Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Cycling Teams and the Argentine Ant
Sometime two centuries ago a ship carried Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) from South America to Europe. The Argentine ants spread out, eventually building a colony over 3,700 miles long. The Argentine ant eventually formed a super-colony that now covers the globe and "could rival humans in the scale of its world domination."
Much of their success is due to their passivity with each other. Argentine ants from Japan and Spain, when put together, rub antenaes and act like old friends. Unlike other ants, different nests of Argentina ants don't attack each other. Ants from one colony mix freely from ants with another colony.
In the struggle for survival and domination, ant wars are not so different from bike races. They're contests for limited resources: ants wage war with their genetic strengths and fitness; cyclists do the same. So does every living thing. Warriors and racers balance cooperation and competitiveness, choosing who to aid and who to hurt.
As I've raced longer, I've gotten to know riders from other teams. I've come to respect some of them and to wish them well, which presents me with a dilemma. The point of racing on a team is to see our boys dominate and to see their boys fail. That's part of the joy of team sports, the thrill of the us/them. The us/them urge is a dangerous urge, being the foundation for racism, sexism, nepotism, xenophobia, and all manner of evil. It's also fun, especially when you succeed, and convince yourself that our boys are indeed better than their boys.
Unless it's Rangers vs. Celtic (see Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World), sports are a fairly harmless expression of groupthink. It's unlikely that NCVC will morph into a nationalist socialist party. The Bike Rack will not patrol the Mexican border to keep out illegal aliens. Sports teams, and especially cycling teams, are cooperative collectives, where individuals work together for the good of the whole.
In this, they're different from many other team sports, which are direct competitions against other teams. Two teams, one match or series, and one winner. Not so in cycling. While you do race against others, you find yourself in fluid alliances with others, moving in and out of friendship dozens of times in a race. The difficulty in cycling is the fluidity of these friendships: you continually discard and pick up alliances.
This challenge of alliances is there at the top levels of cycling. Contador and Valverde blatantly worked together in the Dauphine. The two Spaniards were practically rubbing antenae. Poor Cadel Evans. No Australian was around to give him any help.
The point of bike racing, really, is to crush everyone else. No way around it. If you just like riding your bike, go do a century. No one's stopping you. If you're not strong enough to crush everyone on your own, join a team. You can take some satisfaction in the success of your teammates. But recognize it for what it is--a game, not a war for global domination.