What is it like, cycling in a group that’s been riding together for years at speeds in excess of 30 mph
This post is dedicated to a fellow blog-friend/triathlete because she asked what it’s like to ride in a fast group.
Our club is fairly merciless unless you’re one of the gang. If you’re new, but you seem like a decent person and can ride well, one of the gang will drop back, if you’re struggling, twice to help you bridge a gap (after that you’re on your own)… On the other hand, if you’re a poor rider and are perceived as a threat to the group’s safety, you’ll be dropped immediately, if not sooner. We don’t stop for dropped water bottles (lost one myself), flats, or anything else – and once you’re off, there’s no getting back. My first day I was off the back and didn’t know the route… I had to catch someone else who had fallen off after me and follow him back. He and I are good friends today.
This has been a cause for consternation for me, because I’m just shy of “fast enough”. I can, however, stick around for the first 20 miles or so – before the club ride turns into a race… I, along with several friends of like ability, ended up forming a group of our own that splits off at the race point so we can ride back together, rather than in splinters.
We start out easy, usually with me and my buddy Mike in the lead. 18-20 mph depending on the direction and intensity of the wind. It takes a quarter-mile for the group to form up and for everyone to latch on. After that, we use the next mile to spin up the legs. Meanwhile, everyone is catching up on how they did in the latest race or the fun they had over the weekend kicking out miles.
Mike and I, unless we’re into a stiff headwind, drop off the lead at the first turn, a mile and some change into the ride. The racers take over from there (usually), and the pace picks up to the mid twenties, call it 23-26. A few years ago that 26 was the upper limits of our cohesiveness but not anymore.
At 25-26 the talking slows considerably except amongst the fastest of us. I stop entirely at 25 and above. Not necessarily because I can’t talk but because I love the exhilaration of rocketing down the road and talking makes that a little more like work than is enjoyable… There once was a time when I had to give my full concentration to maintaining my line and position, to watch the wheel in front of me to make sure I wasn’t too close or too far. This takes a lot of energy and is quite unnerving but after a year or so, I got to a point where I now know where I am by my relation to the cyclist in front, not his wheel. This means I can look up the road, several cyclists ahead, and see what the group is doing, not just the guy immediately in front of me. It took a lot of practice to get there but now I can see a surge coming before it happens.
We hold that 24-26 for about 7 miles, until we hit Shipman Road. It’s a sharp left turn as the road runs southwest – a rarity in corn country. With a north or east wind (helping – or a light breeze) the speed gets crazy, instantly, so I have to be ready to hit the gas as soon as we clear the gravel-laden corner. Within 200 yards we hit 28 mph. With a helping wind, we pass 30. With a headwind, ugh. With a cross headwind (fairly common), the group shatters. You can’t fit 25 to 40 people in an echelon.
Most of the talking ceases on Shipman, except for a few sentences from the Cat 3 racers (we have three or four among us). It’s at these high speeds that being able to judge wheel distance by the cyclist becomes hugely important. Bleeding speed by feathering the brakes to hold one’s place can only be done while I’m still pedaling – if I pause, it’s just too fast to hold my spot properly… On the bright side, at that speed I rarely need brakes anyway. We’ll hold 27-29 for four or five more miles when we hit our first set of decent hills.
There’s a group of three or four cyclists who hide in the back the whole time – if you do the math, we’re 13 or 14 miles into the 30 (or 33, depending) mile ride. I’m not normally one of those who hides but I have a time or two. In fact, one of the faster fellas once suggested I’d do better to hide more, to take fewer turns up front… That was the day I coined a phrase. I thought about his suggestion a second and replied, “Yeah, but you only get faster at the front.”
This is not entirely true, but it sounds badass so it stuck.
I’m generally maxed out in the upper twenties to low thirties (44-50 km/h) unless we have a big tailwind (a rarity – in fact, only twice in the last two years) so I’m holding on for dear life… It’s here that I finally hide for a bit. There’s a particular intersection three miles before the hills start where we cross a major arterial road. There’s enough traffic that we always come to a full stop, the entire 15-25 person group, before crossing (we’re 25-40 people strong at the start). At this intersection, no matter where I was when we got to the stop sign, I fade to the back of the pack so I can rest for the hills. For the next two miles, the pace slows a bit too, generally 23-25 as everyone else preps for the hills too.
The third mile, with the hills in sight, the pace slows down to the low 20’s… but it doesn’t drop much once we do hit the hills, maybe a mile or two per hour. Gear selection here is critical. Too high a gear and you’ll blow your lungs out your nose. Too low a gear and you’re dropped because a hundred-twenty cadence up a hill is frickin’ ridiculous and you can’t accelerate if there’s a surge (there’s always a surge). Once we crest the last rise (there are four or five with false flats in between), we are treated to a gentle decline and the pace picks up to 26-ish, rapidly.
We always lose a few in the hills, sometimes me.
From there we merge onto a major thoroughfare before making a left and hitting the next two hills… The group always jockeys to be at the back of the pack (I often wind up second or third bike off the front) because, while the first hill is easy and usually done at a sane pace (unless a jackass attacks – and I mean jackass in the actual meaning of the word, stubborn mule), the second hill is a butt-buster and is usually hit unreasonably fast (I’ve climbed the hill at 23 with the main group – 19 is fast with my friends.
Climbing hills in a tight pack, at least for me, is tricky. I can climb better than many so if the pace is slower I often find myself soft pedaling to keep my proper place in the group unless the lead guys are on the gas (in that case I have to push to keep up). It all depends who happens to be the unlucky leaders of the pack.
Next up is our first major downhill of the ride and you’ve gotta be ready. Coasting down the hill would get you maybe 20-22 mph. Pedaling down it easy, maybe 24-25… We hit 38, on a slow day (sometimes topping 40). Now, if you’re not ready for that surge, this is where you get dropped. Fortunately, with the downhill, you can stretch the spacing a little bit and still get a decent draft so I don’t have to be right on the next person’s wheel.
Then we come to the hill that all of us B guys get dropped on – I’ve only ever made it twice… The hill, the only real hill on our ride, is about meh, a third of a mile long with a false flat just before the top… on a good day, I can hit the top at 16.5 mph… The main group tops it just shy of 20.
From this point, the pace picks up for another before settling back down to race pace till the home stretch five miles where it’s back up to 28-30 depending on the direction of the wind… but I never see that. I’m a “B” guy. We form up after the big hill and take a three mile shortcut – usually four to eight of us who don’t make that last hill.
Rather than just take it easy, we keep a fair pace. Down a short hill, up another, to a long, gentle climb before a long, slight, decline over three-quarters of a mile that has us topping out just shy of 30 mph. Our group, depending on who is with us (ahem), is the picture of working together. The strong guys (myself included) take long pulls, the older and less strong take shorter turns, but we all do our best to keep a nice pace going, call it 22-24 mph. Our normal “B” group rides together a lot, maybe 3,000 miles a year together (my buddy Mike and I have to be closer to 4,000) so each of us is very aware of how the other rides. Little idiosyncrasies are known and planned for. Chuck and Mike climb out of the saddle but are seated for the first quarter of a hill… I have to be at least 12″ behind their wheel so when they stand and fade back, I won’t hit their back wheel (getting out of the saddle causes one to fade back unless you pedal into it – if you’re not ready when that fade happens it’s, uh, disconcerting). Phill gets a little dodgy at the end of a turn up front (side to side) before he pulls off. I don’t know what I do wrong but the guys I ride with could tell you… It’s nothing big but I’m sure I have my ticks. My wife takes turns at the front that are too long (a common rookie mistake)… Matt doesn’t signal when he’s done with a turn, he just looks back once or twice to make sure he’s not being overlapped, then just pulls off to the side and stops pedaling for a second. Oh yeah, I tend to speed up when it’s my turn up front. If the pace is 18-1/2, I take it to 19-20. If the pace is 21, I go to 22… It’s not that I’m trying to be difficult, I just want my friends to feel that I’m useful… This is a gradual thing too, I don’t shoot straight off the front, I just gradually wind the pace up.
We each know our strengths and weaknesses so we work together exceptionally well… A well-lubed machine going down the road for that last ten miles. Talking resumes again, generally about what happened in the course of that first twenty miles, though the pace is generally fast enough that the lead person just plows the road till they’re at the back and can breathe again.
We have sprint points for two city limits signs, one at the 22 mile mark and one at the finish but unlike some groups, we each do our share until the sprint… If that means I’m lead-out then that’s me (happened to me last Tuesday). If Mike’s lead-out then that’s him, same for Phill, Doc Mike or Matt… In the end, that first twenty miles is right at our threshold while those last ten are right at the edge of our comfort zone…
Of course, then there is TT-Guy. Basically, he alone can make the lot of us look like a bunch of Frankie-First-Years… But I’ve written enough about him.
Now, for stronger cyclists the speeds I mentioned in this post are decent but nothing special. For those who average 18 mph on their own on a good day, they may seem a little unattainable. The truth is, it’s not all that bad but we’re used to riding fast. I think the best way to describe it is that it’s not all that different from an 18 mph except that everything happens a lot quicker. This is why it’s so important for rookies to cut their teeth on slower rides (I worked with my wife quite a bit after she decided she wanted to give the club ride a try. We spent a month or two riding on off nights going over positioning, wind directions, braking practices and hand signals – basically, I tried to hit everything she’d run into over the course of a ride, or at least the trouble spots that I ran into as a noob)…
In the end, after all of this is written, there’s one glaring thing this post is lacking that I simply couldn’t figure out how to work into the post and it’s exceptionally important. Riding in the mid to upper 20’s as a group isn’t much different that riding in a slower group, except that everything happens so fast, it’s really tough to put into words how quickly you have to react to little things… Little corrections, adjustments in speed, a slight wobble every now and again, a strong crosswind. All of these things make learning on the fly really difficult. For instance, I wrote earlier that I’m pretty much maxed out in the upper 20’s (28 or 29) without a tailwind. Even though I’m maxed, I still have to be able to pay attention to what’s going on around me. If I’ve got my head down and I’m pushing for all I’m worth when we roll up on a stop sign, I’d run right into the back end of the guy in front of me and at that speed, it’d be a catastrophic mistake. Put another way, at 25 mph, you cover 36 feet (about 12 meters) in one second. Put in this context it should be easy to grasp just how fast things happen and how important it is for everyone to be on the same page… This is why faster groups are so exclusive and a little “edgy” when it comes to who gets to play.
On the other hand, once you get used to the flow, it’s a lot of fun.