Developing Your Skills for Group Riding
I love a great group ride. These rides have been an integral part of my life as a cyclist for more than 36 years. The group ride is where I learned to draft, how to ride shoulder to shoulder so I can communicate effectively without yelling, how to gauge my efforts so no one has to wait up for me, and so many other skills. If you want to be a better cyclist, become a regular at CIBA group rides. You don’t have to go every week, but go frequently enough that you don’t have to reintroduce yourself to everyone!
We’ve all been late to a group ride at some point, and we’ve all forgotten something important before (like food or a spare tube). It happens, but it shouldn’t happen often. Be ready to ride on time and be self-sufficient. This includes tools and a pump. Most cyclists are nice people and will give you a tube or an energy bar if you need it, but try not to need it and always pay it back.
Flat tires suck for everyone, especially when you’re in a group that stops to wait for the affected rider. Minimize flats in the group by physically pointing to the holes, glass, and random debris along your route. This hand signal needs to travel all the way back; pass it on so the people behind you get the message. Reserve audible warnings for really dangerous situations. If you run over debris, use your hand (good reason to wear cycling gloves) to brush the surface of your front tire. Obviously, do it in front of the fork. For the rear tire, it may be prudent to stop and clear any road debris.
Nobody likes being barked at constantly during a nice group ride. But there are some times when it’s good to speak up. The riders at the back should let the group know when they need to single up to better share the road with cars, or when there is a particularly large vehicle coming around (like a dump truck or farm equipment). The riders in about the 3rd row of a double paceline are in a good position to call for an adjustment to the pace. At this point in the group you can tell if the riders around you are struggling with the speed or the wind direction. Riders in the first and second rows can sometimes misjudge their pace and position relative to the rest of the group. It is every rider’s responsibility to watch out for potential bicycle-car collisions. If you see something, say something! When you see vehicles about to enter the roadway from your left or right, call them out or point to them. Adding a friendly wave helps engage drivers beyond eye contact. (The lights may be on, but nobody is home?)
The right way to ride in a double paceline is handlebar-to-handlebar, not half a wheel ahead of the rider next to you. Half-wheeling pisses people off, especially when you accelerate to maintain the half-wheel advantage despite your partner’s attempt to pull even with you. It also messes up the spacing for everyone in the paceline behind you. Another major rule is-don’t run red lights. Besides being unsafe, against the law, and damaging to our collective reputation, it’s also disrespectful to all the groups who are working hard to convince communities to improve cycling infrastructure and enhance cyclists’ safety. If the entire group cannot clear a red light or stop sign collectively, the riders at the front must communicate their intentions and execute a safe stop or at least, a significant slow-down. The front riders should call-out “Regrouping.” Treat others as you would have them treat you! Bad vibes and dangerous, knee-jerk reactions result from desperate riders trying to bridge to a vanishing peloton.
Stay off the brakes. When you tap the brakes you slow abruptly and that signals the rider behind you to tap his brakes, and so on. Obviously there are times in a group when you need to and should use the brakes, but try to make minor speed adjustments without braking to avoid a herky-jerky riding experience for everyone around you. When you need to make minor speed adjustments your first choice should be with air resistance rather than braking. That means sitting up a bit and/or moving out into the wind a little to slow down. Conversely, tucking into the draft and gradually increasing your cadence is the smoothest way to speed up and close gaps that occur. If you’re feeling spirited, don’t ramp up the speed when you get to the front. It’s not nice and it makes the pace uncomfortably hard for your friends. Instead, ride the group’s predetermined pace and stay at the front a little longer. You’ll get the training you want and give the rest of the group some extra time in the draft. If you don’t have the fitness to take a full pull at the group’s pace, you should still rotate through like everyone else; just take a shorter pull. There’s no rule that says you have to take a pull equal to the cyclist before you. You just need to pull at the group’s pace. Don’t slow down, because then everyone stacks up behind you. For a smoother experience for everyone, keep it short and pull off.
When the pack hits rolling hills it can be hard to keep the group together, especially when someone at the front increases the tempo. It is important for the riders at the front to consider everyone when establishing the climbing pace. On social group rides it is customary to wait and regroup at the top of longer climbs. To minimize the frequency of these regroups, try to set a pace that’s comfortable for the middle of the group. This may mean it’s a bit easy for the stronger riders at the front while pretty challenging for some folks at the back, but this pacing strategy is good for keeping the group together over the majority of the route. Grand Touring rides typically do not drop a rider, which is great, but try not to make them wait for you because you were taking monster pulls at the front and then got dropped. You are not making any friends that way. Learn to gauge your efforts and keep something in the tank to make sure you can latch onto the back of the group and stay on a wheel.
Conditioning is not just about how much power you can produce or how high you can push your lactate threshold pace. It also pays to be frugal with your energy and economical with your efforts. It is best to establish good habits and learn the fundamentals early on so you’re efficient on the days where the stakes are much higher. The time to learn the fundamentals is when the group is going relatively steady at a moderate pace, when many cyclists get complacent. You don’t see the importance of sticking close to the wheel ahead of you or finding the optimal drafting position because the effort required to maintain your position isn’t hard. If you can position yourself perfectly when the going is easy, then you’ll be better able to do it when the group is going flat out in a 30mph crosswind. If you’re not able to find a draft on a calm day how can you expect to be successful when it really matters? Remember, it’s not just about the power you can produce. It’s also about not wasting energy. Poor positioning and inefficient drafting wastes power with every pedal stroke and every gasping breath you take. Cycling is not a weight-bearing exercise like running. With the proper cadence and gear selection a 50 mile ride should be a reasonable goal for intermediate cyclists with drafting providing a 30% energy saving advantage.
When you’re working on perfecting your drafting skills, envision a drafting pocket. When you’re in the pocket you’re getting a full draft and saving as much energy as you can. This pocket is not always directly behind the wheel in front of you. It moves right and left based on wind direction and it gets bigger and smaller based on the speed you’re going, the speed of the wind, and the size of the rider ahead of you. The benefits of being perfectly in the pocket may be smaller when you’re going at a moderate pace, but the consequences of being outside the pocket are significant when the going gets tough.
If you are riding in a well disciplined group, get comfortable drafting closely behind the rider in front of you. The benefit of drafting drops off very rapidly as the distance between you and the rider ahead of you increases. Whether it’s behind or beside the rider ahead of you, being closer is better than being farther away. The only way to get comfortable riding in close quarters is to do it over and over again. By moving out of the pocket a bit to catch more wind you can slow down without touching your brakes. This keeps you from running up on the wheel ahead of you and gives you the opportunity to get a better view of what’s up the road.
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly where the wind is coming from. Look at bushes, trees, flags etc. at the side of the road for information. High flagpoles are the best because they often have unobstructed exposure to the wind. Get in the drops or, better yet, drop your elbows so your forearms are nearly horizontal if you’re riding on the hoods. The goal is to make you smaller in the wind. This will be especially important if the rider you’re drafting behind is either small or has a low, aerodynamic riding position. If you want to survive in the wind, you have to be able to ride powerfully with your shoulders relatively low, whether that’s in the drops or with horizontal forearms, which I find to be a more comfortable, safer aero position than going to the drops.
The closer you get to the rider ahead of you the more that person blocks your view of the world ahead. If you end up zeroed-in on their butt, even if it’s a nice butt, it’s not a good idea to fixate on one point. You need to glance to the sides and down the road ahead to build a composite view of changing conditions. As you move sideways in and out of the pocket a few inches you get short glimpses of the terrain and group dynamics. Looking diagonally to the sides you can pick up cues from nearby riders. Basically, your focal point should be in front of the rider ahead of you – and much farther ahead if possible. Looking “through” the rider ahead of you also helps with stability. It is best to look farther out ahead of you rather than immediately in front of you.
If your focus is on the wheel or butt a foot away your handling may get squirrelly. If your focus is further ahead of you it will be easier to ride a steadier line. Relatively calm days with little to no wind can be the best opportunities to master your drafting techniques. There is never any benefit to catching more wind than you have to. Being an experienced cyclist means riding close and comfortably in the draft, whether the going is easy or challenging. When it’s time to ride in the wind at the front, give a good effort. When it’s time to draft, be efficient.
Safe cycling skills include riding within your physical limits and choosing an appropriate pace group. Do not ride above your skill level, road and weather conditions, or visibility. Not only must each cyclist assume their own level of acceptable risk, but what each rider does affects everyone in the group. “Controlled speed group” ride starts help cyclists pair-up with other riders with similar abilities. Riding with cyclists of similar ability contributes to compatibility, group comfort, and predictability. In such an environment riders share the work, enjoy camaraderie, and enhance their fitness, while gaining bike handling skills.