My wife and I have been watching the Tour de France religiously over the last couple weeks, though as many people do during lengthy religious services, we’ve tended to fall asleep during the rigorous middle parts, waking in up in time for the big finish and the review of the standings.

You might think that cycling would just be every man for himself, but it’s not: there’s a lot of strategy that’s involved, and also some cultural norms about what you’re obliged to do as part of a breakaway or leading team. (It’s bad form, for example, to just stay in someone’s slipstream; you’re supposed to take a turn leading.) There are also rules about not taking advantage of people’s misfortunes, though that’s a little trickier. The other day, when leader Lance Armstrong was in a wreck, his closest competitor slowed down and waited for him to remount and catch up; Armstrong had done the same for him three years earlier. (On the other hand, the race doesn’t stop for the person who’s dead last.) Part of this is old-fashioned gentlemanly conduct, but it’s also a recognition that a bicycle race is a small world, and while everyone wants to win, no one can afford alienate themselves from the group.*

Yesterday a friend pointed out this article by David Ronfeldt, “Social Science at 190 MPH on Nascar’s Biggest Speedways.” Here’s the abstract:

In aerodynamically intense stock-car races like the Daytona 500, the drivers form into multi-car draft lines to gain extra speed. A driver who does not enter a draft line (slipstream) will lose. Once in a line, a driver must attract a drafting partner in order to break out and try to get further ahead. Thus the effort to win leads to ever-shifting patterns of cooperation and competition among rivals. This provides a curious laboratory for several social science theories: (1) complexity theory, since the racers self-organize into structures that oscillate between order and chaos; (2) social network analysis, since draft lines are line networks whose organization depends on a driver’s social capital as well as his human capital; and (3) game theory, since racers face a “prisoner’s dilemma” in seeking drafting partners who will not defect and leave them stranded. Perhaps draft lines and related “bump and run” tactics amount to a little-recognized dynamic of everyday life, including in structures evolving on the Internet.

Likewise, it seems to me that the Tour is a great example of an institution in which you see combinations of flocking behavior, smart mob behavior (the teams all have little radios, and can communicate with their coaches to plan strategy on the road), and an interesting tension between cooperation and competition. You have to cooperate to survive: you have to compete successfully to win.

We often think of cooperation and competition as polar opposites, but in the modern world I suspect that’s rarely the case: the norm now is something far more complex. A few years ago, high-tech pundits talked about “coopetition” as a new business model: but this notion of cooperation among competitors strikes me as highly tactical, and not terribly profound. (I could be wrong, of course.) Games like cycling and car racing point to something more basic: under many circumstance, you have to cooperate to compete.

*See extended entry:

*Though one doesn’t want to make too much of such informal arrangements (or moral economies, to give them a less conspiratorial air), as Slate diarist Ian Austen reports:

It was in the hotel’s dining room that the group of reporters I travel with ran into Udo Bolts. This year marks both the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France and the 12th time that Bolts has made the three-week trek on his bicycle. But tonight at least, Bolts isn’t in the mood for celebration. “All the old traditions are dying,” he says. “The race is getting too big. It’s not fun anymore.”

It’s hard to imagine that much fun was ever to be had from riding more than 2,000 miles across wildly varying terrain and through nearly every kind of weather (it sometimes even snows). But the lost traditions Bolts mourns at least made his jobfor most of the 198 riders who started this year, the Tour is very much their worktolerable. Gone, he complained, is a long-standing pact not to crank up to full speed at the beginning of each of the 20 or so races that make up the overall Tour. And the “autobus,” an informal system of cooperation between riders to make sure non-climbers like Bolts finish mountain races within the daily time limit, has similarly descended into Darwinian chaos.