No-one sat on and everyone drove as hard as they could.
Matt Stephens, Life in the Grupetto
Here’s the thing about professional cycling. It’s not the lycra, it’s not the drugs, and it’s not the spectacle of Lance talking about himself in the third person as that flawed guy who did the bad things.
It’s the grupetto: the paradoxical collaboration that breaks out among rivals who are struggling at the back of the race, once the whole thing starts climbing uphill. The riders who end up in the grupetto are mostly specialist sprinters. Sprinters are the ones who burst from the pack and ride crazily fast for about ten seconds at the end, but to do this they have to hang on over the whole day with everyone else. Once the bloated caravan of the Tour starts to climb a mountain, the formidably weird biomechanics of the specialist climbers kick in, the peleton swings after them—and the sprinters fall off the back. Watch these super athletes closely and they look as though they’re riding backwards.
The loneliness and stress of their predicament is extraordinary. If each tries to get over the mountain on their own, they’ll struggle to avoid time-based elimination, because the physics of road racing decisively favours a pack riding together over an individual struggling alone into a headwind. But it’s as individuals that they stand to lose.
Why don’t professional cyclists panic when they fall behind on these savage gradients? Why don’t they quit? It’s because they have a plan. They’re waiting. They know that in the tradition of their discipline, a grupetto will form and pick them up, and an experienced leader will emerge and take charge of the group. The grupetto will form afresh every time, taking in those who show up on the day, and sharing out the work of riding as they have to, so that they can all stay in touch with the action at the front. They have to trust each other, and work together.
Here’s a bit more from Matt Stephens’ reflection on the meaning of the grupetto:
In the Grupetto team tactics and rivalries are put to one side and a unique camaraderie flourishes with the theme of one common aim; to arrive at the finish safely and inside the time limit.
This cameraderie is a model of contingent solidarity, also called “l’autobus” for obvious reasons: when you can’t keep up by yourself, you ride the bus. All you have in common is a willingness to respect the skills and struggles of the person you find beside you, and to recognise that if they’re not having the best day, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be there at all. The essence of the grupetto is that it’s a form of hospitality, a relief from the nagging squabble in your head between where you are and where you’d like to be. The grupetto works because it creates a logic in which you can recognise yourself in the other person’s situation, and you can accept that their strength and stamina is your own.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I’ve been advising students who’ve fallen behind in an online class. Why do students panic or quit when they fall behind in online classes? Why do I? I think it happens like this: learners working online rule themselves out of succeeding because they’re staring at a syllabus crafted around milestones and deadlines, in which we have written the time-based elimination rules in bold as though these are the most important framing conditions for their learning: it’s all got to be done in time.
This has been my experience in every MOOC so far: before I’ve got my feet in the stirrups, a deadline has hit me like a headwind, and I’m down. I’ve missed the quiz, or the catch-up quiz, or the discussion of the poem, or the live chat. All I’ve got left to me is that last refuge of the time-challenged: the forums. And with thousands enrolled, these are the Grand Pacific Garbage Patch of messages in bottles, so there’s nothing to do there except add to the problem, while waiting not to get my certificate because I’ve failed to keep up.
So even if friendly constructivist MOOCs encourage me to hang around and chat anyway, the plain fact is that I’m missing their deadlines. (And in my most recent experience of this, I found that I was missing the daily deadline simply by sleeping through the North American working day. Go figure.)
When I look at the policy-crafted syllabus I gave the students in this class, I’m ashamed of how much of it is written in the same chastising language of failure and penalty. Failure to do this, that and the other thing, but especially failure to keep up, will result in … failure. Moreover, all sorts of collaboration and sharing except the group work we assign is treated as some kind of collusion among the work-shy, even a form of cheating, and this will result in failure. All your own work, we chant, because the entire structure of our system is that grades are won—or lost—by individuals. Degrees are earned, and paid for, by individuals, not by teams.
How could students guess from this penalty-driven document that I will help them if they fall behind? More importantly, how do they know that I would recommend that they work together to rescue each other—that those who fall behind catch up by riding on the tailwind work that the leaders have done, and that the leaders have nothing to lose if this happens.
The cultural and institutional pressures against students working together in this way are really formidable. To overcome this, we need to review the assumptions embedded in our policies and documents about the individualist heroics of student success. Instead of focusing on training students how to succeed on their own, we need to introduce them to both the practice and the philosophy of the grupetto—how to feel no shame at all at needing help, and no embarrassment at being in a position to give it.
If we could get this right, we’d really be making an important contribution to their being able to flourish in their professional futures, perhaps as useful as anything else we ever teach.