Friday, July 31, 2009

Darwin in the Peloton

I watched a good BBC documentary last night about herd animals –bison, pronghorn, rams, and so on.

Why am I writing about this in a cycling blog? Having just watched a three-week endurance battle in the mountains of France, I was struck by the parallels between impalas and bison on the one hand, and cyclists in the peloton on the other.

Here's the case for cyclists as herd animals:

In early spring, after a long winter of rest, male impalas go out on the plains and seek out other males. They look like they’re socializing at first, but by sidling up alongside each other, they’re actually comparing their bodies and horns to those of the next guy to see how they size up.

Reminds me of those early-season rides in March when everyone’s loudly declaring how out of shape they are and pretending just to be socializing, when actually we’re all checking out the next guy to see if he’s breathing harder than us.

Eventually, the male impalas figure out who they can challenge with a reasonable hope of success. They face off – literally – and begin bashing their heads together. Once their horns are locked, they begin wrestling, to see who can topple who. This goes on for hours -- or even days.

The peloton has gotten serious here – the pace has picked up and real attacks have been launched. Just like a marked rider in a peloton, the strongest buck fights the most, because all the next-strongest ones fiercely believe they have a shot at being Number One.

Finally, after endless battles for dominance, all the males have staked out their territory (and the females that come with it). They’re lying around breathing heavily, literally unable to even get on their feet. And now the real drama begins: Hyenas emerge warily from the brush. Normally, they wouldn’t dare approach a herd so brazenly – they’d be chased off or killed easily. But with the males so depleted, a hyena will walk within a couple of feet of an impala, to see if he can even stand; this one somehow manages to rise and run. When the hyena catches up and tries to jump him, the impala bucks him right in the chops; the smaller animal backs off.

The verdict on this impala: Not worth it.

A parallel image: Alberto Contador on the Verbier last week. The last climb of a very long day, everyone’s cooked. The Shlecks (the hyenas) are attacking while the moment is ripe, but Contador just stands up and rides away like he’d suddenly found another gear on his bike. Survival of the fittest, pal: find a weaker impala, ‘cuz I'll kick you in the teeth if you keep after me.

Alberto crosses the line first. The buck keeps his furry harem and his patch of land.

And just how, exactly, is this different from a long stage, where the real fight starts about 80% of the way through? Only in that cyclists choose to put themselves through this absurd suffering.

Or do they? Are humans just as hard-wired as our animal cousins for this kind of competition? Have we really evolved so far that we don’t subtly run a weaker/stronger analysis of our cohorts at a pickup game, a business meeting, a group ride?

Nature, red in tooth and claw.


Suitcase of Courage said...

Wow - some very interesting parallels there. It's sometimes surprising where profound insight into bike racing can come from.

I won't be watching PBS quite the same next time!

Velosopher said...

Yeah. And I didn't even mention that typical savannah herd animals have hyper-developed hind ends -- for quick acceleration in case of attack.


MRMacrum said...

You Roadies are herd animals. It is great that one of you realizes it. But then we humans are the ultimate herd animals period. Good Post.

Velosopher said...

Oh, I agree, MRM. We group together for safety -- then we turn on each other for dominance. Classic herd behavior. As a therapist, this is actually one of the key dilemmas I help people face every day.

Katherine Stump said...

That was brilliant! Enjoyed reading it.

Velosopher said...

Thanks, Katherine!!

Vicious Cycle said...

awesome post. enlightening to my suspicion.

Velosopher said...

Thank you, sir!