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.