still being in development, and in many ways, that shows: there are a number of frustrating quirks still to overcome.

Firstly – the route can only be drawn in a single continuous swipe, in the field selected on the screen. By necessity, when creating a long cycling route (compared to, say, a 5km running route) you’ll need to be zoomed out quite a way. Far enough for detail to get lost, and for your finger-swipe to turn into suburbs-wide approximations of where you want to go.

There’s also no satellite mode when you’re mapping your route, meaning that it’s difficult to pick up any hints around the topography of the area. And because you can only select ‘cycling’ – not road cycling, or gravel cycling, or mountain biking – you can find yourself routed into terrain that may be over-optimistic for your bike of choice.

For instance, this road ride through the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, where I traced from Donvale toward Warrandyte South and then tried to take a back way into Warrandyte, is entirely paved. That is, until it locks onto the MTB trails through a state park where it would lead an unsuspecting road rider through a creek crossing, up a fire access track rocky and steep enough to become a hike, and out the other side.

The heatmap routing isn’t flawlessly precise either, as in this example – a ride from the Melbourne CBD to the Dandenongs – where Melbourne’s most popular climb, the ‘1 in 20’, is overlooked for its opening half in favour of the steep, rocky Old Coach Road and Hilton Track.

If you realise that the app’s sent you the wrong way, at this stage there’s no way to edit a route – either during the ride or in its creation. You’re at the mercy of where it interprets your finger-swipe as having travelled, which can be both vague and oddly specific – as in one route I tested, an out-and-back from the city which routed out along a bike path and back along a three lane 80km/h road.

If you know exactly where you want to go, it can also be a bit capricious, as in this final example where I wanted to route along a little-ridden but stunning gravel road out to Myponga Beach, and it stubbornly resisted for four out of five attempts, until the path of my finger was just so.

Conclusion

All that said, there’s a lot to be excited about right now, especially if you’re somewhere unfamiliar and need some guidance, or if you’re creating a relatively compact route. There’s a lot of potential, too, as Strava develop this new feature further.

If there’s a way to edit the route, or zoom in and out whilst creating it, the practicalities of it will become far more refined. It’s also exciting to imagine where it could go – if you can select what type of bike you’re riding, or if it can learn from past rides whether you like climbs or gravel or fast flat terrain.

It’s not perfect for now, but it’s exciting that Strava – a company that’s been seen as somewhat stagnant in their innovation – are willing to experiment on something new.

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