Robert Axelrod opens his book 'The Evolution of Cooperation' with the
question "Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of
egoists without central authority?" I cannot imagine a better
description of a bike race!
He goes on to explain that under a
particular set of circumstances one particular strategy of cooperation
will emerge. He ran simple computer models of the game "prisoner's
dilemma". To explain what I mean by this imagine you and friend are
taken into police custody for stealing a car. You both have 2 options,
either you blame the other or say nothing. If you both say nothing (cooperate) you
both get a slap on the wrists and a fine. If you both blame the other one (defect) you both feel the full force of the law. But where things get interesting is when one of you cooperates and one defects. In this situation the one who cooperated gets the full force of the law and the defector walks free. This is all very well if you steal a car once, but it takes on a new dimension when you allow the prisoners to act and interact over and over. Axelrod set up a model whereby individuals were either cooperators, defectors or tit-for-tat (a strategy whereby their reaction on meeting an individual is a mirror of the other's reaction the last time they met).
Bear with me here - cycling comes up soon!
If everyone cooperates you have the utopian ideal and the population is perfectly stable and will remain that way forever. Alternately if everyone defects things quickly get out of hand, every meeting is negative for both participants and the whole thing collapses pretty quickly. But both these situations are pretty unrealistic and rely upon us picking a set strategy at the beginning and sticking with it indefinitely.You can imagine easily that if one of our saintly cooperators starts to defect, things work out very well for him and very badly for everyone else and again the population as a whole becomes unstable.
Axelrod then asked the question: what populations are stable to the inclusion of small numbers of defectors? It turns out that the simplest one you can think of is the one which wins out - a population of tit-for-tat who do unto others as others have done unto them.
So whats this all got to do with bike racing? Well...Imagine the situation. You find yourself riding in the singletrack and a rider who is clearly better than you in that section comes up behind you and asks to pass. The racing instinct says block for all your life, don't let this person past me. But consider the other course of action. You let them past without slowing down and then follow their line through the trail. You might learn a quicker way through and it is always easier to follow lines than make them. If you are really stronger than them, as soon as the trail widens you will go past and likely not see them again unless you are amazingly well matched. If you are well matched then working together will likely bring both of you back to the rider ahead. Consider a successful breakaway in the Tour -almost without fail the riders in such a break will cooperate until the last 5km. If they constantly attack each other, they become the unstable population of defectors we saw earlier and the bunch quickly brings them back.
The darker side of this argument goes as follows. As a racer you are not anonymous.Whilst I am thoroughly excited that the womens fields are growing every year, they are not so big that we don't all get to know each other (you only have to see us gossiping at the start!). So the old guard like me tend to cooperate. We know it all shakes out in the end. If you are new to racing you might assume we are a saintly population of always cooperate and that by defecting (blocking, sprinting away, generally being uncooperative) you will make swift and significant gains. But we are really tit-for-tat and you stand more to gain by joining us and working together than you do by kicking against us and making everyone lose.
Basically what I am saying is we can all play over-aggressive racing tactics such as incessant blocking of attempts at overtaking. But in the end it detracts from everyone's race and the strongest person will still win (and we'll all probably end up hating each other). So next time someone comes up behind you and goes to make a clean pass, be a cooperative racer, try and hold their wheel and show them when the trail goes your way.
Planning my race calendar for this year it occurred to me that the longer I have raced and the more ‘into it’ I have become the more complicated my planning gets. 5 years ago I simply decided to race the national XC series and a few local races. Every race was a race, every ride was training. Simple. Now planning a race season is an art-form in itself. I travel further afield, canvass the opinion of my coach, my boyfriend and various riding buddies about where to go and when. Then on top of all that I now categorize races too!
There are still those which are races; full blown, seat of the pants, races. Try as hard as you can to get the best placing you can. Goes without saying really these are the main aim of the year.
'Racing' with obligatory gurn
Then there are the training races; like a horrible turbo session, but on the trail and with competitors – and so infinitely better and easier. I’m usually tired from training during the week, I’m probably not going to win anything (and I have all the excuses as to why this is ok). The only aim of these is to get a good workout. Spend as much time as possible at threshold, in the conditions I’ll probably race properly in at some point.
Getting the effort out is easier when there are people around you
Lastly there are the races where I plan to train a particular thing; a new skill, or trying out a new eating regimen, piece of kit or pacing strategy. These tend to be low priority races to start and then as the season develops I decide I need to try something before I need to use it in angerand so throw in a practice race to try it out.
Wrong bikes - but some skills still need practice!
Combine all this with planning the logistics of getting to races, where we’re going to stay and for how long* and suddenly you’re spending days just working on the plan.
Sometimes I pine for the days when we just threw the tent and bikes into the back of the car and headed down the A14, but then I remember how much fun it can be when you have put the effort in, and get it right.
*Thanks to everyone who takes most of the headache of this away from me due to my lack of ability to remember what I need to do!
In 19 days time (perhaps less by the time most people read this) I will be embarking on a new adventure. I'm racing the ASBA Cape Epic with Collyn Ahart. This will involve a number of firsts for me:
my first stage race
my first race in a team
my first race in South Africa
my first visit to South Africa
I can't work out how I feel about it at the moment. I'm excited and nervous all at once. I've been asked what specific preparation I've been doing and the answer to that is not much. To train for multiple marathon races does not involve much more than training for one marathon and since that is my focus for the start of this year I've definitely been doing that.
I have also collecting experience from everyone I know who has done a stage race. Here are the best bits so far:
"On one side of the medical tent is the queue for rehydration drips and on the other side the queue for the bum doctor - you want to avoid both"
"Always take earplugs if you're staying in the camp"
"After a while it just become like posting food into your mouth"
" If you need laundry doing, or bikes fixing remember everyone is open to bribes"
" You will hate your partner at some point during the race, so try to remember this and move on"
Yesterday was the regional cyclocross champs. I removed my light brackets and power meter cables stole some Ksyrium wheels with Dugast tubs from Chris to put on my commute bike and lined up with the best of the region's racers. 30 miutes later and a few laps of "the field of doom" and I was stopped. I barely breathed - how do you cyclo-cross racers do it? Mental.... but awesome!
Next year my mountain biking plans finish earlier I'm gonna get me a proper bike, work on my sprint power and try and be a crosser.
For now I'll have a dabble and take a shower with my helmet and shoes every few weeks.
Prior to leaving England for the World Championships in Ornans France I told various people that I wanted it to rain and for the race to be muddy. My thought process went something like: - we just did a really muddy ride in Hopton Woods, it was fun and I felt fast, - if it is a flat out untechnical race I am not going to match up to the Euro speed demons. Looking out of the window down to the river in Ornans today, 2 days after the race with the river bursting it’s banks I should probably say ‘you’d better be careful what you wish for’. But it turns out my instincts weren’t too far off.
The little town of Ornans is everything you imagine a rural French town to be and our Gite was equally fabulous, very shabby chic. We were staying with Tim Dunford and Ben Thomas (also of the GB team) and my parents who were surprisingly non-plussed at how quickly we turned the pretty tourist accommodation into a workshop and food dispenser.
Thursday before the race:
Chris and I headed up the valley to meet another of my team-mates Catherine Williamson and her husband Rob to recce the last 40km of the course (she had looked at the first 22km the day before and thought this would take us about 3 hours.) It was pretty rainy and after we finally found each other we had already trudged across a few fields, clambered over some electric fences and avoided curious cattle. Another hour of getting blown towards barbed wire fences and trying not to slide off the edge of cliffs and we were definitely wondering what we had let ourselves in for! We made it as far as Cath and Rob’s gite (after 3 hours!) before we called it a day arranging to look at the last section the next day.
I had been reassured by Andy Blair (Aus) that the middle section of the course was ‘technical, committing and in places scary’. By comparison therefore our Friday ride was going to be easy! It certainly wasn’t as bad and Cath, Chris and I traversed the two valleys which completed the ‘course femme’ in a little under 2 hours. We thought we would then ride up into the arena and have a look around. Going up a little road climb I heard a CRUNCH and looked around to see my rear mech, in three pieces in my wheel and my mech hanger bent totally out of shape – uh oh….
I had a mini freak out, but Cath and Chris managed somehow to calm me down and I carried my now un-pushable bike into the arena. No one was able to help me there (Whyte bikes are not very common on the continent) so I started to walk back down the hill to the town bike shop. At that point Tim and Ben turned up and as I explained my predicament Ben told me that his pit crew were coming over from England the next morning and could probably bring me parts from the shop if I wanted. At that moment I could have kissed him!
The day before the race:
My parts were now on the way from England and I decided not to risk riding in the mud again until race day (although my exploded bike made this rather impossible anyway!). We went to sign-on and I suddenly realised I was at the World Championships and I had no idea what I was doing. I joined the queue behind the German Team Manager which transpired to be the shortest queue of 50 riders I have ever seen. Unfortunately I only realised this when he slammed a stack of licences the thickness of two packs of cards down on the desk (lucky Germans)!
The guys from Mountain Trax arrived mid afternoon with a rear mech and hanger taken from one of the shop employees bikes (talk about above and beyond!). Chris set about rebuilding my bike (he is also owed a massive thanks) and we were able to do a short spin on the road to check everything worked – which it did, perfectly. Phew…..
As promised the rain was biblical. I queried my previous desire for a wet race as I looked out into the mist covering the valley, but then distracted myself by putting on my GB kit – a somewhat curious feeling. Chris and I rolled down to the start ready for him to set off just behind the World Championship men and I looked around for Rob who was kindly going to take my bottles and do the mad trek between feed stations (but by bicycle to avoid the queues– sensible man).
I lined up in the back start pen looking down at the number 37 on my board and then those of Gunn Rita Dahle-Flescha and Irena Kalentieva in the 40s thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’.We all set off down the fire-road out of town in a big pack. I was somewhere in the middle most of the time but wasn’t particularly comfortable moving forwards in the group as I wanted to do. It was probably a good thing as I heard a bang and spotted Team-mate Cath, Sabine Spitz and others on the floor. I scooted around them and quickly got back onto the pack.
As we hit the first climb we merged with the men who had done another extra loop. At this point everything splintered and riders were sprawled up the hillside. There seemed to be guys and girls all over the trail all fighting for their line. I picked my way through trying to let as many of the male riders through as possible whilst passing the women I needed to. It was super slippy and you had to ride really smoothly.
The first 30km continued like this. There were quite a few people around a few girls and I would pass each other at various points depending upon on strengths – mine seemingly descending down insane muddy chutes and I was thankful that I could only remember one or two dry races from this season! It was still raining and the higher up you were the more fog you were riding in. I abandoned my glasses to the back of my head early on as they were more of a hindrance than a help (surprising given they are prescription!).
After about 30km it got a lot more lonely, and less rainy. You would think this was a good thing, but instead of nice slippy, slidey mud the trails suddenly became covered in sticky, claggy mud. Numerous times I had to stop and clear out my frame and forks, totally paranoid after breaking my mech previously. You looked forward to the spray of lumps of mud from your wheels whilst descending on fire-roads. It was somewhere in this middle section I came across Chris who was working his way through the men’s world champs field we rode together for a few minutes before we hit another climb and he moved off into the distance. Still feeling good and enjoying myself in the ridiculous mud I carried on, pushing hard on the pedals where the trails would allow.
Slip, slide and sometimes ride – the Ornans mudfest.
By the last 20km I was in my element (apart from the bit across a field made of clay where I momentarily lost it due to not even being able to push my bike). Stomping up the hills and careering down them I have never felt so good. I think I overtook 3 girls, maybe 4 on this section and clearly my tactic of shovelling High 5 gels down my neck every half hour was paying off as they seemed to be fading in comparison and then I hit the last descent. I had been looking forward to this rock strewn gully descent for most of the race. It was something like Cavedale in the peak distract combined with Worry Gill at Dalby and as long as you were able to let go of the brakes and pick your way down it was brilliant fun. At the bottom you simply turned right and you were home back in the arena.
I crossed the line and looked for my folks and my shower bag, no sign. After a half hour wait they turned up apologetic that they had missed me but apparently I had been too fast over the last bit of course that they mistimed it! I heard placing 35 announced as she crossed the line and realised I beat my start number – pretty unexpected! I eventually discovered I was 33rd which given that I was simply hoping not to be last I am pretty pleased with.
I still can’t believe I got to wear GB kit. It was always that thing I said I’d like to do but never believed it would happen! I cannot thank everyone who has supported me this year enough. – AW Cycles, Whyte bikes, High 5, Fizik, Mount Zoom and of course Chris Pedder for fixing my bike and always being awesome and Rob Williamson for handing out bottles to me during the race at the Worlds. Hope to be there again next year!