Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Drag, Drafting, and Tribes: Part 1 of 3

Riding into the wind is a rider's trial.   It's like pushing a mattress up a NYC walk up.  At first, wind is gentle, but into the ride, it gathers an invisible heft.   And while the weight of the wind is felt acutely by the rider, to others it may remain unmarked.  By its very nature, wind materializes in its contact with solid objects; only then are its effects seen and heard.  Only then does the observer comprehend just how the wind overcomes a rider.  It billows the loose jersey, it whistles through the gates of one's helmet, it accumulates as a soft thunder through the cavities and canals of the outer ear.   What you hear is the sound of resistance.  What you hear is drag.  In response to potential drag, many riders are wind gaugers, checking cable channels or flag poles for the wind's direction and speed.  Pairing this knowledge with the map of the ride, cyclists begin a calculus of pain.  And so the numbers unfold: one, two, four hours of headwinds.  

Drag is made bearable by drafting.  Drafting is when a rider rides in the wake of another shielding oneself from the onset of wind. The V-formation of a flock's migration serves the same purpose. By working together -- be it flock or band of cyclists -- the burden of drag is considerably less.   With three other riders, four hours of hitting your head against the headwind wall becomes one.    And so, the tribe of Peloton is formed.  Like some tribes, this group bands together in interdependence for survival.  This is not a win-lose game, as with card games like poker, but win-win.  Robert Wright observes that interdependence,  or "non-zero-sumness," is evident in humanity's evolutionary core.  In his work, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright suggests that society has evolved, in civilization's long arrow of development, through interdependence, rather than competition.  Interdependence emerges from the big-game kill of the hunter, rather than the gatherer culture.  For when you have more than enough from the day's kill to feed your family, it is a double benefit for you to donate the left-over meat, likely to spoil anyway, to a neighbor.  The neighbor benefits immediately, as will your family on a future date, given the tacit expectation that your neighbor will return the favor when you are in need.   

A variation of this dynamic is true of the lead rider, who relieves the drag for those who follow in tight formation behind.   As with big-game kills and neighbors, where the positions will soon shift, the lead rider of the peloton will drop to the tail and drag.  Each of the trailing riders, in turn, will then take the lead and thus, the burden of wind.   For riders, to leave such work unreturned can cause insult.  Game theorists, interestingly enough, call this "free riding." To draft behind, allowing the front rider to "do all the work" is not only inconsiderate, not only insulting, but an affront to our sense of justice. We sense the imbalance of it; and if such acts go unnoticed, unremarked, and unreturned, the balance of justice is disrupted, and the workings of tribe Pelaton falter. Our response is indignation, as with any act of injustice.  Curiously enough, our discomfort from such imbalance is not cultural, but biological.  Scientists in the past 10 years have identified the area of the brain that processes, judges, and becomes outraged by injustice.  When the the scales have been tipped, when our social interactions possess asymmetries, our brain responds.  When we exchange favors, we unfold an inkblot of kindness, and the balance of the tribe is restored.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. I hope we'll learn more science stuff about the brain and interdependence in parts 2 and 3. This description confirms my opinions about the benefits of kindness. Go Mr. G!