Sunk costs and the long distance cyclist

July 24, 2015

20150718_145414Cycling’s most potent mythology is best signified by the death of Tom Simpson: continuation past the point where the returns diminish to zero or less is admired by many even where it is frankly pathological. In order to meet the demands of this myth, it is no surprise that some resort to doping, or make other physically or mentally disastrous decisions. As riders prepare hopefully for Paris Brest Paris, the Race Across America or the Transcontinental (starting tonight in Belgium) they probably hope that they will not have to go beyond the bounds of rationality to finish, but by the very nature of even the shortest of these challenges (no longer a race) demands a suspension of belief even for repeat entrant. The exposure of the body to such sustained repetitive action is unpredictable but always extreme, and even the least imaginative of riders will know that they will have to proceed beyond any normal definitions of plausibility. Such prospective irrationality only gets worse as a rider accumulates time and distance leading to bizarre and sometimes catastrophic failures which could be minimised by stopping hours or days earlier. However, it is almost impossible to judge whether continuing is rational or not: when even starting goes against common sense, how can one decide when to stop? Riders’ accounts demonstrate that successful completion can come despite all the signals to stop, and for supported rides the rider’s team are often better judges, making their decisions based upon more rational bases. Even support teams, however, can suffer from the sunk loss fallacy. If continuing past an obstacle brings failure there is no advantage in continuing, yet riders continue until they fall asleep whilst riding (and crash), ignore injuries that will eventually lead to abandoning, or carry on rising despite the unlikely average speed required to meet a time limit. As the distance increases so does the investment, and the magnitude of the potential loss. Of course, the paradox is that it is incredibly hard to tell where the threshold between a reasonable decision to continue and abandonment lies. Viewed from outside the world of the long distance racer Josh Ibbet’s decision-making on the way to his second place in last year’s Transcontinental looks foolhardy. Judged purely on outcome, however, his decision to ride through pain and exhaustion was successful (if costly). If such decisions were made on irrational grounds, and merely to avoid discarding sunk costs, that hardly matters unless you permanently injure yourself… as long as you make your goals. As an aside, the result of abandoning the investment one has made can be a transfer of that energy into surprising alternate goals. Martin Cox’s extraordinary decisions to transfer his energies from racing to cleaning up the Stelvio and helping out an injured companion of the road are examples of constructive ways of dealing with what might otherwise look like losses.

What does any of this have to do with me? I sank time, money, effort and spirit into my attempt to ride Paris Brest Paris this year. I prepared well, and pre-qualified last year to get an early entry by completing my first Super Randonneur series in 2014. And yet I gave up on my final qualifying ride of 2015, unlike @fabiorandonneur, who endured many challenges and qualified last minute by completing a 400 under extremely painful circumstances. I overslept in the night after a very bad run from Castleford to Mytholmroyd and completely lost my will to continue. Although officially out of time I could have tried to continue with the hope of catching up on the rather flatter final 225 km of the East and West Coasts 600, but after about 10 km of grovelling into a headwind I returned home and slept for about 18 hours on and off. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but after20150720_113944 tears came resignation and the memory of an enjoyable first section before I collapsed in the night.

The story didn’t end there, however. Unlike Martin Cox I didn’t manage to sublimate my drive into anything selfless. I did, however, complete a similar route last weekend in 37 hours (validated by GPS), an hour quicker than last year, to complete my SR series for 2015. It was alone, unsupported and beautiful, leading to no glory in Paris, but the return on my investments was just right, thank you, including fish and chips at 500 km.

Follow the much more invested riders of the Transcontinental, including Martin Cox on his second attempt, here:

http://www.transcontinental.cc/


Medication and long-distance cycling: post 600 thoughts

June 19, 2014
Desgrange on a bike

Henri Desgrange rides a Brevet Randonneur

I have written a lot about doping here, especially in relation to competitive cycling. Since I do not race, this is fairly neutral territory, and I can at least maintain a degree of objectivity. Recent discussion of the use of strong pain killers such as Tramadol, and of medical interventions for asthma and other respiratory issue in professional cycling, and my recent encounter with pain and injury has brought this all a little closer to home. Any medication can enhance performance, and the ethical issues here are complex: many athletes could not compete at all without asthma medication, and there are many situations where anti-inflammatory medication or an analgesic would be perfectly reasonable to enable someone to continue with a minor injury. I would suggest that there are three issues that limit such medical intervention in competition, notwithstanding chronic conditions which require maintenance:

  1. the injury or condition should not be made worse by the use of medication;
  2. the medication should not enhance the athlete’s performance above their baseline without such medication; and
  3. the medication should be within the rules of the sport.

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Performance for 25 Passing Vehicles – John Reid

December 14, 2013

A naked body lies beside the side of a desolate highway, close to a road sign, next to the carcass of a kangaroo. 25 cars pass…

I met John Reid, the Australian artist, at a conference in Bavaria in 2001. His ‘paper’ turned from an account of his early work into a live performance of The fishman of SE Australia. The transition between the two halves was disturbingly subtle, and left me, how shall I put it, freaked out.

Just a man talking, and a slide projector showing some photographs of the wilderness, with something in it…

The earlier work (Performance for 25 Passing Vehicles) of his came to mind when I was considering the effect getting into a car has on our relationship with the environment, with people, with wildlife.


Quick jaunt to the Humber Estuary

August 21, 2013

Kilnsea bendWhat could possibly go wrong? A week of intense work stress and very little sleep followed by my first 400km Audax (randonnée, brevet) in 10 years. Actually, quite a lot, as it turned out, but little of it to do with my physical condition… after all, I know I can cope without sleep and I have more kms in my legs thus far this year than I have achieved since my 20s.

After finishing the ride (I won’t keep you in suspense) I have quite a lot to think about: some good, some bad, and even some very, very ugly!

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1994

June 13, 2012

I used to be in an Experimental Rock Band, and I guess that is how I met @accidentobizaro. She knew our bassist’s girlfriend through her housemate/landlord (that’s a long story in itself).

I knew she cycled.

She knew I played live in a transparent plastic cape (yes, that kind of Experimental).

That is where Chris Boardman comes in: I was taken out by a car driver on the Essex Road cycling back to my flat to watch the Tour de France  coverage, Boardman having won the prologue that year and the Tour being  in Britain for a few days (Sean Yates wore yellow that year too). When I finally spoke to her on the phone that day (from our bassist’s flat, where I was hiding and feeling sorry for myself) I was in a state of ill repair, having left a man-sized dent in a saloon car, and suffered bruising and minor cuts. I wasn’t a very confident guy back then, and I think the accident helped me to loosen up…

I remember that day and people’s kindness and love so well. I never really thanked the couple that looked after me and transported me home in their van with my bike, or the St John’s Ambulance guy who checked me over by the road side.

We are still together in 2012 but part of me is still in 1994, at the beginning of things. I cycled to our first date…


Vroomen visited my steerer tube…

November 5, 2011

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Has @gerardvroomen has been at my new Kinesis Grand Fondo? seriously though, I did cut off 3cm to avoid being too unslammed and find a nice compromise for my dodgy back…


Sport and concussion: anecdotes, research and action

July 9, 2011

Yesterday’s Tour de France stage saw one rider abandon with concussion (only after other riders complained he was a danger to them) and another ride to the finish after having fairly obvious concussive symptoms. Many sports have had issues with traumatic brain injury (TBI), and have had to issue increasingly detailed guidance on how to identify TBI, and what to do. Rugby Union, for example, provides a range of guidance to officials to ensure that players with suspected TBI are not permitted to continue. It was reassuring to see one team doctor, Prentice Steffen, of Garmin Cervelo, looking for the same thing in cycling, prompted partly by Julian Dean’s experience after crashing in this year’s Volta a Catalunya.

Both my father and his best friend played contact sports. Both had experiences where they played on through concussion. Both had neurological problems in their sixties. Of course, these problems might have occurred anyway, but the link between moderate to severe TBI and later onset neurological disorders is well-founded.

Watching someone being encouraged to continue to compete after clear signs of TBI disgusts me, and this is what it looked like happened yesterday in the case of Chris Horner (whether such encouragement was implict or explicit). What on earth are medical professionals thinking when they permit such nonsense? Not only do they risk further crashes or exacerbating an original injury, they show how basic medical sense is being overruled by sporting motives. Of course, we can all miss the signs of concussion, but that is why clear guidance is necessary from the top down, and needs to be applied consistently.


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