Bike Racing and Cooperation...

I've been writing blogs on how the Prisoner's Dilemma can be seen in action in the banking crisis (It's Only Taken Three Years...) and in the housing market (Games Theory and the Estate Agent) - and yesterday we saw Games Theory ideas in action in the Olympic road race. 

It's Games Theory that drives the plot of my first novel, The Defector, and in particular a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD). If you haven't come across it before, I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or you can check out a much more technical take in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

If you're going to read on, please get to grips with the Prisoner's Dilemma first!

The peloton is a place where everyone has to decide whether to cooperate or defect. The co-operators take their turn at the front, while the defectors hide in the bunch, freewheeling in the slipstream and hoping to conserve their energy for the sprint at the end.

We can see this in PD terms - all the cooperators give themselves the same chance at winning if they all do even amounts of work at the front. But there's a big benefit to defecting when everyone else cooperates, as the energy conserved would give you a massive advantage in the final sprint.

If it was that simple, it would turn into a slow bike race pretty quickly, as everyone would defect and huddle into the centre like penguins in the Antarctic. What makes it more complex is the fact that you can defect in a different way, by trying for a break-away. If the peloton dawdles then one or more riders have the opportunity to sprint away from the group and build a lead that can't be broken down before the finish.

This is another form of defection. Instead of cooperating and riding together to break the back of the 150+ miles - and then seeing who's the strongest and fastest at the end - let's just see who's strongest by riding hard and trying to break the peloton up the whole way. Until we have a last man standing.

This scenario is made more complex because the riders are working in smaller teams, and those teams have different interests depending on the make-up of their team. The teams with the best sprinters have the biggest interest in the race finishing with everyone in a single bunch. So a race would normally develop with the teams with sprinters cooperating to try to control the peloton and keep them together, taking it in turns at the front of the peloton to haul in any breakaways.

Meanwhile, those teams lacking sprinting power will defect - not take any of the load, and do everything they can to get one of their teammates into a decent breakaway.

What happened yesterday was unusual, in that only one team was interested in the peloton finishing together in a mass-bunch sprint. And that was Team GBR. Everyone in the race knew that Mark Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world, and that he would almost certainly win a bunch sprint to take gold. They all figured that the normal reward for cooperation had evaporated - taking it in turns at the front was pointless, as Cavendish would win the resulting sprint.

And so the normal rules went out the window, they all defected, either tucking into the peloton to conserve energy and see what happened, or constantly trying to engineer a break-away, but... But perhaps this was actually a form of cooperation. The rest of the peloton shared an interest in breaking the normal race strategy - defection became cooperation, and vice versa.

The outcome was pretty inevitable - Cavendish had around him the strongest individual riders in the world. But faced with an entire peloton unwilling to cooperate in engineering a massed bunch sprint at the end, it was too much work. Eventually, one of those breakaways was going to work - and in the end, it did. It was followed by a couple more, and the group splintered until there was only one man in the final breakaway. And that was Alexandr Vinokurov, gold medallist and last man standing.

And that will definitely be it for this blog until September... I'll see you back here in the autumn.