I never used to be interested in cycle racing. Generally I am not fussy in my sporting enthusiasms. Cricket, rugby, soccer, tennis, baseball, golf, athletics, sailing, squash, basketball, American football, Australian rugby league . . . the list is long. But I drew the line at cycling. It looked like a tedious trial of strength, and I attributed its fanatic support on the continent to a Latin predilection for machismo over sporting subtlety.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was last year’s Olympics that woke me from my dogmatic slumbers. For some reason I missed the much-touted men’s road race, in which the British apparently failed to win gold because the Australians and Germans didn’t help us enough, which was somehow both puzzling and unsurprising. But the next day I caught the second half of the women’s road race, and as it unwound I became transfixed. With about 40 of the 140 kilometres left to go, a group of four women broke away from the pack, and promptly proceeded to operate as a team, taking turns at the front to shield the others from the wind.
At first this made no sense to me. I knew that wind resistance is a crucial factor in cycling, and that road racing involves teams who share the load of pushing through it, going to the front in turn to let the ones behind ‘draft’ and conserve their energy. But I was watching four women with no common interest working together. An Englishwoman, a Dutchwoman, an American and a Russian. More like the beginning of a joke than a natural collective. What were they doing collaborating?
But they clearly were, so with the help of the commentators and a bit of Googling I started to figure it out. The rationale for breakaways in a road race is to stop the favourites winning. If the whole pack—the ‘peloton’—arrives at the finish in a bunch, then some squat figure with thighs like an elephant will shoot though and grab the gold. So the taller, more wiry cyclists need to leave the sprinters behind. Plan A for most teams is to shepherd their pet sprinters around the course and release them at the end. But if your sprinter starts lagging, or if you don’t have a good one to start with, then plan B is for the wiry types to strike out and leave the sprinters behind.
That’s what I was watching. Four skinny ones who would come nowhere in a mass finish but who had a good chance of a medal if they could keep ahead of the pack. So for the moment they did have reason to work together for a common aim. Riding at the front takes a lot out of you, so the only way their group could stay ahead was for them all to take turns.
Philosophers, economists and biologists often find themselves puzzled by ‘altruism’. Why do people (and many animals) do things that benefit others at a cost to themselves? Why do they pay their share, wait their turn, and generally do their bit? This can seem illogical: if everybody else is going to be public-spirited, I’ll be better off quietly stealing a march; and if the others aren’t going to be public-spirited, I’d be a fool to be nice myself. So either way, it’s not clear what’s in it for me to be altruistic.
But this logic is not as compelling as it looks. Suppose there are a half-a-dozen of us in our office. Our planned Christmas outing needs at least four to chip in, otherwise it’s off. Contributions are made privately, to spare the less well-off embarrassment. I know I’ll enjoy it a lot, and I can afford it, so I cough up. Nothing puzzling there. But note that this behaviour can already be counted as altruistic, in that that I alone bear the cost of my contribution, but all of you will share the benefit of the outing if it now goes ahead.
The crucial point here is that my contribution may easily tip the balance. In a big office with hundreds of people, there’s no real chance that my failing to pay up will kybosh the outing, and so no economic motive for me to chip in. But when the numbers are smaller, there’s a real possibility that my money will matter. This was just the kind of set-up I was watching in the road race. Each rider had an interest in doing their time at the front, even though this hurt them and helped the others, because if they didn’t then the other three would get too tired and the bunch behind would reel them in.
You might wonder whether any of this counts as real altruism. After all, both the cyclists and my office worker are serving their own interests. While they may be serving the interests of their colleagues even more, they aren’t going so far as to choose an option that positively works against their own welfare.
Theorists distinguish between ‘weak’ and ‘strong altruism’. Weak altruism is when your colleagues also reap the benefits of your choices. Strong altruism is when your choices positively leave you worse off. Strong altruism is harder to explain than weak. To explain why people sometimes do downright damage to their immediate personal interests, we need to bring in further factors like their concern to establish a reputation for helpfulness, or their identification with the success of some larger group.
You get strong altruism in cycle racing too. The most obvious cases are where team members sacrifice themselves to help their colleagues’ chances of prizes. And cyclists will also sometimes damage their chances of short-term success to bolster their reputations as trustworthy breakaway partners. In fact, the tactical imperatives in cycling can become terribly complicated. When you add in the tensions between individual and team aims, and the interdependence of stage prizes and overall prizes in a multi-stage tour, it can be become hard for riders to know which way to jump when a breakaway is launched. Should they join it, or let it go, or try to sabotage it, or what?
Some riders are better at these computations than others. Lance Armstrong was apparently preeminent in this field, but lesser lights are prone to blunder under the pressure of the moment. In the big professional races nowadays the team managers instruct their riders on radios. It strikes me that it would be more fun without them.
Perhaps I shall come back to strong altruism and cycling in a later post. But if we want to understand why cooperation comes so naturally to humans, I don’t think we need look farther than the simple breakaway at the end of that Olympic road race. Four riders operating in perfect harmony, simply because they were all better off together than alone. (The Dutchwoman got the gold, the British the silver, and the Russian the bronze.)