Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cycling Darwinism

what is your role in a group?
I was introduced to cycling as a sport in late 2011.  Since then I have taken a liking to riding, individually and in group rides/events.  I've taken to following a lot of cycling blogs online to learn more about the history and lore of the sport, so I can be a better member of the peloton.  My Bike Law posted up an article titled "the lost art of the group ride".  I have gone back and read this article several times, and I always end up taking away something new from it.  The article used the phrase "Cycling Darwinism", and it has really struck a chord for me.  I think it may be multi-faceted, showing just how much cycling has changed in our society in 20 years as well as well as accurate describe the current toxic landscape.   

Growing up, the idea of a group ride to me was "riding with my friends".  I lived close to my K-6 school, and riding our bikes was the way that we commuted.  We would ride to and from school, the local "jiffy mart", the beach and/or river.  We were never introduced to endurance events back then, it was just transportation to us.   Even then, we had planned events at school where the police officers would come over and explain the rules of the road and give us "courses" to ride through to educate us on the proper way to handle ourselves on a bike.  We learned the rules of the road.  We enjoyed our freedom.  We rode our bicycles.

Over the past 20 years there has been an increased interest in the sport.  Cycling is gaining a lot of traction as a fun and accessible sport for a large number of people.  While it is not inexpensive, it's a great way to get out and enjoy the outdoors and have a sense of accomplishment.  Professional athletes like Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong, and George Hincapie have increased awareness of the sport.  Similar to the effect that Jack Nicholas, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods have had on golf, more people are participating.  The problem is that as the scene increases in size, the number of leaders has dwindled.  The people that would have been leaders in the past are overwhelmed and burned out, and are not actively attempting to mentor new leaders.  This has created a vacuum in what the group ride knowledge, allowing for chaos to creep in.

In today's environment, information is not held in the hands of just like ride leader.  Similar to the effect of the Gutenberg Press, the Internet has increased the amount of information available.  This should be a mostly positive impact but what it does is allows folks, similar to myself, the ability to read up on massive amounts of information to distill it into something I can attempt to implement.  It makes me into a "paper ride leader", with little experience or period of mentoring to really understand all the concepts that I have studied.  Since there is a lack of true leadership and experience by these folks, when they are asked to lead they are uncomfortable with the role and often have bad experiences early on, leading them to not want to continue to lead.

Beyond this, Internet based services like Strava, TrainingPeaks and MapMyRide have introduced professional level terms and concepts into the average ride.  No longer is it about the ride and the people you are with that particular day.  Now you have a GPS-enabled bicycle computer and you are tracking your data against how you did last month.  Typically I hear this called the "Strava effect", because of the popularity of the site along with the controversy of the "segments" that it created.  Now people can indulge themselves to get a personal and/or overall record in an unusual (or unsafe) area.  The group has started to crumble as folks continue to chase after numbers on a screen.  Now the group ride looks more like an individual race, where the goal is getting a faster time or showing how much better you are than the rest of the group.  

Ever feel like this?

At this point, group rides in my area are commonplace.  On any given day I find around a half dozen different available rides within a 30 minute drive of my home.  Each of these rides will have at least a dozen cyclists show up.  The goal is seldom about the complexities of a group ride, but rather to be in a group ride for the expectations of that is what is done.  This may be due to a mix of the different factors, but more often the rides I experience end up devolving into races and power plays;  experienced riders wanting to put pressure onto younger rides to see what they are made of.  Younger riders wanting to cut their chops, get better, or prove themselves.  People looking to get a better time on the internet-based tracking service of choice this week. 

There are also the mystical "private group" rides, that are invitation only.  We know these exist, because there are indications of their existance, but it doesn't mean that you can (or want to) participate in them.   They wish to be left to their own little clique, and work to their own ends.  Just like a professional Team doesn't let anyone come practice, you shouldn't expect to get invited to these groups

I've now stumbled my way through a vast wasteland of potential and actualized issues in the current environment of the mutated cycling scene.  Darwinism states that things evolve and adapt to their environment.  Based on the original article and my own personal experiences, it seems that there is a current toxic environment versus the "golden age" of the group ride has created a beast that is not ideal both for the experienced rider, who remembers fondly what it once was, as well as newer members looking to connect to the heritage of the sport.  The largest question in my mind comes is "where do we go from here?"  We all ride for different reasons, but it seems that the collective idea is that we should bring those reasons to a group ride today.  Chasing a personal best, crushing our cycling nemesis, and riding intervals probably don't need to be goals for someone that is riding to their local shop ride on a weekend.  Learning to be a better group-mate, or teaching a green rider the ropes, may be. 

Which road do we chose?
At this point I think each of us that is searching for the ideal group ride needs to evaluate the local situation that we ride in, and determine if we are in the right environment.  I find just this  part a bit daunting. I am comfortable with the rides that I do each week.   This one act is going to immediately make me re-evaluate the very core of my cycling self.  What role do I want to be in a group?  Am I doing the things I should be in order to improve myself to handle that role?  Do I even know all the roles that need to be handled?  There's a lot to deal with.  I already know that I am not experienced enough to be an actual ride leader.  My cycling journey is young;  what I should be doing is looking to mentor with established leaders: understand the roles, learn the ropes, get stronger.  If I ever get strong enough to be an effective leader, then I should be actively seeking out future leaders to grow into the leadership roles.  

As it stands now I don't feel that the art of idealistic group ride is lost, but it's definitely endangered.  It will take a lot of effort by people that truly love the sport, and remember what these rides were about, to bring it back to life.  It will also take getting a new generation interested in more than just their suffer score, but how much greater of an experience they can enjoy if they work together for something greater.

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