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The free rider: collective action failures in cycling and beyond

Written by Daniel Harris


Following the Men’s Road Race at the London 2012 Olympics this past weekend, the talk amongst the British team (at least as far as it’s been reported in the media) has been of their disappointment with the tactics adopted by other participants in the race. After race favourite Mark Cavendish (GBR) finished 29th, the team criticised the reluctance of other teams to help chase the breakaway group from which the eventual winner emerged. Cavendish himself lamented:

‘There were 70 guys in our group at the finish, I don’t understand why there’s [only] three guys riding. It doesn’t make sense… No-one wants to help us.’

The complex logic of a cycling race has become increasingly clear to the public this summer and a closer examination reveals wider relevance, including for development.

Team GB’s strategy had long been clear. As was the case in last year’s World Championships and 20 Tour de France stage wins, team members would attempt to control the competition, chasing down breakaways and keeping the peloton (the main group of riders) together, in order to set Cavendish up for a sprint victory in the final kilometre. Given that the race is officially an individual competition, the prevalence of team tactics seems counter-intuitive, but cycling is a sport in which many team members are expected to sacrifice their own results for the benefit of the team. These riders, known as domestiques, exert themselves only to fall-off before the end of the race, as was the case in Team Sky’s support of Bradley Wiggins’ victory in this year’s Tour de France. Within the framework of a team, the rules are generally clear, with roles and responsibilities clearly outlined.

However, once you move beyond the set of established rules that govern the behaviour of a team, the pursuit of certain objectives becomes much less clear and the need for the alignment of interests more acute. While Team GB put in an impressive effort trying to bring back the final breakaway group in Saturday’s race,  given Cavendish’s prowess as a sprinter, there was little incentive for most of the teams to exert themselves (at great physical cost) in support of the British attempt to achieve this outcome. Those teams reluctant to arrive exhausted at the finish to witness a Brit sprint to victory (at least the ones not trying to actively protect the chances of their countrymen in the breakaway group), simply sat back and waited to see if the British effort would be sufficient at which point they might take advantage.

These types of situations, of course, are not simply a feature of sporting events. Indeed the world of public policy is replete with cases in which the distribution of costs and benefits can prevent individuals or groups from productively working together to produce something that it is difficult for any single actor to produce alone. Examples range from local emergency services, to national security and even global public goods like environmental protection. Work by Mancur Olson, Elinor Ostrom and others has demonstrated this challenge to be particularly salient in the case of public goods, where it is difficult to exclude anyone from benefitting once the good is produced, leading to free riders who don’t contribute, but who benefit nonetheless.

To some degree, solutions to such problems have been identified. Olson’s classic work, The Logic of Collective Action, made the observation in 1965 that: ‘unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their commonor group interests’ (Olson, 1965: 2; emphasis in the original). In other words, rules, agreed upon by the individuals in question and backed by consequences, are needed to ensure coordination and prevent individuals from free-riding on the efforts of others. Too many free-riders and ultimately the intended common goal can be undermined.

In the cycling world, this coordination function is fulfilled by the use of established hierarchies within the team. In society, this can be seen as the formation of various groups that organise and represent the interests of groups of individuals, including professional associations, trade unions, and political parties. Yet, as demonstrated by the insufficiency of Team GB’s teamwork, bridging the gaps across interest groups is often a crucial  task(which is often left to the state). In such cases, systems of public good provision determine the contribution expected from everyone, including the development and enforcement of rules that require us to pay taxes and subject ourselves to regulation.

The fate of Team GB on Saturday was demonstrative of what happens when such systems are absent. Interviewed after the men’s race, Team GB’s road race manager, Rod Ellingworth noted that it was not for lack of ability or resources that the breakaway managed to stay away, but rather a lack of cooperation amongst the competitors in the chase group:

‘If there had been eight riders going full gas we would have taken [the breakaway] back. We were banking on other teams taking it on later as well as us.’In short, the outcome was the result of a collective action failure. One valuable lesson for those concerned with public policy is to avoid assumptions that developing countries lack the desire, ability or resources to achieve better development outcomes. What may be needed are rules that encourage coordination among the players.