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We're all guilty of it

Succumbing to the audience effect...

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I’ve got you in my sights. 150 meters ahead on the long drag into town

And I slide back on the saddle, click up a gear and press on.

No time for a gel – there’s work to be done and slowly I reel you in and storm past with a brief ‘hi, not a bad day for it’. You, you old man, on your town bike with the empty shopping basket.

But this is the way of it. This disease of ‘spectator’ speed, where the simple presence of another sentient life form causes us to somehow ride differently like anyone cares.

A rural road, rolling hills, then in the distance a woman rolling a pushchair along to the bus stop. So relax, get more aero, keep the upper body solid and power over the rise like you’re cresting the final climb of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. You just know she’ll nod as one seasoned pro does to another when they establish a winning break. She’ll be telling all the mums in the playgroup that she saw the absolute vision of Moreno Argentin that very morning.

 

What is wrong with us people?

Have you EVER returned home to tell everyone that you saw someone you don’t know and they walked with a brisk style and grace you seldom see in this day and age?

There is plenty of research on this ‘audience effect’ in regards to sports performance. It’s been clearly established that the presence of an audience of one or more spectators will usually help to enhance performance levels. Most of us have an inherent drive to perform well around our friends, peers, parents, or and to impress people we want to impress! 

Totally understandable in the context of a sports event, or even a ParkRun when you spot that neighbour who you really fancy. Incidentally, the positive nature of an audience is related to our competence level. Novices don’t want to be watched and make more errors whereas seasoned performers get a boost from numerous pairs of eyes.

Where I struggle is with my utterly predictable behaviour when I see another person and I’m on the bike. I know in my cold dark heart that I can’t and don’t look ‘cool’ on a bike. Yet I try. I know that riding through town I am as invisible to the pedestrians as I appear to be to the motorists. But you know, check me out – me and my 55mm carbon rims.

A social psychology explanation of this audience effect is provided by ‘self-presentation theory’ which suggests that people try to maintain a public-image and consider how other people, even those unknown to them, evaluate their performance. Being seen to make errors during activities could lead to a fall in self-esteem, a feeling of embarrassment and worse performance during further efforts. Which is all well and good, but my guess is that the woman with the pushchair doesn’t know what a Philippe Gilbert in full flight might look like compared to an old giffer like me.

The worst presentation of this affliction is when another cyclist is in the vicinity. Not only do you have to pass them breathlessly, but you also have to look pro. They don’t care. They don’t know who you are, or what your FTP is, or how many points you have from racing. They won’t meet you again, they have no desire to and they certainly wouldn’t be able to recall what bike you were on. They’re not going to discuss you over dinner. And you know this. And they know this about you. And yet they’re probably doing the same. 

And heaven forbid you have to overtake an entire group of cyclists. Whether a club ride that’s 0.34 mph slower than your goal for that Strava segment or a few touring types heading for their next picnic site, god forbid that you look like a wheezing chopper on a bike rescued from a skip.

Unless it’s just me…

By Dave Smith

Contributor on cycling, training, and travel