The Noob’s Ultimate Guide to The Ten Commandments of Sucking Wheel: How to Get a Free Ride With the Advanced Group Without Being A Jerk
Every cyclist who’s ever ridden a bike has sucked wheel at one point or another. Alberto Contador has turned that into an art form for crying out loud. I ride with a group of cyclists who are vastly faster than my friends and I. If I’m going to survive, I’m sucking wheel for most of the ride – short turns at the front, a little bit of hiding and a strategic fallback or two at a traffic sign before the hills. When you’re an avid enthusiast rolling with Cat 3 and 4 racers, you just do your best. Or better still, you’re a “D” rider trying to hang with the “C’s” or “B’s” or a “C” with the “B’s”. Whatever the case, it’s been oft-repeated that if you want to ride faster, ride with people faster than you – and that pretty much sums it up. It’s not rocket science. If you want to ride faster you just gotta learn to push harder on the pedals. The best way to do that is to ride with those who already can.
That said, there are rules (many unwritten) on how this works so one may maintain a good standing within the group, have a good ride, and be a useful part of the group. First, and contrary to popular belief, when looking at advanced groups, you have to know one thing right off the bat: The group owes you nothing. The vast majority of the advanced groups are not the touchy-feely “no-drop ride” types. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they will expect a certain level of effort and performance out of you if they’re going to go to the trouble of helping you ride like them.
Advanced groups will also require you to actually know how to ride your bike. See, here’s the trick: Riding in a pack is dangerous at 16 mph if you have people who don’t know how to ride in a group. At 30, a little mistake can be catastrophic. We all have wives or husbands and kids that we very much want to see after the ride and rather than risk it, you will be dropped like a dirty shirt if you are identified as a threat to the safety of the group. Seen it happen, been a part of it happening, done it myself – and we most certainly don’t care if that hurts your feelings. Better your feelings than our necks. If you never thought to look at club cycling from the perspective of those you’re going to be riding with, it’s probably good that you’re reading this post. Rather than take it personally, work on riding better and come back strong, fit and stable. Your effort will be noticed and reflected in how you’re treated.
Here’s how the drop works on flat ground. You’ll be huffing and puffing along, all over the lane, in the wrong position (say in the middle, betwixt the two pace lines), at 22-23 mph. All of a sudden two or three of the stronger cyclists who were behind you in the line will shoot up the side of the group. The pace will then jump to somewhere between 28 & 30 mph. You’ll let a gap form because you weren’t ready and in too hard a gear to match the surge… and you’re off the back. That fast. You try to bridge the gap but the group slowly pulls away. Hills are used for the same purpose… The group climbs at 17-19 mph usually but on a particularly tough grind, they take the hill at 23… It’s to drop you – or possibly another noob, maybe you’re just unlucky this time.
Here are the Ten Commandments of Advanced Group Riding that will help you to not be the person the Club wants to drop:
- Know Thy Place. As a newbie to the group, you pose a threat to the safety of everyone around you. A bike ride is just a bike ride at 12 mph. At 28, one wrong move at the wrong time and you can actually kill someone, or put them in the hospital for months. If the group is a little leery of you, this is to be forgiven immediately, without a second thought – and this goes no matter how good you think you are. Experienced cyclists know they’re good already and that this will show once they’re down the road. If you’re agitated that nobody trusts you before they’ve seen you ride, that says volumes about you – mainly that you don’t ride well or you’re a jerk. The former can be fixed with practice in a slower group. The latter, not so much, and nobody wants to dig deep and work for someone who won’t respect the effort.
- Thou Shalt Learn to Ride Before Thou Ridest. It’s wise to know how to ride in a straight line and learn how to ride in a group before you ride with the big dogs. Unfortunately, you can’t just get on a bike and jump in the ring to box. Start off with easier groups or take several months to learn how to ride well first.
- Work for Thy Place. Every now and again, no matter how good you are at hiding at the back, you are going to get stuck going to the front. It happens. Accept it, do your part and take a turn up front… Your turn doesn’t have to be long, even 20 or 30 seconds will suffice. If, however, you find yourself running out of gas quick and you must go to the back, do not just pull over and leave a gap! The correct way to head to the back is to signal with your hand that you’ll be exiting to the outside of your line and announce to the person in front that you’re coming up on their [insert “left” or “right” here]. Then you start to speed up and pull the person behind you up. You close the gap for them with a draft, then fall back. Signal your exit again and do so. If what you just read is Greek to you, you’re not ready for the advanced group yet. Work on a few no-drop rides first to learn how the choreography of a group works.
- Hide Decently in Thy Place. There is a difference between hiding and hiding well. A good way to look it this is that the cyclists at the front, who are doing all of the work for you, are the worker bees. Generally, you’d be considered the “hive” builders, but you can’t knit a sweater at 20 mph, so you’re more like one of those sucker fish who cling to a Great White shark for a free ride and an easy meal. Not that this is bad, that’s just the best way to describe us when we’re sucking wheel. Generally speaking, if the group is working right, you’ll have two lines of five to ten workers with the wheel suckers behind. The lead sucker will open up a hole for the worker to slide into and announce that the worker should get in… If you’re too embarrassed to do this, you need to be farther back in the group. Also, if the group is small and you don’t have enough worker bees, you will run into the unenviable position of not being able to suck wheel. Do your part and drop off the back when you’re cooked. Don’t open a hole for a guy who’s just taken a 3 minute pull at the front if you’re just three or four riders back from the person who just took the lead. That’s just plain rude. A worker should get at least five cyclists to recover behind before their next turn up front.
- Thou Shalt Know Thine Hand Signals. Remember boys and girls, we’re talking about the advanced clubs here, not the weekly 15 mile “Ice Cream Parlor Ride”. Unless you’re invited to ride with the group ahead of time (which will mean one of the club members will already know that you can ride well), learn the hand signals and verbal gestures ahead of time. There are a number of posts throughout the web that deal with “group ride hand signals” and “group ride etiquette“. If you want to do the no drop rides, read a few posts. If you want to jump right in with the big boys and girls, read as many as you can (ten each, minimum).
- Thou Shalt Not Slow Down Without Hand-signaling and Shouting, “Slowing” or “Stopping”. I was guilty of this once… We missed a turn on a century, I was at the front and heard a bunch of commotion about missing the turn so I stopped pedaling and turned to ask, “What do we do?” Seems simple enough, yes? Well, I almost caused a wreck… Use your hand signals and verbal cues… and use them at all times.
- Thou Shalt Announce Your Presence in the Event Thouest Latches On to the Back. I almost loogied on a cyclist the other day because he managed to latch on to our 20 person group without announcing he was there. Don’t get loogied on. Let the person in the back know you’re on too. Just a simple, “Mind if I join you” will suffice.
- Thou Shalt Not Be the Cause of a Gap if Thou Hast Joined a Group. Just about the rudest thing you can do is join a group and then let a gap form, splitting up the group. If it’s too fast for you, get out early and leave the group to themselves, especially during a long ride. You will rightly be remembered, forever, as the “wheel sucking [insert expletive here] who broke the group up”. Don’t be that person.
- Thou Shalt Not Allow One of the Horses to Drop His Mates Without Letting Him Know. This one happened to me just the other day… I was feeling particularly awesome about 55 miles into a 65 mile Tour and I was up front. My friends Mike and Phill had taken all of the pulling responsibilities for the last 30 miles and had a group of about 20 sitting in behind us. Lo and behold, I’d dropped three of my group, including my wife (all in the same kit), in all of my awesomeness and the wheel-sucking losers took something like two miles to tell me. That was the last time I worked for the jerks. I signaled and pulled off the side of the road and let them work themselves back whilst my friends caught up. Don’t be like them.
- Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk. No more need be said.