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"