Emergent order – Bicycling edition

The peloton during the 2005 Tour de France. Cl...

Hey! Slow down!

As an avid cyclist since just about the time that I could keep the bike upright, I was pleasantly surprised to recently discover emergent order in cycling.

While reading the most recent Bicycling magazine, I took the ten question quiz entitled Group Dynamics.

The quiz covers the etiquette of riding with a group of other riders (a.k.a. “pack” or “peleton”).

For example, here’s question 1:

It’s your turn at the front. You gracefully slide into position, then. . .
A. Accelerate to drag the line with you.
B. Maintain the average pace of the group.
C. Adjust your speed to accommodate all levels of effort within the pack.

I scored 10 of 10.

I never took a class or read a book about group riding etiquette.  I had adopted these unwritten rules informally through decades of observation, experience and interaction with other riders in local group rides.

I found it amazing that my understanding on etiquette lined up perfectly with the editors of a magazine who live thousands of miles away.  This is exactly what is meant by the term emergent order.

These rules of etiquette have emerged without design.  Just plain folks naturally developing, adopting and enforcing standards and customs of interaction in the real world and in real time.  There was no committee or governing body of cycling who designed these rules.  And even without design or documentation (save for this quiz), the rules appear to be remarkably consistent across different localities.

These rules are propagated and perpetuated by informal enforcement.  In one of my regular local group rides, that we call Hammerfest (which is itself a message to beginners that we don’t wait for them), we occasionally get a new rider who is not familiar with these rules.

When we start on the flat part of our normal course, we form a pace line to work against the wind and take turns at the front.  When its the new person’s turn to block the wind, almost invariably, he or she will commit party foul A (see above) by accelerating above the pace that has been established.

And, invariably, some of the experienced riders correct the behavior. The corrective action usually takes the form of sarcastic comments as the new person floats to the back of the paceline.  Wow, is your speedometer working?  You really pushed up the pace.  We were doing 22 and you pushed it to 26. 

Or, they might retaliate nonverbally by pushing the pace harder when the new guy is trying to grab onto the draft at the back of the paceline after having buried himself while taking his turn up front.

There are other enforcements, but these two are common and usually have the desired effect.  The new guy receives the message that he needs to evaluate the pace before he takes the lead and keep it close (usually +/- 1 mph) to that when it is his turn on front.  He modifies his behavior and the group dynamic is preserved.



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