Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: bicycles

Biking around Cambridge

I’ve done a lot of bicycling here. I do a certain amount of biking in California, but this is one of the most bike-friendly places I’ve ever lived. (Not having a car also makes a difference.)

Bicycling around Cambridge
via flickr

The bikes are ubiquitous, and they go everywhere, it seems.

Bicycling around Cambridge
via flickr

Part of the improvisational quality of biking comes from the fact that it’s not always clear here what’s a single-lane road, and what isn’t. Some of the roads are very old, and expanding them isn’t really an option.

Bicycling around Cambridge
via flickr

It all reminds me of sociologist Harry Collins’ explanation of the different kinds of knowledge: riding a bicycle involves embodied and tacit knowledge, while successfully riding a bicycle in traffic is a form of local knowledge. The former involves learning how to operate a piece of machinery; the latter requires learning how others behave, and how they’ll treat you if you act in certain ways.

If evolution is outlawed only outlaws will evolve

Love it!


(h/t to Heather)

[To the tune of Foo Fighters, “Alone+Easy Target,” from the album Foo Fighters (a 1-star song, imo).]

Pescadero Creek County Park

Last week my wife and I went on a ride through Pescadero Creek County Park, a park outside La Honda.

Pescadero Creek County Park
via flickr

Most of the park is hiking trails only, but there’s an old logging trail that is open to horses and bicycles. From the entrance to the park, it runs about 5 miles, through some hilly but not overwhelming terrain.

Pescadero Creek County Park
via flickr

It’s a very pretty ride, but I’m partial to redwood forests.

There are a number of hiking trails, including on that leads to Tiptoe Falls, a small but charming waterfall surrounded by ferns; we meant to go find it, but took the wrong trail, and never got there.


tiptoe falls, photo by GlennFrancoSimmons, via flickr

Even if you don’t see the falls, though, it’s a good ride.

Pescadero Creek County Park
via flickr

Biking with my son

This afternoon my son and I went biking in Bayfront Park.

Biking in Bayfront Park today
Yes, he’s wearing a t-shirt that says “Hamsters Love PLOS” [Public Library of Science]. No, he doesn’t get beaten up for it. This is why we live where we live. Via flickr

It’s a beautiful afternoon, and we had a good time biking up and down the hills… though I need to adjust my derailleur.

Biking in Bayfront Park today
via flickr

Now it’s back to refreshing Ezra Klein’s blog every five minutes to see what’s going on with the HCR vote. We may let the kids watch TV during dinner tonight. They’ll be disappointed it’s not Mythbusters, but so be it.

[To the tune of Sarah Shannon, “Watch Over You,” from the album City Morning Song (a 2-star song, imo).]

Parking and biking

Slate’s Tom Vanderbilt has a good article about the role of parking in shaping the attractiveness of different kinds of transportation. He points out that:

parking helps make commuters—a lesson long ago learned with cars. Studies in New York found that a surprisingly large percentage of vehicles coming into lower Manhattan were government employees or others who had an assured parking spot. Other studies have shown the presence of a guaranteed parking spot at home—required in new residential developments—is what turns a New Yorker into a car commuter.

On the flip side, people would be much less likely to drive into Manhattan if they knew their expensive car was likely to be stolen, vandalized, or taken away by police. And yet this is what was being asked of bicycle commuters, save those lucky few who work in a handful of buildings that provide indoor bicycle parking. Surveys have shown that the leading deterrent to potential bicycle commuters is lack of a safe, secure parking spot on the other end.

When it finally dies, I would love to be able to replace my car with a serious electric bike (or more likely a cheap used car and an electric bike), but parking is kind of a concern. It’s one thing to park a $400 bike by chaining it to a fence; I’m not sure what I’d want to do with a bike that cost twenty times that much.

[To the tune of Ides Of March, “Vehicle,” from the album Vehicle (I give it 5 stars).]

Me and my son out biking

This is from last weekend, but I just got the pictures downloaded off my camera. And we were biking today, too.

My son and I, and our bikes
via flickr

Competition, cooperation, and the Tour de France

Someone recently gave me a copy of a recent article, in Fortune, “Pack Mentality,” that extracts the “free-market lessons of long-distance bike racing” as seen in the Tour de France:

[A] stage race is less a sporting event than a commodities exchange on wheels. What appears to be a random mass of bicycles is really an orderly, complex web of shifting alliances, crossed with brutal competition, designed to keep or acquire the market’s most valued currency: energy.

Amassing it (i.e., letting as little of it as possible drain away) is the only way for a racer to survive the brutal physical strain of a Tour de France, the metabolic equivalent of running 21 marathons in 23 days. Bikers save energy by riding together in a massive slipstream….

But here’s the key: To thrive in the angry little swarm that is the peloton, enemies often have to stick together and make deals with one another. Cooperation across enemy lines is the centerpiece of a winning game plan…. Why play nice with someone who might beat you? Racers in the peloton are not pals; they’re enemies without options.

So what does cooperation develop? Why isn’t it just every man (or team) for himself?

The reason for the cooperation has its basis in physics: Wind resistance is a huge factor in energy use. According to studies done by Nike during its development of Lance Armstrong’s speed suit, a bike racer consumes almost 80 percent of his energy cutting through the air and only 20 percent moving his bike.

To overcome that resistance, racers employ “drafting” – tucking your front wheel just behind rear wheel of the man in front of you, thereby gliding in his wind-free slipstream and greatly reducing the amount of energy it takes to ride.

Not surprisingly, there is an etiquette to drafting. Riders who draft too much without volunteering to slice through the wind for others are “wheel suckers.”

It’s an entertaining piece, though I find it a bit heavy on the “hey Americans, there’s this crazy sports thing going on in, of all places, France” angle: it overplays the strangeness of the Tour de France. But I hesitate to criticize it too much, if only because it confirms something I wrote a couple years ago about “Smart Mobs and Sports.”

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 [in summer 2003], 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….

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.

But the one place the article really goes wrong is in its argument that “Nothing in American sports resembles the bizarre dynamic of the cycling peloton.” First, as the article itself makes clear, there’s nothing bizarre about it: cooperation in the context of competition often is perfectly rational, whether in playing-fields or markets.

In fact, it’s rather like companies cooperating around technical standards. Computer companies agree to standardize around USB, Google and Yahoo both use HTTP protocols, shipping companies all use standard sized containers. Deviate from the standard, and you may gain a vast advantage (as Apple arguably has with its music system); more likely, you’re make yourself irrelevant. Nobody makes money off standards. But everybody makes money because of standards. Likewise, in the Tour, you have to compete to win, but you have to cooperate to finish.

Second, there is at least one rather popular American sport in which the peleton dynamics, and a set of cultural norms that define what constitutes good versus unfair competition: Nascar. As David Ronfeldt argued several years ago,

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.

And as anyone who’s seen the Pixar movie Cars can tell you, competitors who play too rough don’t get respect.

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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