Update: In mid-May, Strava announced it would be making its leaderboards and route builder features subscription only. Free users can still see the top ten men and women in a segment, but if they fall outside the top ten then they have to pay for a Strava Premium subscription in order to see where they land.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the KOM battle between pro triathletes Sam Long and Lionel Sanders to see who could take the title up the famous Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona. Then, last week, pros Paula Findlay and Heather Jackson went after their own Queen of the Mountain contest up Lemmon — with Findlay claiming the coveted crown (pictured above).

If you’re starting to feel inspired or wondering why all the pros seem to be going after KOMs and QOMs and CRs these days, then here are some things to know. We talked to Strava experts and to KOM aficionado (and pro triathlete) Jesse Thomas about how KOMs work and how you can get in on the action.

What Are KOMs?

KOM stands for “King of the Mountain.” Though there have long been KOM winners and jerseys in cycling races—think of the Tour de France—the expression has become ubiquitous in endurance circles ever since Strava made chasing KOMs easy for the regular athlete.

While taking a KOM or QOM (Queen of the Mountain) title is most coveted up major climbs, these days you can chase a record on any segment—a loop through your neighborhood or a route around a popular lake or park. In running, they’re sometimes called CRs or “Course Records.”

There have long been informal records, kept through word-of-mouth or by the local running and cycling historians, of how fast so-and-so ran up that hill or who has the record for biking this well-known section of road. What technology and Strava have done is formalize those records. Now you can go for a ride or run, upload the GPS file, and see immediately how you stack up on the leaderboards for any particular section—both the famous KOMs and the less-famous segments around your block.

Why Go After KOMs or QOMs?

Without races on the calendar, many athletes are now looking for some kind of challenge. Chasing segments or KOM hunting is like a race without a race. It allows you to see how you stack up virtually, without having to meet in person or sign up for an actual race.

“It’s kind of a nice way to just have your own pretend race,” said Thomas. While there’s a certain appeal to going after KOMs right now when there are no races, Thomas has long used Strava segments as a motivational tool in workouts or for race simulation efforts. One particularly brutal Ironman simulation effort involved a 70-mile KOM attempt up and over Mt. Bachelor, around, and back over. He used it to practice nutrition at race effort—because, yes, stopping counts in your time (more on the details below).

Even if a KOM or QOM crown can be tough to come by these days—you have to be Sam Long or Paula Findlay in some cases!— there’s still a value in seeing how you stack up, just like in any regular race. You can sort leaderboards on Strava by gender, age categories, weight class, or even by clubs and groups you belong to if you only care about beating your friends. There’s also a value, said Thomas, in just chasing your own personal record. Did you run around the lake or bike up the hill faster than you did last time?

How Do You Find Good Ones to Tackle?

This can be the trickiest part. On Strava, anything can be a “segment.” In fact, one well-known tactic for getting your first KOM is to simply create a segment around your block that no one else cares about and then go out and claim it. (Here’s the basics of how to create a segment on Strava.)

There are so many segments, Strava actually recently changed its settings so it’ll hide the least popular segments on the virtual training platform Zwift, because of the influx of people using Zwift and creating segments. (Yes, there are virtual KOMs too.)

All of this can make it a little tricky to figure out what’s worth going after and what’s not.

The simplest way to decide what KOM to tackle is just to rely on that old favorite: word-of-mouth and local lore. Mt. Lemmon, for instance, is an attraction because it’s always been an attraction for cyclists and is famous as a training grounds. But that can extend to the most popular climb in your neighborhood or a route you know everyone runs. Curious how fast someone went from A to B? Go out and do it and see how you stack up.

To find KOMs worth tackling, Thomas recommends: 1. Searching segments in your area for any that meet your needs and desires—Segment Explore will let you see the most popular ones in your area and Segment Search allows you to search by specific criteria; 2. Going out for an easy ride or run and then seeing what popular segments pop up on your activity feed after you upload your workout—if you click on a segment after a ride, it’ll highlight that portion of your route and give you your time and ranking; 3. Looking around to see what other people are doing around you and what sounds fun to try.

One often frustrating obstacle for KOM hunters: How do you know which segment is the “real” one? Where is the official start and stop on a climb like Mt. Lemmon, for instance? This is a hotly debated topic and the only thing we can recommend is going by which option has the most people who have gone after it and is the most competitive—or which segment has been labeled by some frustrated Strava user in all caps “THE REAL ONE.”

Some Guidelines to Hunting KOMs

An important note, however: Going after a KOM or QOM is not a formal race. Roads are not closed and there are no course marshals or police officers to ensure your safety. Because of issues that have risen over the years, you can flag unsafe segments on Strava—i.e. ones that should NOT be raced in non-race conditions.

Some tips and guidelines for your KOM chasing:

  • Follow traffic rules—most importantly, stop at red lights
  • Be courteous to other people who aren’t out there for your personal record (i.e. obey trail rules and right of way)
  • Know where the start and stop of your segment actually are; it can be frustrating to find out you were standing around wasting time past the official start line
  • Stops count in your total time!
  • While you certainly can draft, taking solo KOMs while sitting on a wheel can be somewhat frowned upon
  • Don’t overdo it; chasing KOMs can be addictive, but pretty soon you’re going all-out all the time instead of following your training plan
  • One particular note during the COVID-19 pandemic: there are general guidelines to follow when exercising outside in order to maintain your health, safety, and social distance

A Little KOM Inspiration

If you’re looking for a little pro inspiration, the KOM and QOM battles up Mt. Lemmon, which rises 21 miles and climbs over 8,000 feet above Tucson, have been particularly exciting lately. Last week, pro Paula Findlay headed out with her quarantine training partner Heather Jackson for a race-like effort. Findlay ultimately took the women’s QOM in 1:35:20 and Jackson was fifth after averaging 228 watts for 1:40:26. You can see both their Strava rides—click over to the women’s leaderboard. And, for a little extra inspiration, here’s a video of that battle. Now get after your own KOMs.

Photos and video: Eric Lagerstrom