Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Geneology of Racing Morals (Or, Cycling as an Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma)

Joe Jefferson (yes, he of "strung out like Amy Winehouse" fame) kicked off a lively MABRA debate over the following question: if someone sits in during a breakaway, should they contest in the sprint?

According to lots of people on the MABRA board, it is low and classless behavior to sprint after sitting in. Just not right.

Now the discussion has spilled over onto the blogs. Over on Firebike, it's ok to contest, so long as you haven't reached any explicit agreement. According to the Robot Diary, there's no rule against it, but you'll alienate potential partners (except in certain situations, when it's totally understandable.) For Le Amateur Domestique, it's a 'no-brainer'... you sprint.

It doesn't make any sense for me to weigh in with my own opinion on the question without the years of accumulated racing wisdom of others.

I can make a meta-level observation about the question itself, though. What, exactly, are we asking, and how could we possibly resolve the matter? I mean, it's already been pointed out that sitting in is not against the rules of cycling. So the question is not whether it's permissible according to the rules. It's also not illegal in any stronger sense. So what are we asking? Are we asking whether it's immoral, unethical? I can't imagine anyone arguing that it is actually a violation of morality or a breach of ethics to sit in.

(Actually, maybe I spoke too soon. I can imagine Kant arguing that it is a violation of the categorical imperative... Oh, if only Kant were a cyclist!)

Are we asking whether it's ok according to cycling etiquette? I think that's closer. But who cares about cycling etiquette? And it's not exactly just etiquette. Sprinting after sitting in on a break is not like riding with hairy legs.

Who creates these facts anyway, these facts about what separates the classy rider from the wheelsucking 'Reilhans' among us, and makes the former praiseworthy and the latter blameworthy? Contrary to what you might think upon finding Joel Friel's apotheotically titled tome in the bookstore, there is no Bible of cycling where we find the 10 commandments. (Can you see Moses bombing down Sinai on a full suspension rig?)

So where do the cycling mores come from? They come from us. In fact, we're making them up, right now, in this very discussion. And how do we enforce them? By yelling at violators in races, shunning them afterwards, and heaping praises on those who conform. In other words, just the way that community norms are always enforced: social pressure. So in this discussion, we're not arguing about something already out there, somewhere in Plato's heaven, so much as we are making it happen.

Why should we have any norms that go beyond the rules? Why not let the rules stand as they are and just let people race as they see fit, no praising, shunning, or whatever?

We can't help it, for one. Just as we can't help but admire a solo break, we feel a natural, instinctive sympathy for the guy with his nose in the wind who's trying to make a break stick. It's hard not to feel he's earned some kind of reward for that effort. And it's hard not to feel annoyance when the wheelsucker jumps out and sprints past.

But the bigger factor is that we race the same people again and again. If it were a one shot deal, then yeah, the best thing to do is to get dragged to the finish and sprint. Who cares what people think? But when you develop a reputation as a wheelsucker, it'll hurt you in the end, and if you take your pulls, it'll help you. So, the community spreads your reputation around, whether it's good or bad, and that does everyone a service. That's the basic point of The Robot Diary post.

The relevant analogy is a single prisoner's dilemma, versus an indefinitely iterated prisoner's dilemma. The heuristics developed to play those two games successfully are totally different. In the first case, there's a dominant strategy: always defect. In the second, you go tit for tat.

Cycling makes me think about how norms evolved in general. Here in cycling, we have an explanation for our norms that doesn't appeal to utilitarianism or deontology or divine command theory or natural law, just the self interest of a community engaged in iterated prisoner's dilemmas. Interesting.


jared said...

The different needs and perspectives are exactly what makes road races and crits so much more fun that time trials. That's why cycling gets compared to chess and not rock-paper-scissors.

A little history: we don't hear anything about Kant's cycling career because he was so predictable--driving the break--and never got any wins because all the sprinters pimped him at the line.

On the flip side, everyone knows Kierkegaard was great. He had that awesome 2100 watt sprint and never hesitated to sit in and use it.

qualia said...

No doubt. Kierkegaard would have been the most entertaining cyclist. He wrote in many pseudonymous voices, embraced paradox.

"Cycling, beyond the Ethical stage!"

I think we know where Kant what would ride too: just the crit that loops around Konigsberg.

Anonymous said...

The thread on the MABRA board just became grating after a while.

In contract, this post is quite refreshing. Thank you.