Group Dynamics In Cycling

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One of the exciting things about starting a cycling season is the new clubs, teams, groups and kits that come out of the woodwork.  However, some of those groups completely implode by the middle of the season because of conflicting personalities.   I’ve seen it over and over again.  The novelty and excitement of new bikes, kits, etc only lasts for so long before everyone’s true colors come out (sometimes good, sometimes bad).  Cyclists can be a bunch of drama queens.

I’m very fortunate.  The cycling team I’ve been a part of since I moved to Australia has been incredible.  Of course there’s the odd hiccup but that’s to be expected.  Everyone’s expectations are clear and therefore there are very few disagreements. Everyone is eager to work for each other in races, we all share our successes and failures, and we simply get along.

My good friend TommyP is a Organisational Psychologist and we sometimes have discussions on the silly dramas and rivalries that can form in within our local cycling teams.   I asked TommyP to write a post for us explaining some group dynamics and how it relates to the cycling groups we form.

Group Dynamics In Cycling

by Tom “Tommy P” Pietkiewicz

I am a registered  Organisational Psychologist and a sometimes competitive cyclist. When I am riding well I can almost keep up with CT on a training ride…almost. My work involves working with business leaders on various aspects of people in their companies. This includes: Leadership, Development, Effectiveness, Teamwork, Productivity, Recruitment, Succession, Takeovers / Mergers and so on. What is perhaps not immediately clear is how many parallels there are between organisations and cycling. If you can imagine a bunch of riders to be like an organisation made up of people with individual motivations, traits and skills but also common goals and a need to work together, we can start applying many learning’s from the business world.

I have compiled a number of facts and research topics on group dynamics and applied the findings to cycling. This may assist you in understanding group processes for your personal advantage of course.

1. Groups form naturally

Grouping is built into our nature. Studies have found that even the slightest set of common circumstances will begin the formation of a group. If you start riding with a group at a certain time, or from a certain place regularly the process will begin. You will start building your identity based on the group norms and will look for common ground with members. You will actually begin to favour people that you associate with your groups.

2. Joining Groups

Groups will build further identity by having some kind of initiation requirements. You might need to get over a hill at a certain rate or be able to roll turns at a certain pace to become a member. Some groups will have team clothing or other specific requirements. Groups want to test you but also expect you to value your membership. Don’t be a “floozy” and try to be a member of every group or you will not blend with any.

3. Conforming

Once in a group we start to search for group norms and apply our behaviour accordingly. This is a very powerful process and many people will often act against their own judgment in order to preserve group norms. Immediately we can think of the big bunch rides. Think of the various training rides that you do. Each have a certain ‘feel’ or ‘character’ that becomes established with newcomers simply playing along based on what they see. If anyone rides the Thursday night Tour de Burbs in Melbourne you will notice a number of traditions. Riding at a high pace through some sections, slow through others. Racing for certain climbs, regrouping. No one really reinforces these, they have developed and now persist even if membership changes over years.  A good example to mention is some of the lawlessness that develops on bunch rides. People will run red lights if they think this is acceptable in the group. CT and others have made efforts to change these norms. If enough core and influential members change the group behaviour the rest will simply conform. Many respected riders now choose to avoid some of these rides but a better option is to attend and show leadership.

4. Don’t fit: get out.

Group norms are very powerful. If your group is about Euro style and you wear the wrong length/colour socks, don’t match jersey to knicks or don’t clean your bike, you will soon know about it. If your group is a bunch of hard-men, skipping a few turns and slacking off on training rides will soon result in you not being invited on rides. Alternatively, often attacking a group who is more about just enjoying the riding will have you riding all alone also.

Additionally every group has a member who does not quite fit in. The group will keep this person in but ridicule and point out the various issues. This person is called a Scapegoat and almost every group has one. They play an important role as the group unites and reinforces their values by picking on the Scapegoat. The Scapegoat also is likely to enjoy a level of notoriety.  O2’s CJ is a good example. With his wrong kit or terrible socks. All criticisms are out the window, though, when he puts the group in the gutter on an epic suffer-fest.

5. Leadership

A leader plays a very important role in a group. It is impossible to simply just assume this role. Most leaders emerge slowly and subtly. Studies have shown that a successful leader is one that fitted the group so well that they have gained trust and acceptance and can then start suggesting new ideas, activities. I always think of Mario Cipollini who was the guardian and leader of the bunch and could set the tempo for a stage, organise a chase or just bring others into line. He most likely exhibited all the traits that many others aspired to and wanted to embody and probably saw as the reasons they become professional cyclists. He was stylish, successful and embodied the whole Euro-pro lifestyle. Think of who this is in your group, it is likely a person who does a lot to keep the group going. Sends emails, organises rides, suggests races you can all try etc. You can’t just enter a group and make a lot of noise. No one will follow.

6. Performance

Riding with others can make us more competitive. We want to beat our friends. We want to get to the top of a climb near the front of our group. At the same time, comfort in a group can make us more likely to “slack off”. A famous study found that in a tug of war, each person in a team of 8 put in only half as much effort as when on their own. Now we have all seen this on the bike. People not pulling turns, expecting others to chase. In fact, the bigger the group and tasks are additive rather than individual, the more likely members will “slack off” to a very large degree. When you are in a break of 4, for example, you are more likely to work your guts out. This is why many relatively small breaks can get away in amateur cycling. I guess the Pro guys would not be Pro for too long if they “slacked off”. No doubt this is why many Pro teams use power meters in races to have effort clearly visible and manageable.

7. Competition

Once groups form an identity we start thinking of “them-vs-us”. This can become quite extreme. This is easily observable on in any local club’s weekly World Criterium Championships. You will notice an explosion in the number of teams in matching outfits. These guys are not professionals but enjoy the increased competition and comradery that group dynamics can provide. Studies have found that group members not only display far more competiveness when part of a group but also begin to distrust and dislike the other groups. Even when you know individual members of other groups you are likely to form a slight (or strong) negative opinion of the group as a whole. I guess this makes racing a whole lot more fun.

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