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a journal - cycling, sociology, social media

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Who has POWER ? in the social world of racing cyclists


In my last post I talked a bit about Strava and the influence of gamification and surveillance on cycling. I ended the post with a comment that gamification and surveillance make Strava a ‘stage’ for cyclists – a stage on which their performances and behaviours are being watched by their Strava ‘followers’ and others. But long before Strava took hold the way that cyclists behave and their performances have been closely observed by others - those who knew the game and how it was played.


SOCIOLOGY ALERT – theory coming up! This is going to get a bit ‘wordy’ but bear with me.

To understand cycling as a ‘game’ that has stakes I need to introduce the idea of CAPITAL to the conversation. Capital is best understood as a form of SOCIAL POWER and STATUS and all social worlds, including that of racing cyclists are constituted when individuals or groups determine what it is that constitutes power and status and how that power and status is EARNED and DISTRUBUTED. In my research of racing cyclists’, I have found that capital comes in four main forms, all of which should be recognisable to blog readers.

Physical capital: Is earned from acts of strength and athleticism. We all know that really strong rider who can do massive turns on the front and still drop you on the hills – he might be a complete knob-head, but he still has social power and status because of the physical capital he has accumulated.

Social capital: Relates to what a cyclist knows about the social world, but is also to do with a rider’s social ties, their friends and acquaintances. Social capital is the power and status that comes from being an accepted member of a group and from having a large friendship network. Of course you may know a rider who knows everyone but who may not have much social status – that will probably be because he is lacking in the other forms of capital – yep another knob-head!

Cultural capital: Is related to the consumption of goods and the expression of taste. Wearing the ‘right’ brand of kit and riding a bike that is sufficiently expensive to be deemed acceptable. But as we know good taste and cultural capital may not result in power and status in cycling. The expression ‘all the gear no idea’ springs to mind and is directed at riders lacking in other forms of capital. Yes you guessed – knob-heads.


            Ride the wrong bike and there's no  no cultural capital for you, even if you do have a cute dog.

Symbolic capital: Is related to reputation and image often derived from past performances and achievements. Those riders that we all know who are respected, they know the ‘game’. They may race or have raced at a high level in the past, they conduct themselves well and other riders recognise their power and status. You know the riders I am describing – nobody argues with them. They make decisions on behalf of others, on the route and the pace of the ride, they can do this because they have capital in all of its forms. These guys are definitely NOT knob-heads

To try to illustrate the value of capital I tried to think of an example I could use. I found one – not in my research but on my Instagram gallery. MyInsta I was out training with Jack and well-known and successful racing cyclist Harry, when we came across another top local rider Rob – who had snapped his chain. With no way of fixing it and as we were only 2 or 3 miles from a bike shop Jack and Harry offered to push Rob to the shop – remember this Harry? (I wasn’t much help – I just kept out of the way).


                                                              Nearly there - one more push and we will be at the roundabout.

All three ride for different teams and are intense racing rivals yet there was no hesitation in offering to help – why? Simply because Rob has accumulated a significant amount of capital in all its forms physical, social, cultural and symbolic, he has power and status in the social world of racing cyclists. In later posts I will provide a couple of examples from my research where different judgements were made about riders who were subsequently deemed to be ‘not worth helping’.



Of course if you get a puncture on the way home, it doesn’t matter how much capital you have accumulated, you fix it yourself – while some knob-head takes pictures of you doing it for his Instagram!

Now that we know what is at stake in the game my next post will return to the topic of Strava because on Strava new forms of capital have emerged that are changing the way this social world works. – my next blog post will be all about Kudos!
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