BIRGing and why cyclists are egomaniacs

A (admittedly cynical) conversation with a team mate about my happiness at Jen’s win yesterday spurred me to consider the question: why is cycling so rife with basking in reflected glory?

Let’s speed this up with some key ideas:
• Rational cyclists pursue a mix of (a) homogeneity with an in-group (ie following ‘the rules’) and (b) positive distinctiveness (elevating themselves above the in-group ie by winning races).
• In the absence of achieving either or both of these outcomes, individuals use various coping mechanisms to protect their sense of worth (ie rationalisation, denialism, minimalisation, ex post facto goal modification).

Here’s my take: Since there can only be one winner per race, individuals rationally collaborate to share the self-esteem ‘dividend’ of victory. This is an ego protection mechanism; my 56th place can be delusionally glorious if I pulled one 32km/h, 30 second turn ‘for’ the winner, or if we wear the same jersey. Another example is the sycophantic fawning behaviour that used to occur at Cafe Racer when club-level riders sought contact with the pros over summer, hoping their pro-ness would somehow rub off onto them.

Some creative social scientist even invented a verb for it: BIRGing (Basking In Reflected Glory-ing). So why is it so prevalent in cycling? Perhaps it’s the quantity of time required to even be a mediocre rider – the social and financial opportunity cost of this training is fairly extreme. This large investment causes cyclists to rationally seek a return that matches or exceeds this opportunity cost; which results in predictably severe ego-protecting behaviour if they fail. Simultaneously, the greater the investment, the more the individual ties their sense of self-worth to their cycling performance; hence amateur doping, unbelievably rampant excuse-making (perhaps more than any other sport) and the absolute need for a feeling of connection to success, even in the absence of their own.

Because we are all egomaniacs (Rochefoucauld rightly said that ’amour-propre (self regard) is the mainspring of all human activities’) it is unlikely BIRGing is going to disappear. Instead, here’s a tactic I’m going to try: limit your excuses in the face of failure to (1) “I just wasn’t good enough” or (2) “what a great wake up call, I’m going to train even harder after this.”  Wouldn’t this alone make the cycling world a nicer, more real environment for everyone?



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