Ron Alford suits up for the cold weather before beginning his commute to work from Greenbelt to College Park. Alford is a bike commuter participating in a friendly competition called "Freezing Saddles" to see who can put in the most miles this winter. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

They call it “Freezing Saddles,” a friendly little competition among nearly 50 Washington area cyclists to determine who is willing to get out there in the cold and put in the most miles between Jan. 1 and March 20.

That in itself is worth noting — a bunch of people pushing one another to stay fit outdoors at a time of year when many of us are dragging ourselves into stuffy gyms. We all know that working out with others helps us stick to our fitness programs.

But the way the mileage challenge works provides a more interesting window onto fitness and technology in the age of the app. After organizing themselves on the Washington Area Bike Forum, the group turned to Strava, a popular Web site that allows cyclists and runners to engage in a variety of virtual competitions over the same terrain, without ever meeting. Or they can find one another via the site’s social network function and go for rides or runs together.

“The competition is motivation to get out there, yes,” said Ron Alford, a 33-year-old grad student at the University of Maryland, whose team is in eighth place among the 11 in the “Freezing Saddles” competition. “I commute to work by bike. It’s a little bit more impetus to get out the door than to work from home.”

The Strava technology allows users to upload speed, distance and other information directly from smartphones, cycle computers or GPS devices and easily compare it with the results of others. Or it can be used as a personal log, to keep track of one’s own mileage. Some riders use it to find new local routes by seeing where others ride, or use the Web site to find routes when they’re out of town. Strava itself will occasionally issue challenges, such as the “Turkey Takeoff,” which urged users to burn 9,000 calories in the five days after Thanksgiving.

Ron Alford on his commute to work from Greenbelt to College Park. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

For some, speed is more important than mileage. So Strava also offers the ability to compete over agreed-upon segments of road or trail and provides leader boards in a never-ending virtual stage race. The fastest men and women lay claim to the title “King (or Queen) of the Mountain” (KOM) as if they are in a local Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

Some of the most popular routes are the 1.1-mile climb on MacArthur Boulevard in Potomac and the 0.7-mile climb along Route 29 in Arlington, each of which has nearly 10,000 rides on Strava (the name means “strive” in founder Peter Horvath’s native Swedish).

“The DC metro area is one of our biggest markets (top 10 in the U.S.), and we’ve seen considerable growth in the area over the past year,” Strava spokeswoman Rachael Parsons told me in an e-mail. “We don’t share specific user numbers but we can tell you that we grew [by] ten times in 2012.”

“I’m a big fan. I go out for some of the KOMs myself, riding and running,” said Tim Kelley, marketing manager for BikeArlington, the cycling education and outreach organization for that county. “I’ll go extra hard on that hill and rush back to see what my results were,” he added.

But therein lies the one possible blemish on Strava’s record. In the San Francisco area, one cyclist was killed screaming down a descent while allegedly trying to capture a segment KOM, and another hit and killed a pedestrian on a separate Strava segment, according to a story in Outside magazine.The dead cyclist’s family has sued Strava, contending that the company encourages racing without taking adequate safety precautions.

No one on the Washington Area Bike Forum or among the riders I spoke with had heard of such incidents around here, though one Strava user did admit to blowing through a red light at 2 a.m. in an attempt to better his segment time — only to be greeted by a police officer on a bike on the other side of the intersection, who let him go. Among riders, disdain for the lawsuit’s theory — that Strava promotes unsafe competition — was universal. Cyclists and runners have been competing since the days we all kept track of our mileage with pencil and paper, they said.

“People are competitive, and there is something to wanting those meaningless awards on the Internet,” Kelley said. “But that’s what they are, meaningless awards on the Internet, and they’re not worth risking life and limb for.”

Strava now allows users to flag segments as unsafe and said in a statement that the cyclist’s death “was a tragic accident, and we expressed our sincere condolences when it occurred in 2010. Based on the facts involved in the accident and the law, there is no merit to this lawsuit.”

For most, Strava is all about the positives. Alford pointed me to this recent post on the bike forum: “Rode to work today for the first time in more than five years — and it definitely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t signed up for Freezing Saddles. . . . I needed a nudge to get myself out of the car and onto the bike even on a beautiful day, and signing up for this friendly competition provided exactly the right nudge.”

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Read past columns by Bernstein and Vicky Hallett.