Survival of the Collaboratingest

Ticking away the solo miles leaves plenty of time to think and ponder and get awful songs stuck on repeat. When I get to roads that I’ve raced on or tackled in groups, I often muse on how much slower one person is compared to a pack. Rolling south on 9W, I know that when I’m feeling good, the speed I’m managing on the flats is easily 5mph less than what we’d manage in a strong, well-practiced group.

The remote living we’re affecting these days brings into stark relief how social even the least sociable of us is. But what seems largely to be forgotten is that humanity got to where it is because of our ability to work together. Collaboration, not competition is what advanced the species.

Like many cyclists, I typically do a Sunday group ride in the winter. Like many, I love a good, hard ride that leaves me empty by the end. At one time, that meant I wanted to hit every hill at 100% and still have 100% for the final 30 minutes of hammering that finishes the ride (maybe math isn’t a strong suit). Over time, I saw that if we controlled the pace on the early hills, limiting how hard the group went over them, we’d be faster in the final 30 minutes, and have a faster overall ride.

The logic is simple. The key is to not wear out the weakest riders on the hills, so they have strength left to contribute in the finale.   Limit their time spent on the red zone, going only as fast as they can handle without blowing up, you won’t have to stop to regroup over the top of the hills, and they’ll have more energy to ride the paceline at the end. It also has the benefit of the stronger riders also having more left for the end.   Everyone wins.

Collaborative thinking also extends to racing. The more you work with fellow racers for longer, the faster you’ll go. It’s how breakaways succeed. It’s why racers share food, why a team will feed, even give a spare wheel to a rival. And the good turns aren’t forgotten. Paying it forward has long-term benefits as well.

Reality is that collaboration is essential to our lives. If each person had to build her own shelter, raise, grow, and prepare his own food, create her own clothes, etc, we’d never have time to read a book written by another person (let alone edited by a second person, typeset by a third, printed by a fourth, delivered by a fifth, sold by a sixth), listen to music played by another person (on an instrument created by a second person, fixed by a third, from materials made by a fourth and fifth), watch a play staged by a group of people, even ride a bicycle (many people go into the creation of this tool). Having the time to learn to read would be dependent on luck after utilizing tools created by other people to make your effort easier.

In this vein, I don’t understand myths about “the west.” I don’t know what life was like when white people moved into “the frontier” but my guess is that most people lived very near a water source and very near some kind of outpost. Just a remove from water makes life pretty hard. And doing everything oneself makes even subsistence farming or scavenging, or living as a hunter-gatherer, difficult for a single person or even a small family. Dividing at labor makes life that much easier.

While we may never be able to determine when collaboration began and how much it matters compared to competition, it seems clear that the individualist bent imagined by the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” framework was too narrow. It has been suggested that the idea came to be as a result of economic ideas in vogue at the time. The individual as everything stands in contrast to a more systemic worldview, like an ecosystem. Or, as told in South Park, the cycle of poo.

Fitting that the New York Times Magazine just ran a feature on “The Social Life of Forests.” Turns out, there’s more and more evidence that a forest ecosystem not only interdependent when it comes to things like fruits and flowers and fallen leaves, but the root systems of trees work together, even with differing species, to seemingly help the ecosystem thrive, not just single trees maximizing and outcompeting for resources. This has obvious implications in regards to the difficulty of growing forests after clear-cutting, but it also has implications and metaphors well beyond the old-growth forests studied.

I broke a front wheel in October. I want to rebuild it myself. I need a shop to order the spokes, nipples, rim, and rim strip. They need a delivery team to bring the parts from the distributor(s) warehouse. The distributor needs workers to ship the stuff out, put the stuff in place, order the stuff, and coordinate with another delivery team that brings the parts from the factory. The factory needs people to ship the stuff out, store the stuff, make the stuff, bring in the raw materials, coordinate a delivery team to get the raw materials. The raw materials come from somewhere, and it takes a team to get the raw materials out of the ground as well. To get the components there’s a pretty large chain involving many people. If any step of that chain breaks down, I can’t get my wheel built, and everyone is less well off.

And those people can’t live in isolation. Lets assume they all work 40 hours a week and have 72 hours a week where they interact with people outside of work, and those interactions are also just a small part of huge chains of people—the meal they eat at a restaurant, the movie they see in a theatre, the purchase of the inevitable supplies they need to keep going. A large percentage of the population lives with at least one person from another generation, and a big subset of that lives with at least one person from two other generations, and for millions of families, at-home childcare in the form of a grandparent or senior relative, is essential to the family’s survival, allowing one generation to work for the other two at home.

Isolation is impossible. There were Covid outbreaks in prisons at least as early as April, 2020. By then, Covid had already ravaged nursing homes. Unless the staff is isolating with the inmates or patients, and they aren’t interacting at all with the outside world in any way, the virus was going to come in eventually. And those are just easily identified vulnerable populations. Any public-facing worker, a cashier, a waiter, a sales clerk, a teacher, could easily interact with hundreds of people in a day. That worker may be vulnerable, and might live with one or more vulnerable people, and even if they don’t the people they interact with may be vulnerable or the people they live with may interact with vulnerable people.

We are all connected. All our interactions, no matter how simple or local or small, are touched, in some way, by many strangers in other places, often in other countries.

The image at the top of this article is of the United States team time trial squad in flight at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The team of Ron Kiefel, Roy Knickman, Andy Weaver, and Davis Phinney rode the 100k test in 2:02:46. The winning time was set by Italy at 1:58:28, nearly four minutes faster, with the Swiss team going 2:02:38, only eight seconds faster. Not only were the riders working with each other, but coaches worked with the riders, physiologists, aerodynamicists, and more. The bikes were supposed to give them an edge, with aero tubing, narrowed front hubs, 24” front wheels to make drafting more efficient, teardrop tubing, a single big ring, and brakes and shift levers hidden from the wind. All good. But the team decided to ride spoked wheels rather than discs; supposedly Phinney was concerned about crosswinds. The Italian team rode double discs.



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