Over the weekend, I competed in Ski To Sea, a seven leg relay where each leg features a different sport. The relay starts off with downhill skiing off Mt Baker and ends with a kayak race into Bellingham, Washington. I did the road bike leg, a 41 mile course that starts in the middle of Mt. Baker Highway and ends in the city of Everson, Washington.
Drafting was allowed in the bike leg which meant bikers could form pelotons. The word comes from French and originally meant “platoon”. In the world of road biking, a peloton refers to a group of riders riding together. The reason you want to form a peloton is because having other riders in front will reduce your headwind - this makes a tremendous difference when cycling as being in the middle of a group can reduce drag by as much as 40%.
It can be tricky finding the right peloton - if the group is too slow then you’ll lose time but if the group is too fast then you’ll burn out. Ideally, you want to find a peloton that’s just at the limit of being too fast for you - a peloton where you are the slowest member in the group.
It wasn’t until 20 miles into my race that I found my peloton - a group of a dozen bikers whose pace I synced with. I stuck with this group for the remainder of the race. Our numbers would change as we’d lost people on hills and gained them on windy straightaways. The core of the peloton stayed consistent - me, a girl in an orange jersey, a guy with the number 100 race bib and another guy with an iron man bike jersey. We took turns taking the wind and attacking climbs. We encouraged each other to keep pushing.
Even though we were all competing, we worked to keep the group together for most of the race. It was in everyone’s interest to keep a big peloton so that no individual had to take the wind for too long of a stretch. I didn’t end up breaking away until two miles to the finish. I ended up finishing the 41 miles in 1h and 54min; my average pace was 23mph, 8mph faster than my usual speed(a huge difference)! I high-fived the other members of my peloton and then gorged myself on orange slices and bagels at the food tent.
The peloton is a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. None of us individually could have finished in the time that we did but together, we did what none of us alone could.
I like the peloton because it’s an example of a group that benefits each of its members and one where everyone’s incentives are aligned. This isn’t the case with most groups. As coined by Fred Brooks in the Mythical Man-Month, one of the most widely read project management books for software engineers, “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.
This is because there’s a lot of time spent getting people caught up to speed in a big project. The more people working on a project, the more coordination needs to take place and the more work needs to be done simply to coordinate the work.
This is all to say that finding the right people and creating the right situation where groups can thrive is not a trivial problem.
It works out in the peloton for a few reasons.
One, the communication overhead is low. Each rider follows simple heuristics, like birds in a flock. For example, every rider stays a few inches behind the rear wheel of the previous rider to maintain formation.
Two, there’s a natural selection that takes place among the riders in a peloton. This means that the slowest rider is still able to lead a non-zero percentage of the time and can still keep up with the fastest member when drafting. Anyone that can’t clear that bar is dropped.
Third, everyone has a common purpose - making it to the finish in the fastest time possible.
I find the peloton a useful mental model when joining groups in other areas of life (eg. work groups, friend groups, romantic entanglements, etc.) Are the conditions ripe for this group to come out ahead? By coming together, can all of us be better off? Life is not a zero sum game. The whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts.
No man is an island. So peloton.