So I’ve had cause recently to consider the motivations behind cheating in cycling. I noticed an unrecognized new Strava segment along a route I’ve ridden many times. On checking to see whereabouts marked its start and end points – turns out it’s a short stretch of nothing much – I happened to notice the King of the Mountain completed it at an interesting pace lol…
Hello, Dear Reader and welcome! I’m happy you’re here 🙂 So the above is just an example whose circumstances I don’t know. But I’ve seen quite a few KoMs get called out as I’ve been looking into cheating on ride stats for public social media sharing. Some of us get angry, call names, some mutter about lack of policing on platforms and others of us roll our eyes. But I’ve been considering what might be some of the causes of someone cheating, doctoring, manipulating or otherwise altering their figures on their public Strava, Zwift or other profile rides. Why do riders do that? Do you?
But first, on the nature of cheating per se: a question
Is one man’s cheating another’s… What? National heroism?
What exactly constitutes cheating in cycling? What’s an unfair advantage? Were I to wear my Devil’s Advocate hat, couldn’t I argue that some of the aspects of cycling that some people regard as a fair advantage are actually unfair? by definition then, couldn’t those also legitimately be classed as cheating?
- Is getting a lead out from other riders on a segment cheating because it’s not riding the ride, it’s riding specifically for the segment? Is that cheating?
- What about wind assist? Wasn’t there an app or something that alerted you to when the wind was favorable for a segment? Is that cheating or do we regard that as an act of nature?
- What about tech? Lighter bikes, more aero wheels, better rolling tires versus the poor lad who can’t hope to afford that kit, where even aero helmets can make an apparent efficiency difference now? If I have better, lighter, more aero kit, tech and bike than you do, could it be argued that I have an unfair advantage? It’s not about the bike. But wouldn’t all my top-end kit give you even a small advantage you don’t currently have?
- And then there’s diet, and physical infirmities or disabilities. While those aren’t limiting factors, still it could be argued that the rider with two-original knees has an unfair advantage over the rider with dual complete knee replacements, couldn’t it?
Okay, you see what I’m getting at so I’ll stop with the Devil’s Advocate. I can’t afford his retainer fee 😛 I know we all feel we intuitively know what constitutes cheating and what doesn’t but what I was hoping to illustrate is that there tends to be two different perspectives on cheating:
To some people cheating is a black-and-white notion. To other people, cheating is a spectrum scale of grays…
I believe everyone has within their psyche a cheat inclination. I believe that inclination is largely guided by our ego’s self-satisfying inclinations on the one hand and our superego’s sense of guilt or remorse or fear to varying degrees on the other hand that causes us to engage in cheating or not. But I imagine a rider who is most predisposed to cheating won’t see themselves as being on the wrong side of a hard boundary between cheating and honesty. I believe that person will see themselves part-way up a variable gray-scale.
What that essentially means is that one man’s cheat could be an exemplar of doing what needs done to win, making someone a dirty, rotten cheat to some and a national hero to others. I mention that only as food for thought 🙂
So there are plenty of fitness tracker and sharing apps and platforms out there. I refer to Strava and Zwift as those are what I’m familiar with. I used Endomondo at first. I still like my little Bryton app because there’s no comparison with other users on that. Well, I don’t think there is? But that aside, I don’t think it’d be too far-fetched to assume cheating on the platforms has been around for as long as the platforms have, true?
So when I say cheating, how do riders even do that? What are the mechanics of cheating your ride data? Here’s what I’ve found. If you know of others, I’d be keen to add in stuff 🙂
Back-End Cheats? Messing with the Data!
- I gotta admit I hadn’t even heard of digitalepo.com until checking this stuff out. An online site where you could upload your stats, click a simple button “Juice my ride” lol, and bingo, more impressive stats I guess. Seems the first incarnation was around from early 2013 and the last sighting seems to have been June 2016 alas
- There’s also opportunity to manipulate your device-generate FIT file (Flexible and Interoperable Data Transfer) directly if you have some small java ability and common sense to download the ANT software development kit (SDK) from the ANT+ site. In the Java folder there’s a FitToCSV (and vice versa) file converter if you want to adjust data – or even just if you want to view your data in MS Excel format. There’s plainly scope to muck around in your FIT file a lot more in here 🙂
- I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a cheat, but FIT files can be manipulated to fix them on a site such as Fit File tools which offers a bunch of useful tools for FIT files. I’ve used the site because date / timestamps seem to prevent upload of some of my files to Strava. But you can strip out data. You can also adjust your power readings. Could that be used for nefarious purposes at all? I don’t know. I guess were we so minded anything could be used to that end, right?
Front-End Cheats? Manipulating the ride!
- Deliberate gender mis-identification. Speaks for itself. Men – and in this instance I have to clarify that I mean men that self-identify as men – deliberately entering women’s races on Zwift.
- Weight misinformation, in other words entering a lighter weight than you are means, according to the data Zwift has for you, that you’re putting out more power per kilo than you would in reality.
- E-bikes or electric bicycles, and mechanical doping (ie. motor concealed within the seat-tube driving the bottom-bracket axle or rear hub). A bike with a rider power-assist. Fair enough. But why not just cut the ride altogether and go pillion on a moped or scooter? I’d reason that there’s something about the idea of “still being on a bicycle” despite that bicycle having a motor in it, that one can convince oneself it isn’t really cheating as such. It’s like, sitting pillion on a motorcycle is a total cheat. Whereas sitting on a self-propelling, or massively assisted e-bike somehow still counts as riding? Okay I get it, lol. Plenty of stories out there about riders suspected of, or found guilty of this kind of mechanical doping. Not sure if a rider would go to that length just to up their Strava kudos or Zwift rankings, but then again, if you happen to have an e-bike handy, and you’re not concerned about the morals of cheating, why wouldn’t you?
Getting a physical tow. Dangerous, but good thinking! As kids we’d do this on our bikes, but only with fairly slow-moving milk-carts lol. But then is cheating like this way any worse than the “sticky” bottle team car assists that we see on pro tours and elsewhere? Could this be one of the acceptable faces of cheating?
- Drafting cars or scooters? Saw that just the other weekend. The same rider passed me on a route in both directions hanging off the back of presumably a pal’s moped. I’m sure vans are better? Wouldn’t they hollow out the air better behind and leave you in a nice airless space? You know that kind of wonderful airless space where you’ve got a tailwind (but don’t yet realize you do!)
- How about drafting other riders? Could that be defined as an unfair advantage too? I mean the effort isn’t just yours alone, it’s a combined effort. Why’s that any different from being pulled along by a train of huskies? #justsayin 😀 But I’m digressing!
Interpretations of fairness
I’ve seen online folk being upset by obvious examples of cheating. That’s understandable. We all have a hardwired sense of fairness, don’t we? The issue being that fairness will always be subject to interpretation. We try as societies, from a global and national level to the sporting groups level, to democratically formalize what fairness is in constitutions. But while we do this, there are invariably folk that view those fairness legislations as being inapplicable to them. Why? Because, ironically, they don’t feel it’s fair on them.
This is the essence of many, if not most, criminal activity. It’s like: I steal your motor from you because there’s no standard of fairness that should permit you to own that and me not to! At the very least, if I can’t own it, you’re not going to own it either. That’s fair, right? In that kind of ironic way, criminals indoctrinate themselves into believing they’re trying to somehow level their playing field as it were. Almost heroic isn’t it? Like Robin Hood!
Confession time… I regularly cheated in Geography tests at school!
Yup, it’s true. There was no reward for cheating. What there was was an escape from punishment – we were routinely caned across the hand for failing to achieve a certain grade lol #oldschoolliterally 😛 But I felt that if the system had any core of fairness then I “deserved” to be in a certain class position and therefore achieve a certain grade and escape corporal punishment. I knew where I fitted among my class peers. And if I hadn’t studied for a test or completed a homework for whatever reason including the one where I just couldn’t be assed doing the work (!) then any fair system would protect me and ensure I should still have achieved a class position based simply on who I was. Therefore, cheating was endowed with legitimacy.
The thing is, were I to cheat on my Strava ride data now, by that same metric I applied as a schoolkid, actually I wouldn’t adjust my values by much at all. I think among my riding peers, I’m content with my rides as a fair reflection of my ability. I think I should be better. But I’m just not. I think it’s my age too. Maybe that implies that riders that cheat the stats have an inflated regard for themselves or their abilities. Noteably, having an inflated self-regard is indicative of narcissism (in a clinical sense) that I’ll refer to later.
This form of cheating the online ride stats is often about unfavorable comparisons, you know? But then that’s the nature of serious competition – it engenders unfavourable comparisons for all except the one winner because that’s what competition is! Let me explain, then I’ll catch up with myself after…
My perspective on competition and on cheating therein
I’ll be frank and say I’m hardly horrified, and barely surprised at the thought of someone cheating nor do I want to sound accusative here. There are more than plenty of documented, often newsworthy, cases of cheating in sports so why would we expect any difference in online ride data sharing and competing sites. Working as a counsellor made me more interested in people’s motivations for their actions rather than giving me any right to sanctimoniousness over the way they’ve acted – it being a way I may, in other circumstances, have acted myself. Who knows. None of us can say with certainty having not led someone else’s life.
I practice Aikido. Aikido, in its original form is a non-competitive martial art. I’ve been persuaded to the philosophical ideas of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba:
The way of the warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real way of the warrior is to prevent such slaughter- it is the art of peace, the power of love” ~ Morihei Ueshiba
Well of course, that’s all well and good, but records aren’t clear whether the young Ueshiba had to pay for everyone’s coffees were he to be last rider to reach the cafe at the top of the hill 😀
But I’ve had these detrimental-effects-of-competition ideas somewhat corroborated by my experience as a cognitive & behavioral counsellor. I’ve long wondered about the psychological healthfulness of serious competition – as opposed to the friendly banter, who-even-won-that-anyway kind of competition. Then again serious is a subjective term varying from individual to individual isn’t it? But neurologically speaking, serious competing involves a significant increase in stress levels for a reward. The consistently iterative nature of most human competition mean the reward is transient. The duration of that transience varies of course. Whether that reward be the simple dopamine high, or be it the kudos, the accolade, the validation from peers, invariably all these things pass.
Some say the competition advances us as a species. I wouldn’t argue with that at all. I might wonder though, advances us as a species towards what end? I don’t necessarily mean that in some fatalist way. I’m just curious about bigger pictures sometimes.
What competition is good for (or at least could be good for) in a kind of circuitous way is dealing with loss! Yes! Loss and the grief process can be from any quarter or from any perceived loss, but the process is the same. So learning to lose would be a good thing. It would be, but unfortunately it isn’t a lesson that everyone who loses is apt to learn. In instances in which the competitive loss results in a denial, the loser may be encouraged to engage in further activities to make restitution for the loss. In that case the loss isn’t being functionally dealt with at all, right? The competition becomes a grudge match. That necessitates another period of stress for either a transient reward or for a further loss. In these cases, competition can be destructive for the loser who may rationalize that the competition itself or the competitor has some inherent unfairness.
Dysfunctional thinking in that instance could foreseeably cause the loser to cheat.
And that leads us back to the idea that none of us likes being compared unfavourably. Even when that comparison is in the case of fair competition, a just comparison. You’re simply not as good as the winner. Sorry. While some of us deal with that loss functionally. Some can’t. Those that can’t are often predisposed not to cope with unfavorable comparisons, being second best and by extrapolation, being not good enough. This can also lead to the aforementioned dysfunctional thinking.
In my experience as a cognitive counsellor, dysfunctional thinking like this is precipitated in the life of that losing competitor by formative events that preconditioned them into negative automatic thought patterns that I’ve talked about before. So what might be some of those formative events and automatic thoughts that might give rise to cheating and why?
Time to put our counsellor’s hats on…
Man sometimes, I think we have too many hats 😛 So here’s where we answer the question why we’d cheat specifically in order to gain high rankings or even artificially raise ourselves to the top in cases such as King of the Mountain or Queen of the Mountain. What are some of the reasons we would we do that?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). It’s a fairly odious condition. Particularly for the poor long-suffering family and close relations of the person with the condition. It can be relationship destroying and practically sanity destroying, not for the sufferer but for those close to them.
What’s my reasoning here? It might make it easier to tie this all together by thinking of some of the motivations for cheating. What’s in it for the potential cheat? What might that person feel they’re getting from their KoM or QoM, Zwift challenge race win, or whatever? Well, they might enjoy the notoriety, the kudos, the congratulations and the admiration of peers, they might feel part of a special group of awesome individuals, they may feel unique even as the numero uno. Fair enough, but so what?
To diagnose a client with NPD, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5) requires that the client satisfy five or more of nine of the following:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance (for example, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements!)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance
- Believes that he or she is “special” and should only associate with other special high-status people
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement (relevant to here is the unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment)
- Is interpersonally exploitative
- Lacks empathy
- Is often envious of others
- Shows arrogance in behavior and attitude
So cheating can bring satisfaction to some of the needs of the narcissist. However, as you can see from criteria 5-9 above, someone with NPD is also perfectly set up to cheat. Were I to consider cheating the stats and jump way beyond my fitness levels to win a prestigious Zwift race, I know at least part of me, no matter how small, is going to feel some sense of remorse or guilt. Lacking empathy for the other contestants, the narcissist doesn’t have that. Can you think of any pro tour riders who might have exhibited those tendencies, or the one about being interpersonally exploitative? All I’m saying is that there is a growing body of evidence that many sportspeople exhibit narcissistic traits (whether or not diagnosable) and that NPD and cheating go together like hypodermics and, well… any of the list of substances banned by WADA
Like most psychological conditions none of us go out seeking them. A mixture of nature and nurture. Or lack of it. It’s believed that NPD is caused by neglectful, harsh or critical, or perfectionist parenting that crushes a child’s young self-esteem under the demands to meet unrealistic standards. It can also result from a child being subject to any type of physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Why do I even mention this? Because I believe it’s incumbent upon us all, not just those of us involved professionally with mental health, but all of us to at least make an attempt to understand before passing judgement #offmysoapbox 😀
Are all Strava and Zwift cheats narcissists?
Absolutely not. I simply mentioned NPD because in my experience much of it fits neatly. And I like neatness 😀 I’ve confessed to cheating on those old geography papers but I don’t satisfy any of the above criteria for NPD so what does that mean? Well it could mean a couple of things.
you deserve ’em!
Like the digitalepo site states above regarding ranking in the KoM and QoM – you deserve ’em! I felt I deserved to be in a certain position in geography class standings. I certainly didn’t feel I merited a caning across the fingertips! Maybe the Strava/Zwift cheat feels the same sense of deserving: For all my hard work, I deserve to be top, or at least better positioned than I am. Maybe it’s not even about having done the hard miles and repeated hill climbs. Maybe it’s about having had a subjectively hard life, right? My life’s so hard, it’s some minor recompense to elevate myself to the top of this small Strava tree. Could that be it? I’m thinking aloud here 🙂
Cheating could be about deserving, about leveling the playing field and redressing the balance, about fairness. It could also be about simply being better. After all, who would cheat were there nobody to be better than?
So, with our counsellor hat on, as ever we’d ask, what kind of person needs to feel better than other folks? What do you think? Well, it’s gonna be someone with a long-held belief that they’re lacking in that regard, more often than not, that they’re severely lacking in that regard; that they’re not better than anyone at all. And then we’d ask, what kind of person believes they’re not better than anyone at all? How might someone feel who believes they aren’t better than anyone? Worthless? Useless? Not good enough as a person? That’s got to what we’d call the core belief of someone who might cheat. If it’s activated it becomes their engine of action as it were. That person may have a deep-seated conviction that they’re worthless or not good enough as a person. And though they may not have narcissistic tendencies, you can imagine the root cause is often similar. Being made to feel unworthy, not good enough to please a parent. You get the idea.
Why would someone with that self-belief cheat? That’s right, in order to feel better about themselves. Nobody’s ego will stand for being reminded of being “not good enough” or “worthless”. And online cycling sharing platforms can be a constant reminder of that.
So there you go. While NPD is a clinical disorder, it’s entirely possible to exhibit some of the above nine traits without being diagnosable as a narcissist. But I’d guess the more common reason for cheating is because the cheat has a low self-regard. It’s kinda that simple 🙂
But get this before you take off your counsellor hats! Ironically it could be that same low self-regard that causes some of us to abhor the cheat way beyond just rolling our eyes. I mean, by that same token, if I felt myself at my core to be not-good-enough as a person then it’s bad enough someone beating me in a segment battle on Strava and causing me to have these thoughts about how worthless I might be. But how much worse to feel that that defeat wasn’t even legitimate but the result of a cheat? So I’d advocate for checking in with yourself about that. Low self-regard is far more common than you might imagine 🙂
But for my money, it’s best to clarify with ourselves…
For whose benefit are we riding anyway?
I firmly believe, and possibly it’s as a result of all that Aikido, but the only competition worth having is one to improve oneself. If friendly banter of challenges among friends helps to achieve that improvement then I’ve no issue with that at all. If our aim is to impress others on a comparative ranking then it would behoove us to know how to deal with loss.
I wonder do the cheats on these platforms acknowledge that nobody outside of the platform is even aware of their “achievements”?
I don’t know if it’s my age but I ride for myself and that’s it. I find the number of folk worth impressing seems to drop logarithmically with age lol. But when I noticed at the start of my uploading ride data career the demoralizing effect of finding my position on almost any Strava segment was in the hundreds if not thousands I quit checking. Now I consciously avoid it. I compare my efforts with my previous efforts over the same roads. I’m happy that while I have good days, tailwind days, crap leg days and flies-in-the-eyes days, my general trend is upwards. I hope it’s the same for you!
Meantime I can only suggest we all treat the platforms like we would our inseam measurement – data to bear in mind, but not something we’d obsess over 🙂 Ride safe, have fun, David.