The Peloton’s Dilemma

I’ve greatly enjoyed the London 2012 fever that’s gripped the country, and have spent many happy hours watching sports I know nothing about. One such event was the men’s cycling road race. It may sound like watching people cycle along a road for the best part of 6 hours is only one grade above watching paint drying for excitement, but you’d be wrong. With my evolutionary biologist hat on, I was transfixed by the strategies of cooperation and competition that were being played out before me.

So the basic deal is this: leading the pack as a cyclist costs you heavily in terms of energy, so people must take turns leading, and share the benefits of being in the slip stream. Added to this, many were in teams, with four of five team mates taking the burden of leading the pack, and working together to protect their one ‘sprinter’ team mate, so he would stay in the best part of the slip stream during the race, and save his energy for the gold-rush at the end.

In the case of Team GB we had Mark Cavendish as our great hope for Gold, with his GB team mates, including Bradley Wiggins, who won the Tour de France the week before. We were massive favourites for gold, and because of this, we did not win gold. The reason was simple: the other members of the peloton (the main pack of cyclists) decided to free-ride on the efforts of team GB, and not help lead the pack. Their logic being that team GB were going for gold, so they would surely do what was needed to ensure the peloton stayed near the leaders.

Anyone who watched it, will know the result: team GB were unable to catch up on the leading pack, and Mark ended in 29th place. Afterwards some people blamed the Australian and German cyclists for not helping enough to lead the peloton as the explanation for the loss.

My question is this: does the same sort of ‘tragedy of the strong’ happen in nature? Imagine we have a group, where only a minority can reproduce and that reproduction is skewed (like gold, silver and bronze…gold is valued far higher than bronze) and that the only way of having a chance of reproducing at the end of ones life, is by cooperating together at the start. To match the cycling analogy, we could image the group is composed of sub-groups of relatives, who indirectly benefit from reproduction (like the national teams) – this effectively helps to amplify the inequalities in strength within the group. If our starting condition is one of inequality, might it happen that if you have one family group / individual that is better than the others that a tragedy of the commons type situation might arise because the other, weaker, groups will try to avoid cooperating and instead free ride on the efforts of the dominant group in order to sneak a silver or bronze position? Might this be relevant for, say, breeding where juvenile males might live together, but at some point will become competitors for mates?

It’s cool to think that watching hours of cycling races might help illuminate questions about life histories with cooperative and competitive phases and inequalities between individuals…at least I can justify watching the Tour de France in the name of science!