There is no tangible prize for becoming King or Queen of the Mountain on a Strava segment – but with tens of millions of users, many of whom are striving to top its leaderboards, should the social platform be making more of an effort to combat dopers?
That might sound ridiculous, but UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) has admitted that the scale of doping in amateur sport is unknown, and if the stakes are in some respects low, that sense of having been cheated is nevertheless very real for those who miss out.
The question arises following the case of Thorfinn Sassquatch. A notorious KoM accumulator in the Los Angeles area with over 800 records to his name, Sassquatch recently pleaded guilty to selling performance-enhancing drugs online. Local cyclists are unhappy. The LA Times reports that a number of them want Strava to take action.
Brace yourselves for this, but compounding the dishonesty it seems Thorfinn Sassquatch isn’t even the cyclist’s real name. Fake names on social media? Wherever will it end?
Sassquatch is in fact Nicholas Brandt-Sorenson. Brandt-Sorenson ran a website called the Anemia Patient Group, through which he sold EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has previously sanctioned three athletes linked to the site.
Wisconsin-based cyclist Kyle Schmidt and Palm Springs-based triathlete Brook Radcliffe each accepted a two-year ban for the use, attempted use and possession of synthetic EPO, while Robert Radcliffe of Salt Lake City accepted an 18-month ban for the use, attempted use and possession of synthetic EPO and human growth hormone. Radcliffe’s sentence was reduced because he "provided substantial assistance" during the probe, according to the USADA.
Brandt-Sorenson himself was banned for two years from September 4, 2011 after testing positive for Efaproxiral, a substance which artificially enhances delivery of oxygen to the tissues. Having last month admitted to selling EPO to an athlete in Boulder, Colorado, he is to return to court on July 20 for sentencing. Prosecutors will ask the judge to sentence him to three years of probation, 300 hours of community service and a fine of $5,000. The charge carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 or more, depending on the financial impact of the crime.
But what of the Strava sanctions? The local cycling community are clearly pretty pissed off.
"I'm disgusted by dopers, and it should be discouraged in any way possible," said Don Warn, the race director of a local cycling group, in reaction to the news.
Andrew Vontz, Strava's cycling brand manager, said: "Just like Facebook, Twitter or any other social network, there's going to be bad actors, and that's an unfortunate reality. We place a high value on sportsmanship and fair play, and we want people to earn their records in that fashion."
However, he then added: "We're not able to judge the nuanced debate about how people used [performance enhancing drugs] and how that use improved times.”
So, in short, Strava don’t do anything (not even adding a syringe emoji to the user’s profile picture as suggested in the LA Times article).
Marcel Appelman is one of the riders to have flagged a few of Brandt-Sorenson’s rides, but he has since been asking himself whether his view of Strava segments is what should change.
While he once raced against Brandt-Sorenson, Appelman now lives in the Netherlands and said: "Most [King of the Mountain titles] here in the Netherlands are obtained with the aid of really strong winds — should those be flagged for cheating too? Brandt-Sorenson needs to be punished for peddling drugs, not for Strava silliness."
Then again, there’s a case for saying that the ‘Strava silliness’ was, and is, being exploited for commercial gain, because Brandt-Sorenson also busies himself running – and marketing – the Brandt-Sorenson clothing line for cyclists.
When he pleaded guilty to selling EPO last month, Thorfinn-Sassquatch had 1,605 followers on Strava. That profile page, which also makes a point of claiming “Olympic ITP & WADA Bio Passport program >36 months with 24/7 whereabouts,” reveals that he now has 1,873 followers. There is also a link to his Instagram page. Thorfinn has 14,000 Instagram followers. Thorfinn's Instagram output is basically nothing but Brandt-Sorenson apparel.
You might say we’re providing him with further publicity – but at least you’re informed about who he is.