It’s the last week of the Cross America Challenge. The first four days have been pretty, leisurely and fun. However, rain, headwinds, climbing (the Appalachians) and cold will make the next two days pretty challenging. So the mood is a bit intense right now with the group.
We’ve been talking a lot about the Tour de France; for those of you who do not follow, Team Sky (a largely British team) has been dominating the event in recent years, and this year looks to build on that. The mastermind behind Team Sky is a man named David Brailsford. He started by building a team that ended up dominating indoor cycling events; he then added professional road cycling to his focus with equally impressive outcomes.
Sir David believed success often comes from the “the aggregation of marginal gains” — or in other words, dozens of tiny improvements that might add 0.1% to the probability of success, but in aggregate raise it by 10-20%. They started with obvious things like how high the bike seat should be, nutrition before, during and after the ride, etc. But they went way, way beyond that. How much sleep do you need? What pillow and mattress provides the most sleep? What kind of massage is best? In every possible area of performance they tried to find another 1%. They did not look for “breakthrough ideas” — they just aggregated a lot of small, simple ideas which had been carefully tested. And at this point they have both the #1 and #2 rider in the Tour de France.
This article captures his key thinking pretty well. It’s an interesting challenge to the “80-20” thinking that pervades business — just focus on the 20% that gets 80% of the value. While that is the right way to approach many tasks, when you need to be #1, you have to get that final 20% (or more).
On this trip, I am really glad I did a lot of tinkering through the trip — changing the cassette, changing the pace at which I rode, adding a coffee stop at the 20 mile point, treating the swelling in my knee, double-shorting, trying new lotions to reduce the friction in the seat area, etc. Not all of the experiments work, but I can say in the final week that the summation of what did work certainly made the trip more enjoyable.
I have been planning to write about Donald Trump for the whole ride. This Op-Ed piece by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times captured just about everything I have been thinking about. He is a stellar writer — fact-driven, clear, direct. I’m probably breaking copyright, but you should subscribe to the FT:
Who lost China? This cry went up in the US after Mao Zedong’s victory in China’s civil war in 1949. It was a strange question. When did the US own China? Strange or not, this cry helped Republicans win power in 1952. It promoted the rise of Joseph McCarthy, whose politics had similarities to those of Donald Trump — above all, in the charge that traitors infest the US government. In the senator’s case, the target was the state department; for Mr Trump, it is the FBI. The question today is: who lost America? And is it lost for good? Nobody of course owns the US, apart from Americans. Yet, for westerners and many others, the US stood for something so attractive that it seemed to be “ours” — the guarantor not just of its own freedom and prosperity, but that of hundreds of millions of others. My father, a refugee to the UK from pre-second-world-war Austria, had no doubt. The US was the bastion of democracy. It had saved Europe from falling to Nazi or communist dictatorships. As a journalist and documentary film-maker, he knew about its mistakes. But the US was not just any great power. It embodied the causes of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. This made him fiercely pro-American. I inherited this attitude. In the postwar world, US policy had four attractive features: it had appealing core values; it was loyal to allies who shared those values; it believed in open and competitive markets; and it underpinned those markets with institutionalized rules. This system was always incomplete and imperfect. But it was a highly original and attractive approach to the business of running the world. For those who believe humanity must transcend its petty differences, these principles were a start. Yet today the US president appears hostile to core American values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law; he feels no loyalty to allies; he rejects open markets; and he despises international institutions. He believes that might makes right. The Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin have might. He admires them. German chancellor Angela Merkel and UK prime minister Theresa May are decent women trying to lead democracies. He abuses them. So why is Mr Trump in power? The answer lies with a political failure that the US might be unable to overcome. Mr Trump’s accession to power is partly an accident, but not only an accident. The rise of China and the unanticipated impact of globalisation have profoundly affected the US view of itself and its global role. An anxiety that spreads from left to right has replaced the hubristic euphoria of the post-cold-war “unipolar moment”. The US no longer sees itself as so dominant and the world as so friendly. Mr Trump may be an outspoken protectionist. But Hillary Clinton was no defender of liberal trade. Mr Trump’s view that the rest of the world has taken the US for a ride is widely shared. In a country that has succumbed to protectionist ideas, it is not so surprising that the protectionist won. Again, once anxiety over China arrived, a nationalist was a natural choice. Yet something still more important is happening. The striking feature of the US economy is that, despite its unique virtues, it has recently served the majority of its people so ill. The distribution of income is exceptionally unequal. Labour force participation rates of prime-aged adults are exceptionally low. Real median household disposable incomes are the same as they were two decades ago, while mean incomes are much higher. Uniquely, mortality rates of middle-aged white (non-Hispanic) adults have risen since 2000 in the US. Mr Trump loves to tweet his shock over every high-profile terrorist outrage in Europe. But, in 2016, there were just 5,000 murders in the EU, a rate of one per 100,000 people (including terrorist attacks). There were 17,250 murders in the US, a rate five times greater. Mr Trump might start to worry about that. The poor state of so many Americans is in part the product of plutocratic politics: a relentless and systematic devotion to the interests of the very rich. As I have argued before, a politics of low taxes, low social spending and high inequality is sustainable in a universal suffrage democracy only with a mixture of propaganda in favour of “trickle down” economics, splitting the less well off on cultural and racial lines, ruthless gerrymandering and outright voter suppression. All this has indeed happened. These are the politics of “pluto-populism” or of “greed and grievance”. They have been stunningly successful in making Republicans attractive to many in the white working class. The structural biases in voting are also remarkable. In the past three elections for the House of Representatives, it took 20 per cent more voters for the Democrats to win a seat than for the Republicans, on average. Republicans have also won the presidency twice in the last two decades despite losing the popular vote. Mr Trump is the logical outcome of a politics that serves the interests of the plutocracy. He gives the rich what they desire, while offering the nationalism and protectionism wanted by the Republican base. It is a brilliant (albeit unplanned) combination, embodied in a charismatic personality that offers validation to his most passionate supporters. Will Trump’s protectionism do many in his base any good? No. But, in their eyes, he is a real leader, at last. Who lost “our” America? The American elite, especially the Republican elite. Mr Trump is the price of tax cuts for billionaires. They sowed the wind; the world is reaping the whirlwind. Should we expect the old America back? Not until someone finds a more politically successful way of meeting the needs and anxieties of ordinary people. firstname.lastname@example.org
Today’s image. I’ve been riding mainly with Father John, Diane and Stacy. My new nickname is “Roadkill Charlie” because Stacy rode right through the middle of a recently killed opossum on the road. It’s guts had been spilled out, and her tire flung them all over me, including a nice chunk right in the middle of my sunglasses. Hence Roadkill Charlie.
Day 46 ride summary (Buffalo NY to Canandaigua NY). 86.4 miles, 3411 feet of climbing. The route was so straight one Strava subscriber questioned the integrity of the data. Leisurely ride; mild headwinds. It is starting to get easier.
Day 47 ride summary (Canandaigua NY to Liverpool NY). 69.1 miles, 2304 feet of climbing. Had one of our best coffee stops of the trip in Seneca Falls (Opus). Beautiful part of NY — known as the Finger Lakes region. I had a couple of glasses of the local Riesling and immediately paid a price (I get headaches from alcohol). Some boundaries shouldn’t be crossed.
Day 48 ride summary (Liverpool NY to Little Falls NY). 78.4 miles, 1753 feet of climbing. Continued our new tradition of having a coffee and bagel/muffin/pastry/breakfast sandwich at the 25 mile mark or so. Today was the Toast in Canastota NY. Just putting in the miles in beautiful country. Unfortunately, we also passed through several devastated towns — for example, Little Falls had gone from a population of something like 40,000 down to 4819. One city had signs to a downtown — we followed them to find some lunch, and found not a single restaurant in the mostly boarded up “downtown.” It’s not just the flyover states that have wiped out cities.
Day 49 ride summary (Little Falls, NY to Latham NY). 76.9 miles, 2172 feet of climbing. Today was a great day and a terrible day. Diane had a bad flat — completely blew a tire out running over some kind of spiked steel bar, so we had to wait for a support van to provide a backup tire (we carry 1-2 spare tubes each, but not tires). While waiting a very friendly local told us we were crazy to be on the road — the bike paths along the Eerie canal had been fully paved (he said) all the way to Latham. Despite being late we stopped a couple of miles later for a wonderful coffee in St. Johnsville at the Bridge Street Café. After we went off-piste to the bike path. At a point the nice asphalt gave way to a dirt path, but we were fine. At good Father John’s urging we went back on the groomed path to sign in to the SAG, only to learn the SAG had packed up and left. We then dealt with hills and bad traffic for most of the rest of the trip — instead of the bike path. The last few miles we finally went back, and cruised through some beautiful country that included GE’s famous global research center.