You never get faster at the back…
Anyone who has ridden in a group knows where that came from. It’s a charged statement certainly, because it’s not exactly true. You do get faster clinging onto the back. I did. My wife has. Virtually anyone who’s ridden with a group composed of a majority of cyclists faster than they are has gotten fitter, stronger, and most important, smarter by hiding at the back of the pack. On the other hand, this is exactly what I tell myself when I run into those times where I want to sit in the back and hide. It gets me out of my comfort zone and I’ve become vastly faster and stronger for that mentality, so it really comes down to this: Read this post and take from it what you can, and leave the rest. Just because I believe it and say it/write it, doesn’t make it “right”.
The trick, of course, is that once you can hang on to the back for a bit, you’ll learn it’s not all fun and games back there. Sure you catch a good draft, when the wind is favorable, so you can go faster than you normally would on your own, but that only lasts until you get pounded by a heavy crosswind on the wrong side of an echelon. You end up “in the ditch, dropped quicker than a dirty shirt. This is where that “smarter” comes into play. Eventually you find yourself farther up in the group to find that the pedaling is a little harder but the cycling is easier… It’s smooth, more controlled. In the back, unless the front of the group is rock steady, there’s a yo-yo effect to deal with and that can hammer a group. Then, with a crosswind, you rarely get a decent spot in the echelon (especially if you’re on the wrong side of a double pace line) so you have to work darn-near as hard as the person/people leading the pack anyway.
Then there are hills. Hills can make a mess of trying to hide. There is hope though, it’s not all bad. First, hills are going to slow the front of the group so if you can climb decently and know how to shift to maintain cadence, you’ll find yourself coasting or soft pedaling uphill (happens to me all of the time). You get a little bit of the draft too so it’s all good, right? Well, not exactly because if there’s any energy to the group, the hills is where they attack. I remember reading a written by a Cat 1 pro very early on in which he detailed the opportune places to attack the group, or as the case commonly is in competitive groups, shake things up. They were: Going up hills, into a head wind or a brutal crosswind… Or basically, whenever it’s tough. I swear to God, this is why they keep the phrase, “no rest for the weary” alive. Anyway, if you hate the hills right now, the easiest way to get through them and still have something left in the tank to stay with the lead group is to, ideally, learn to love them. If “love” is too strong a word, try “like” and go from there. I can tell you this, I do love climbing hills and I practice getting faster on them regularly. There is nothing more rewarding to me, on a Tuesday night, than coasting up hills behind the group so I don’t run into the person in front of me. That said, I still get dropped when we get to the gnarly hills – when the racers turn the club ride into a race. The trick to the steeper hills is that you’ve gotta have some want to in the tank and the ability to turn that into some serious wattage when it matters. It’s not easy.
Next up I want to get into echelons for a minute because they’re really tricky. With a tough crosswind, if you get caught out in the wrong spot or even too far back (if you’re too far back, you run out of lane and have to resort to a pace line rather than an echelon), you’re going to end up working just as hard as the guys up front but you won’t get a rest. For this reason, I like to pick my side of the double pace line so I am blocked in the for the second third of the ride (all bets are off for the last third). This means for the first third, I’m usually eating wind the whole way out, but I figure better to eat early and recover during that second third. This doesn’t always work out right, depending on how the group reorganizes at stop signs, but I’ll say this: I take my place when it comes down to it. Sometimes you’ve gotta be a little selfish.
To wrap this post up on a positive note, let’s go back to the title: You only get faster at the front. There is an insane difference between leading the group at 28 mph and hanging in the draft at 28 mph. It gets worse though. Being fourth or fifth bike back is where you really pick up a nice advantage with the draft and while you have to contend with surges, tenth or more back and the draft will darn near pull you down the road. It’s very cool actually, to be able to ride down the road at 28+ mph and feel like you’re barely working. The closer you get to the front, the harder you have to work. Third bike is harder than fourth, second is harder than third… And this is what really improves fitness for the solo rides and the smaller group rides. Take your turns up front. I learned the hard way that too much time up front will wreck me for the rest of the ride, but with the exception of strategic places in our ride (I’ll get to those in a minute) I take every one of my turns up front. They aren’t always long, but I give it my best every time I get up there. With the help of some other cycling bloggers, I’ve come to understand that I am more valuable to the group when I contribute, even if it’s only for 30 or 40 seconds up front, than if I am dropped off the back for taking a full mile in the lead. Why? Well, as I work my way up from the back again, if I’m dropped, the group has to fill my shoes… Where I am fourth, third or second bike, blocking for those behind me so they get a better chance to recover, if I’m off the back, it’s one less bike in the line. Recovering for the next stint up font is that much harder. So try not to worry, as I did, about taking short shifts up front if you have to do so to hang on – you’re valuable to the group in other ways through the cycle. Taking wise turns leading the pack is, by far, the best way to get fit and fast.
Strategic hiding zones…
As I’ve grown in fitness with our club, I’ve learned that there is one place where I have to be a little selfish and fall back so I can be fresh for the hills and the multiple attacks that open up until the main group crests the biggest of the hills and settles back down… I have one intersection where, no matter where I am in the pace line, I fall back about 2/3’s of the way so that I can be rested for the hills. This is currently the only way I can hang on for the big push. First, I learned (through getting dropped of course) where I get into trouble on our 30 mile route. I always got dropped between 14 and 20 miles into the ride because once we started up the hills, I was always at the front and I never had enough to fall back at a decent point before another hill came up and I was too tuckered to stay with the group. For the first season I was dropped well before that point in the ride and I’d just find someone else to ride back with or go it alone. My second season, I just accepted that I was pooched and dropping at or near that second set of hills. Last season was when I really started paying attention and a few of my friends managed to form a pact where we’d all drop at the same spot (or close to it), form up into our own group, cut three miles off the route and beat the racers back. Toward the end of last season was when I figured out that I could drop back a few miles before the hills and I’d be recovered enough to stay on a lot longer than ever before… It was a fluke, really. I just happened to be at the end of a pull at that particular intersection and we had a fairly large group. I went to the back of a rather large, solid pack and by the time I made it to the front again, we’d passed three of the hardest sets of hills and I had recovered excellently. So, if you’re having a tough time staying with the main group through a tough stretch of road, try heading to the back at an intersection so you can rest up before it gets ugly.
This whole post boils down to one simple reality: The harder I’m willing to work, the faster I get. The only thing I put above getting fast is fun. If it’s no fun, I’m not going to keep at it. Don’t work so hard that it diminishes the enjoyment of the sport. You’ll burn out, and that would suck because cycling is awesome.