Riding in a group can seem daunting to the newer cyclist. There’s a lot to it and you’re not wrong to be nervous. I was scared, myself. Quite, actually. The fear wasn’t unfounded, either. It only takes one little careless mistake at decent speeds and a pileup can happen, hurting a lot of people. My fear was based on a lack of experience, though. Exactly none. It wasn’t long before I had a smile stretched across my face – roughly three miles. My first group ride was absolutely amazing… and I was dropped just eight miles in (it’s an everyone gets dropped ride). Fortunately, I wasn’t the first to drop. I had no idea where I was.
There are several things you can do to mitigate the risk of riding in a pack, though. It’ll be worth it to learn, too. Riding in a group, large or small, is more fun than a human being should be allowed to have (with their clothes on). Let’s take a serious look at some hard and fast tips that’ll help you have fun and stay as safe as you can… at 40 feet per second with only a foot betwixt your front wheel and the rear wheel of the cyclist in front of you.
- The single most important tip, the one that rises above them all, is exceedingly simple: you have to think of the other people you’re riding with. Cycling with a group is a group activity, after all.
- If you remember anything in this post, remember this: be Smooth, Consistent and Predictable.
- Do not stop pedaling at the front of the group. I made this mistake early on in cycling. Someone hollered out that we missed a turn so, naturally, I stopped pedaling and looked over my shoulder to discuss what we’d do (press on or turn around). The result was a bunch of my friends scattering so they didn’t run into my rear wheel. My mistake was in not signaling my intention to slow down with a “slow” hand signal first. See also #2. And #4
- Know your hand signals. Hand signals are vastly more important that verbal cues. Half the time, at speed, you can’t hear anything in the wind, anyway. Learn how the group you’re riding with flicks off the front (arm-flick or @$$ tap and point), how to signal for a turn, a slow-down, a stop, train tracks, roadkill, potholes, and gravel/debris. While you can have fun with the hand signals, be careful not to deviate from what is common with the group you’re riding with, lest someone in the group misses it (or misunderstands the signal).
- At first, you’re going to look at the wheel in front of you. Try not to fixate on it, though. Watching the wheel in front of you is natural till you develop a bit of cycling spatial awareness. Acquisition of your spatial awareness takes a lot of riding with others to master, but you’ll get there. Once you know where your wheel and the wheel in front of you are without staring, then you can start looking up the road, beyond the front of the group. This ability is a key to safety and allows you to see what’s happening up ahead so you have some time to process and take action should that be required. Taking action is immensely safer than reacting. A couple of summers ago, a friend had a catastrophic blowout of his front tire at 32-mph as we were reaching the final sprint launch point on our Tuesday night club ride. He was six or eight bikes in front of me but I actually saw him hit the rock in the road. He went down hard after valiantly trying to get to the side of the road, but everyone else in the 20-cyclist deep pack scattered and avoided the crash. This was solely due to the fact that we were all looking up the road rather than at the wheel in front of us. Had we been glued to the wheel ahead, the carnage from the resulting pileup would have been brutal.
- Don’t spend too long at the front of the pack. You’ll see people taking mile-long turns at the front of the group, sometimes more. DO NOT cook yourself at the front for vanity. You’re no good to the group knackered. Do your part, then flick off the front so you can latch on at the back and get your rest.
- Don’t overlap wheels. Say you overlap the wheel in front of you, their rear wheel, if they do something unpredictable and sweep your front wheel, you will go down. Their rear wheel is fixed and has 65% of their weight on it. Your front wheel turns and has 35% of your weight on it… you lose. Every time.
- DO take your lumps at the front. They call this “pulling through”. Some very, very bad cyclists will flick off at the same time as the person in front of them, leaving the third bike to make up a big gap to get equal to the cyclist on the other side of the pace-line (for a double, of course, this isn’t such a big deal in a single pace-line). Another no-no is flicking off to the back from the middle of the pace-line, leaving a gap for the person behind you to make up. If you’re second bike, take 20 seconds or so at the front before flicking off to the back. If you’re in the middle of the pack and absolutely have to get to the back, wave everyone else up (with your inside hand) and surge so you make up the gap for those behind you by riding off to the outside of the pace-line. In other words, don’t leave a gap for someone else to fill – leaving a gap for someone else is like expecting someone else to pick up your dirty socks… there’s a special name in cycling given to a bike rider who leaves a gap: twatwaffle. Don’t be a twatwaffle (I never grow tired of that name).
- If you have to flick to the back from the middle of the pack using #8, STAY at the back. You’re outmatched. You’re better off staying in the back out of the way than having to pull out from the middle more than once. Experienced riders will appreciate you staying in the back over getting in the way and creating gaps.
- If you’re staying at the back because you can’t pull through, DON’T participate in the sprint. Remember “twatwaffle”? Yes, that’d be the person who sits in on a club ride only to try to take the sprint at the end. They do that repugnant $#!+ in races, not on Thursday evening club rides.
- I could go on with another 20 items, but I don’t want to lose you… things like, “keep your bike properly maintained”, etc., etc., but one last good point will do; if you’re nervous about your first rides in a pack, just start with a slower group than you’re capable of hanging with. You won’t be taxed trying to hang on and the slower pace will give you the opportunity to learn how to hold a wheel, draft, bleed speed without hitting the brakes, gain your spatial awareness, and generally have a good time of it before you get serious and start hammering with the big dogs.