Friday Group Ride #260

Friday Group Ride #260

Is there any such thing as a calculated risk? In other words, ok, you’ve done the calculation in as much as risk submits itself to math (are all of the factors ever factored?), and you’ve decided to engage in a behavior anyway. The risk remains, but you are somehow acknowledging its existence rather than hurling yourself blindly into statistical destiny. So what? The risk is the risk, no matter how good your math is, right?

Does knowing the risk change your behavior in some small ways and does it diminish the rewards in some small ways?

I was talking with my friend Dan about wearing a helmet. Dan has recently crashed on his head and had his life saved because he chooses to ride, always, with a helmet. I do NOT want to bestir the entire helmet debate, which we’ve worked through a few times in these digital pages recently, but helmet wearing does serve up a fairly good example of risk/reward behavior on the bike.

Unlike Dan, I sometimes don’t wear a helmet. Mostly I do, but occasionally I decide that the statistically small risk of catastrophic injury is worth an hour or so of wind in my hair. This is, I recognize, a rationally indefensible position. There is, in most people’s minds, no downside to wearing a helmet, which I fully concede may be true.

Again, not trying to start the helmet debate over.

For me, I accept that I should wear a helmet, and I accept that when I don’t I am taking a risk, possibly a “calculated” one, that I feel is reward enough when balanced against the odds. What I’m really interested in is that balance point, because we all take risks of one size or another in our lives. Few of these arguments are as black and white as we want them to be. Few of us are purely rational actors, and our balance point undoubtedly moves based on how far we skew toward rationality as a way to make decisions.

Now forget about helmets, because there’s too much baggage there. We were just sketching the outline of the thing.

Imagine you’re in a race, a crit or a mountain bike race. It doesn’t really matter. You want to finish well, and so you take some risks. You “hang it out there,” not recklessly, but right on the edge of what you think you’re capable of, both in terms of speed and bike handling. In this scenario, the risk/reward balance is more clearly analog, i.e. not digital, not black-and-white.

Enter brain chemistry (warning: I have a liberal arts degree).

There are people for whom risk stimulates the production of more positive chemicals than others. How risk responsive your brain is probably governs exactly how much risk you choose to engage. It is also possible that consciously incorporating some risk into your daily life (Here we return to the idea of calculated risk.), can train your brain to produce more and more of those good chemicals. It is also possible (probable actually) that engaging that regular risk will improve whatever skill you apply it to more quickly than a fully rational, risk-averse approach.

There are a lot of variables.

This week’s Group Ride asks: Do you think this is a reasonable, if simplistic, description of the risk/reward paradigm?  And if so, where do you live on the continuum? Do you take a lot of risks on the bike? Or as few as possible? In my mind there are all sorts of ramifications for buying into this basic idea, one of which is that I need to tolerate people who make different choices on the bike than I do. Brain chemistry is a powerful motivator (or discourager), even wearing a clever disguise, like statistical analysis or rationality.

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18 comments

  1. souleur

    Well: according to natural selection, it would behove me to simply remain quiet….but since you ask Robot…I’ll bite

    I love the saying within the masters race cat, ‘guys, we gotta go to work monday now’. Word. Facts are, we love to think we are taking risks, but really, we don’t take any risks. If we are smart that is.

    Now, is life risk free, thats a different query

    But when it comes to the bike, I personally like the position of predictability, even at 50mph, even into the corner on rails, or on the trail as we shred it and split trees…its really predictable and thus reliable

    I’m sure others may see that different however

  2. MattC

    The risk vs reward decision is always based on the ASSUMPTION that whatever the risk really is won’t actually happen. Yes, we SAY we analyzed the risk and decided to do something anyway. And typically we live to tell about it, thus (in our minds) reinforcing that the risk isn’t really as great as maybe we thought it was.

    And that’s true….right until it’s not. It only takes ONE time (crash w/ no helmet, hit by a car, etc etc) and THEN suddenly the risk WAS too high. That’s sadly how it works. The risk is never too high until it is. And then it’s too late, you can’t get a ‘do-over’.

    As to riding w OR without a helmet), the old saying I learned back in Motorcycle safety is very appropriate (fits for all two wheeled conveyance): “there’s only 2 kinds of riders…those who have been down, and those who will”. And WHEN it comes your time, you won’t have advance notice or a choice…it will likely happen in the blink of an eye.

    But that’s just the unpredictability of life. IF you knew ahead of time that during your car trip to work this morning you would be killed, you wouldn’t go. But seeing as we don’t have that foreknowledge, we just have to live with risk throughout our lives, and HOPE for the best. And be as reasonably prepared as possible if it’s something that is ‘extra’ risky (such as bike riding). OR we do nothing whatsoever that has risk and just live in a closet the rest of your life. That’s freedom of choice.

    I wonder what are the odds of getting a paper-cut right-here at my desk, getting an infection and dying from it? Maybe I shouldn’t handle papers any more…or better yet, I should stop coming to work. Yeah…that’s the ticket. More time to RIDE!

    1. shawn

      I think you are looking at it wrong. The bad thing isn’t “the risk”, but your subjective perception of the outcome — how bad is it? — is one factor of the risk.

      Risk is the product of the how bad (or good) the thing is and the likelihood you’ll have to find out, weighed against the alternative. AlmostCertainDeath is a pretty bad option, unless the alternative is CertainDeath. But each option has both an outcome (death/life) and an occurrence probability (certain/almost certain/etc.)

      So back to your post, I think it’s more likely that people underestimate the probability that bad things will happen, not that the bad thing isn’t so bad after all.

      By the way, we should really only be concerned with unreasonable risks. Pedaling a bike without foam on your head is not an unreasonable risk — at least not for most of the world’s population. Yet it still may be a risk you’d prefer not to take. Curious how the reasonable person standard isn’t so objective after all…

  3. T. Guy

    The other day while out riding a dog attacked me. I was at some speed, and the dog had the angle on me forcing me into the sand and dirt and a wall on the left roadside. I took a calculated risk, I made a move and I ran right over that dog. The calculation I made in that moment involved something like, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you with me, sucker!”. I stayed upright. The dog ran off. The point is that there was conscious, if brief, analysis of the odds and the risk. The risks you take are proportionate to the commitment you have to what you are doing. I was quite committed in that moment.
    For there can be no commitment without risk. If you have no skin in the game then you aren’t really playing the game. If you want change you must take a risk. If you want to win the race, you must take certain risks. That’s the calculation. And yes, Souleur, life is all about the risks you are willing to take. If we’re smart enough we learn from our mistakes and take smarter risks in the future. That’s known as wisdom. And Heaven protect me from the slow learners and the unwise.

  4. Matt K

    I look at the risk/reward paradigm like a teeter-toter. When new to an activity most will spend more time on ‘safe’side of the beam. After time and experience we tend to get more towards the middle and venture over to the ‘riskier’ side to see how that feels. Some hover around the tipping point and others go all the way to where the risk side hits the ground and you pay the consequence. When I was younger and living in Chicago I would ‘play’ in rush hour traffic sans helmet and had some close calls. Now that I have kids and a wife my risks are well calculated I feel. Not wearing a helmet just feels odd at this point but I still love hitting descents at 45mph and railing turns are always fun. I don’t play human frogger in traffic anymore and i like the idea of making it home safe each ride. I take risks that make riding fun and exciting still but there are bigger things than me in my life now. Pushing my legs to fatigue gives me the same thrill that riding in tight traffic used to. For me the brain chemicals (also a liberal arts major) feel heightened after a good ride and I get the same ‘high’ from riding that I always have so for me the risk has changed but the reward is always there.

  5. Ransom

    Recently I’ve been pondering the extent to which we comprehend risk relative to what we’re accustomed to. I’ve always been a bit conservative on the bike, working up to things gradually. At 43, I frequently ask myself how much of of my concern is down to being on the bike less often, feeling unfamiliar, and even how often The World tells me that I’m old and frail now.
    As a motorcyclist, I boggle at the idea of doing much of anything without complete, modern armor. But what if I’d been born in 1930? Would the appeal of motorcycle escape me? I’d probably be wearing a cork helmet and waxed cotton or maybe some leather.
    Risk is risk. The perception of risk is highly relative and changeable. To MattC’s point, the risk is abstract until we feel its wrath, but even then our notion of how bad it is can be affected by what we know it could have been. If I crash a motorcycle in flip-flops and shorts today, I’m aware of just how good the armor I wasn’t wearing is. They’ve got freakin’ airbags! But in 1930, how could I have done significantly better? It doesn’t change the absolute physical damage or pain, but surely affects how we feel about it.

  6. Rob

    You’re pretty much on track with the neurochemistry: Some of us need that feeling of risk to get a sufficient rush of endorphins. We need to feel like we’re cheating injury or death in order to get that “high” we crave.

    We also know that risk, whatever it may be, is inherent in what we do. That’s what gives us the thrill. Riding alone may be a beautiful thing, and it has its place in our psyche. But hammering a stretch of road alone is nothing like hammering that stretch of road elbow to elbow with 40 other people who wish to beat you to the line.

    There’s a competitiveness, there’s a risk/reward, there’s a love of the danger, of the speed, of the cat and mouse tactics….and on a primal level, the social aspect of it. We strive to be stronger and faster than the guy next to us, and sometimes we take risks to show that.

    Some get off on that. Some look at us like we’re crazy. To each their own. If your way of getting that thrill is to not wear a helmet, that’s fine too. It’s just how we’re all wired, and we’re wired differently than the next guy.

  7. Alan

    Conservative. Ride dangerous roads when there are few cars, always have a helmet and lights. Technical MTB gets a few walks as needed. Don’t race crits anymore because Crash 4s.

    Mostly because I have a family and real job.

  8. Jay

    There is risk in almost everything we do, be it on or off a bicycle. The only way to avoid risk is to live in a shell, which in and of itself has some element of risk. As it pertains to bikes, the paraphrase a disgraced former pro: If you worried about failling off the bike, you would never even get on.

  9. harris

    Alan – rock on. I do not think it necessarily boils down to “risk-reward” but rather risk tolerance; as a personal injury defense lawyer and father of 4, I have developed, incrementally, less tolerance for risk as time has gone on. I ride just as hard, just as often, but not with the same people, and not on the same routes I used to when I had 0, then 1, and then 2, and then 3, and now 4 kids.

    The reward comes from fitness and satisfaction after a good ride, and being able to enjoy it while you are out there.

  10. Stephen Barner

    Road riding is so full of risks, it is puzzling to think how any cyclist could consider himself risk-averse. Sure, traveling in a car is full of its own ignored risks, but the chances of getting into an accident are much greater on any two-wheeled vehicle. As a road cyclist, this doesn’t make me ride less, or keep me off busy roads, but perhaps it makes me a bit more fatalistic than my non-riding aquaintences. I try to ride predictably and safely, where autos are concerned, perhaps exceptioned by a few sporadic acts of stupidity, like passing a car on a fast descent on the tandem.
    For me, it’s descents that push me into the extra risk zone, and this can sometimes make things unexpectedly hairy on our frost-heaved Vermont roads. My commute features a mile-long descent on dirt that is my most serious nemesis. If I make it around the reverse-camber turn after the 17% drop at the top without touching the brakes, and if the clay is reasonably hard and smooth, I can usually make it all the way to the bottom without braking, and top 40 mph. That’s not normally a fast cycling speed, but this road is winding, often crossed by deer and other critters in the early morning, and has multiple shared driveways from which I have seen sleepy commuters roll out without more than a glance up the hill. I doubt they would notice a cyclist dropiing like a rock towards them.
    I’ve often thought that if I consistently continue to descend this hill without braking, it’s not a matter of if something really bad will happen, but when. I’ve been riding it over 30 years now, and have only left the road once, and that was on that curve near the top, when I wasn’t paying attention. Still, I decided that, this year, I just wasn’t going to take that risk anymore. I was going to be wise, and grateful that I had gotten away with my regular flirtation with disaster for so long.
    Yup, you guessed it. I’ve broken my resolution three times already this year, and that’s only since getting off studded tires three weeks ago. Two of those even pushed my top for this hill to 45. Oh, well.

  11. Pat O'Brien

    I love riding bicycles. That love and desire to ride has gotten stronger as I age, over 65 right now. I credit riding for my relatively good health right now. So, how do I calculate risk? I calculate by how much time I would be off the bike if I crash on that particular road or trail. On descents my brakes come on sooner, and I walk through sections of trail that I used to ride. Some trails I avoid all together. Sure there are other things in my life, and my wife rides too, besides cycling. But not riding is tough for me. A bad hip flexor, from a overdone sprint, kept me off the bike for 6 weeks a few years ago. Robot knows what it is like.

  12. Rod

    I love risk management, and do some professionally (environmental, like for cancer risk, exposure to toxic compounds, etc.) and same for everyday life. As mentioned before, risk is most easily understood by the multiplication of the magnitude of something happening by the likelihood of it happening.

    Big outcome, little chance? Buying a lottery ticket and hitting jackpot (positive). Having an otherwise perfectly maintained bike have its steerer shorn a la Hincapie and losing teeth and breaking bones. (his wasn’t perfectly set up).

    Little outcome, big chance? Have some scoundrel steal the clip-on lights off my handlebar. I sometimes forget to take them off. They are $4. Annoying, but not life changing. Same for finances – I don’t gamble (it casinos or investments) with my family’s funds, but I have no problem using “non-crucial” funds in longshot stocks or even local investments. No big deal.

    Racing, it is a mixed lot for me. I can pedal very hard for 10-20 seconds, but I’m rarely in fighting mode for a sprint. The moment elbows fly out I back off. Then back off a bit more. And then more. Last year I had two successful races where I joined a last km flier with two other guys, racing down a sharp downhill and a right corner. They railed the corner. I feathered the brake. I came in fourth (yes, I’m aware that a guy not even in the move passed me).

    But in CX I will take more risks, since landing is usually softer. I’ve bloodied elbows in trees and wrecked shins in barriers, but that doesn’t bug me nearly as much. Being a late comer to cycling, its the speed that rattles my cage. Only recently I’ve started to tuck and rip down descents, and still takes a lot out of me to get my hands off the brake levers. I still remember on one of those hills I looked at some imperfect gears, looked up, and there was an effing black bear in the middle of the road. That would have been one bad crash.

  13. Peter

    To answer the first question: there is no calculated risk, simply an assumption of risk (to clarify, as I am attorney: I don’t mean this in the legal standard sense). You either avoid the risk or you take it on.

    As I am a golfer first (the sport I was actually paid to play for a short while), I always fall back on the Angel Cabrera quote about the risk/reward dichotomy and how we deal with feeling comfortable: “I didn’t lay up when I was poor, why would I start now?” I have taken this to mean that the absence of a safety net makes embracing risk a necessity–forcing you to rise to the occasion. When you speak of the chemicals in the brain and how we respond tends to determine your success and whether you pursue it even after you have a safety net to fall back on. While it seems counterintuitive, the safety net tends to create risk-aversion over risk-seeking.

    My struggle on a daily basis is how to take the success and rush I’ve had from my risk-seeking exploits and productively harness it.

  14. Paul

    Of course some risk is good and will help you get better. More risk will teach faster until risk comes true. Still, I live on the conservative side. I’m not a confident descender except on rollers — at 235 lbs, momentum for the uphill is a big reward . I ride predicably and try to reduce the risks but can’t eliminate them of course. (except riding after dark, I just won’t)

  15. gregorio

    I’ve done a fair bit of risk management as an outdoor educator. The core question is whether we can meet the risk with awareness and real skills.Calculated awareness means that we can assess the risk apart from the adrenaline, or JACKASS factor. The skills are those abilities we can bring to bear to manage the risk, or cope with it, without injury or mishap. For myself, I hope I never stop having THE TALK with myself as I begin a long alpine descent. You know the drill: getting into proper position, hands in the drops with one or two fingers on the brake levers. This is our margin of safety. Without it, the time will come for us to wipe the pavement with body parts.This kind of mindfulness makes cycling equal parts of fun, safety and adrenaline.

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