The Tour de France – the world’s greatest bike race – ended yesterday. The Pan-Mass Challenge – America’s greatest cycling fund raiser – takes place this coming weekend. In honor of those two major cycling events, I’m reviving an essay I wrote twelve years ago about cycling and the wave/particle duality. (Hey – blogs didn’t exist in 1997!)
Many people who are not avid cyclists – or French – have a hard time understanding bike racing. What they usually get from the mass media focuses on the individual accomplishments of riders like Lance Armstrong or Greg Lemond. A lot of people are surprised to learn that bike racing is really a team sport.
Especially in America, where we constantly hear arguments based on the idea that we must chose between either individualism or collectivism, the idea that the interests of both the individual and the group are intertwined seems alien and unfathomable.
In spite of any preconceptions we may harbor, the fact is that bike racing, and high performance cycling in general, revolve around this both/and dynamic of group and individual interests. For those of us avid riders and Tour followers, the interplay between these interests is part of what makes cycling so appealing.
What I’ve said so far is pretty abstract; my essay spells things out more clearly. The only thing I’d note is that it was written twelve years ago; I’m not quite so speedy on a bike these days…
During the summer, I spend a fair amount of time on a bicycle, riding over 3,000 miles per year. I find cycling offers a number of benefits, including better health, an enhanced sense of self, and the opportunity to explore the suburban and rural countryside in New York State’s Capital Region. It also gives me a lot of time to think. And sometimes, cycling gives me an insight that could be pertinent to living in the Quantum Age.
To introduce you to this particular insight, let me begin by telling you about my cycling experiences over the course of a week in July, 1997.
On Tuesday, I decide to squeeze in a quick solo ride after work. I ride from my house to the nearby state office and university campuses, each ringed with a lightly traveled access road. The route is generally flat and I’m able to ride at what feels like a fairly quick and constant speed. After a little over an hour of riding, I return home, having ridden at an average speed of 18.2 miles per hour for 19 miles.
On Thursday, I meet a group of friends for our weekly ride. On this sunny summer evening, I ride with the group up and down over the rolling countryside of southern Albany County. Although we’re often cruising at 20 to 28 miles per hour on the flat stretches, I’m feeling relaxed and enjoy some spectacular views southward to the dark green peaks of the Catskills, looming over bright green fields glowing in the late day sun. However, after an hour or so I begin to feel the effects of the hills we’ve been climbing, as well as an apprehension about a long, steady hill I know we’ll have to deal with near the end of the ride. Near the turn for this hill, I slow a bit to drink some water and consume a packet of energy gel. In doing so, I get slightly separated from the pack. This separation widens when I see the group go by the turn we’re supposed to take for the big hill. I slow a bit and yell to them that they’d missed the turn, but they continue down a steady grade. I try to speed up to catch them, but they fade gradually from view. I continue on my own, not as quickly as before, but fast enough to finish with an average speed of 18.3 miles per hour over 32 miles.
On Saturday, seven of us gather in the morning at a lake house in Bolton, on the west shore of Lake George in the Adirondacks. Our planned route is fairly straightforward: ride around Lake George. We start out shortly after 9 AM, heading south to Lake George Village. We ride easily as we warm up, focused on the steady flow of traffic passing on our left as it heads south to the village. But as we head east out of the village, we pick up our pace. When we stop in Whitehall to take a short break after riding 35 miles, our average speed is 21 mph. This average drops a bit on the rolling hills between Whitehall and Ticonderoga, and drops some more as we ride over Tongue Mountain on the way down the west side of the lake back to Bolton. Still, we average 18.4 mph for the entire 94 mile ride.
There are many things cyclists disagree about, from what is the best bike equipment to where the best places to ride are. However, pretty much every road cyclist will agree that it’s easier and faster riding in a group than riding by oneself. This is generally attributed to the aerodynamic benefits that come from cyclists taking turns drafting in the pack. But I think there is something else at work here as well.
As I’ve noted before, through quantum physics we know that everything can be seen as both a wave and a particle. However, we are accustomed to thinking of people from an individual, particle perspective. If we see a group of cyclists riding together, we tend to think that they are staying together through the individual effort of each rider, and that the only benefit they get from this grouping is aerodynamics. And from a particle perspective, we’re right.
But there is another, less tangible benefit at work here. Riders in a group will often feel a higher level of energy, as well as an inclination to “get in synch” with the others in the group. This can lead to a higher level of performance. The effect is like that of waves moving in the same direction: just as such waves amplify each other and create a larger wave, riders in a group can amplify each other’s performance.
But this doesn’t just apply to those riding within the aerodynamic “cocoon” of the group. Individual riders close to the group may feel this effect as well. If I suddenly see a group coming up behind me, I may feel a rise in my energy level, urging me to either stay ahead of them or (more likely) to prepare for the faster pace I’ll need to maintain to keep up with them when they catch me. If I’m close behind, I will push myself to speed up and join the group. In either case, my attention will tend to focus on the group, and my inclination will be to synchronize my pace with its own.
However, there appear to be several variables that can alter this effect.
One is the difference in speed between the individual and the group. If a group is going either too fast or too slow, I will not feel much inclined to join them and will feel little effect from our passing each other. I have to be going at close to the same speed as the group for me to feel the effect of their presence. Even if I do join the group, the effect will be more or less powerful depending on how closely I feel in synch to the group’s pace. If they’re going somewhat faster or slower than I’m inclined to go, I may gradually feel less attuned to the group’s energy and either break away or drop behind.
Another variable is the size of a group. All other things being equal, I will feel more energized from a group of 50 than I will from a group of 2 or 3. It is as if the larger the group, the more anonymous I become and the more I can lose myself in it. By giving a part of myself over to the group, my sense of my own aches, pains and limitations seems diminished, and I’m able to perform at a higher level.
One other variable is the distance between myself and the group. The farther behind or in front of me the group is, the less effect I’ll feel from it and the less inclined I’ll feel to join it. If the group is too far behind, I’ll be inclined to disregard it until it gets close enough to judge its speed and size. If I’m too far behind a group I’ve been dropped by, I will get a sense that it is out of reach and adjust my pace to a rate I can sustain by myself. However, if I catch a glimpse of a group ahead of me that I hadn’t seen before, I may quicken my pace a little to see if I can catch up to it.
While I have been discussing this phenomena in terms of cycling, it can be seen in many other areas of life as well. I believe it is at work on the highway, where you can often see cars grouped together in packs while other stretches of highway are virtually empty. It could also apply to spectator sports, in which teams often seem to play much better “at home” then they do “on the road.” It might even explain why people tend to live together in villages or cities, and why the energy level and tension seems to be higher in areas with higher population densities.
Some of the problems we face today come from our thinking of people only from the individual/particle perspective, disregarding the importance of our simultaneous group/wave nature. Laws often appear to be written to prohibit individual behaviors, usually without due consideration of the social or group dynamics that might be encouraging such prohibited behaviors. Social programs often seem to focus on an individual’s needs for food and shelter, without consideration of his or her needs for social interaction and involvement. And in the workplace managers frequently relate to workers as a collection of isolated individuals, disregarding the subculture of the work group that is usually the ultimate shaper of employees’ values and beliefs.
In the midst of all this, we tend to view our selves as solitary souls, overwhelmed and powerless against the monolithic corporations, bureaucracies and other obstacles that confront us. We describe ourselves as merely “cogs in the machine” or “pawns in the game of life.” And all too often we avoid confronting the stupidity or inhumanity we encounter, settling instead for an uneasy peace.
Maybe we need to broaden our perspective, and recognize the power that can come from our wave-nature as well. Life is a balance between the particle and the wave, between the individual and the group. And just as an expert cyclist recognizes that maximum performance comes from being able to ride both alone and in a group, maybe we need to transcend our one-dimensional Newtonian solitude and draw power from our quantum duality.