My first post on this topic dealt mainly with solo cycling and speeds. I detailed specifically how I trained to ride consistently at 20+ miles per hour from a noob’s perspective (because I certainly was one when I wrote the post). This post is more about riding in a pace-line or with a large group and trying to keep up – I’m not quite a noob any more, but I’m still fairly new to cycling and I’m still in the process of trying to get better and faster. This continuation post is from that angle.
The rudest surprise that I’ve run into, in terms of cycling fast, is how much work it is to get it back the following season. Part of this may be plausibly blamed on age, but someone else would have to make the claim – while age is not just a number, when you’re talking about cycling at 23+, I ride with plenty if guys in their late 50’s (even mid 60’s) who have no problem keeping up and actually put a hurt on the group. I doubled my indoor training over the winter and I still had a heck of a time getting ready for this season once I could finally put rubber to road this last spring.
It has been my experience that there are fairly specific levels to cycling: the tourists/beginners (10-14 mph), the slow folks (14-16 mph), the mid-range cyclists (17-18 mph), the fairly quick crowd (19-20 mph), the studs (20-22 mph), the horses (22-24 mph) and the semi-pros (24-26+ mph). As a caveat, these speeds are highly subjective and based on mildly hilly terrain – on flat terrain you can add at least 1 mph to each of those, on very hilly terrain you’d subtract 1-2 mph. I went from the mid-range group to the fairly quick crowd in my first six months. From there I spent a whole year trying to get to the studs group. This season I’m very close to mingling with the horses but the gap has been noticeably difficult to bridge. Once you start riding with the horses, they cease to simply ride in a straight line. They begin to attack, creating a yo-yo effect which makes it even tougher to keep up over a distance and it takes an even greater leap in fitness than going from fairly quick to a stud.
There are things one can do to minimize the difficulties in jumping groups though. First is climbing hills. Most people hate climbing because it’s slow, hard work. Become one of the few who love them because the studs and horses use them as an opportunity to kick everyone else’s butt. To do this, I started by attacking every single hill I encountered on my training rides. Instead of shifting down to an easier gear, I shift up and climb out of the saddle, trying to maintain my speed going uphill, or even pick up the pace. Several weeks of this and I got so good at climbing that I found myself having to slow down going up a hill on a few occasions with the advanced group I ride with. As a side note, implementing this hurts. It hurts my legs, it hurts my lungs and it works my heart like nothing I know, especially when I’ve got one hill after another or a false flat. This is not easy.
Next has to do with cycling in a pack. I have a tendency to lightly tap the brakes if the riders ahead slow down for some reason. For the longest time I would try too hard to keep four to twelve inches between my front tire and the rear tire of the person ahead of me. During a slow down, I’d hit the brakes a bit so I could keep my tidy gap. This bleeds too much speed and I end up having to work too hard when the yo-yo snaps the other way. The fix for this is very technical and takes a good deal of concentration so do approach this cautiously if this is news to you. I learned to better pay attention to what the guys were doing two or three riders ahead rather than the one I was immediately behind and I allowed that gap to get a little bit bigger (maybe 1-1/2 to 2 feet). The extra 6 inches to 1 foot doesn’t hurt all that much in terms of drafting and it allows me to absorb the yo-yo a little bit.
Another tactical leap is learning when and where to jump when people are falling off of the back (or in some cases out of the middle of the pack). This takes a keen eye and you have to be ready to jump as soon as you see a gap forming. If you let that gap get too big and you’re not strong enough to catch the leaders (I’m not), then you’re off the back and there’s nothing you can do about it. With this little tidbit, there’s not a whole lot of useful information I can give. Keeping track of what is happening several riders ahead, at least for me, is a “feel” thing and that just doesn’t translate well to print.
If you’re too weak to put the hurt on the group (I am, at least for now), then you’ll have to learn how to hide and how long to pull at the front. I usually feel like a jerk if I hide and don’t take my pull, unless I’m hanging on for dear life (it’s happened like that twice) so if we’re really cruising (24-25 mph on the flats), I have to be very careful to limit my pulls so I still have enough left to latch back on when I drop back. I have a tendency to push myself too hard because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not pulling my weight so I can wreck the rest of my ride if I’m not careful. Hiding is a tough one. I’ve done it a couple of times but I really felt guilty when I did. My thinking here is why should everyone else work just to pull my butt around the course. The answer is simple, but complex. They ride too fast for me to pull for any length of time so I have to hang on in the draft. That’s the reality, I just don’t like it.
Finally, and this is important, you must know that riding fast isn’t easy for anyone. It’s doubly hard to jump groups and there is no easy way around it. The only way you get a break is to ride in a group under your current ability. For instance, on the Fourth of July we’ll be riding out of the local bike shop. It’s an invite only ride for which the slow pokes and horses are never invited. It’s a 19-20 mph paced ride and if we get going too fast, one of the pacers in the group will slow it down when they get to the front to keep the group together. I can ride at 19 mph, by myself, for well over 100k. Add the help of 20-30 cyclists and I will enjoy every mile of that ride with a smile on my face (I did last year, 80 miles, i pulled for 18 of the last 20 miles and I tacked on another ten to ride to and from the start/finish). The problem with too much of that is it will eventually slow you down. Greg LeMond is often sited for the quote, “it never gets any easier, you just get faster.” Well, many of us know the inverse is true as well… If you always take it easy, you just get slower. The trick is to embrace the suckiness inherent in busting your own ass. Many will spend hours perusing the net for the easier, softer way – the perfect pedal stroke, the perfect cadence and so forth, when the easiest softest way is to learn how to love pedaling faster and harder. The cadence and pedal stroke do make it mildly easier, but without the heart, you’re stuck where you are. All of the cyclists who ride faster than you, every one, has learned to live with or enjoy the suck more than you. There’s no easy remedy for that.