Being a part of a cycling pace-line, to be able to feel what it must be like to ride in the peloton at the Tour de France, is truly something special. To be able to feel the draft work, combined with the speed with which everything happens… and the whirring of drivetrains and whizzing of freehubs as people coast… that’s what changed me from a bike rider to a cyclist. My first day in a group pace-line I was summarily dropped after just 8 miles – but that was enough. I was utterly hooked. I’ve learned a lot since that day and I’ll share some of that here.
Riding in a group, while spectacular and awesome, is inherently dangerous and I recommend against it if you can’t afford the possibilty or prospect of getting hurt. I also recommend against it for the letigeous among us who would get hurt then look for someone else to blame for a payday. For those who can live with the risk, there are some important things to know about cycling with friends.
Ride smooth and predictably. If you want to be invited to the next ride, be smooth and predictable. No sudden surges, don’t ever stop pedaling when you’re up front unless you signal you’re slowing first, no dodging, bobbing and weaving. Smooth accelerations are acceptable if you can pull a little faster than the last person, though slowing without signaling before is not. No side-to-side, or dodging obstacles without pointing them out first. If you dodge an object without pointing it out, others behind you will hit said object and you will properly be blamed and even shunned. If someone does this to you, the simplest way to say, “nice going” without calling names is to simply say, “Yep, I got all of that one”.
Don’t hope (or wait) on the guy riding the gravel bike with a camelback hydration system to pull you back as the group accelerates away. If you tuck in behind that guy, you’ll be able to watch your dreams of a PR slowly drift away with the main pack as they speed off over the horizon. This isn’t to say gravel bike people aren’t competent riders – I know several right off the bat who are exceptional, capable riders. What you’re worried about is noob gravel guy with a camelback who doesn’t have much experience riding with a group. If he falls off the pace, the last place you want to be is behind him hoping he’ll get you back. He won’t.
As a seasoned cyclist, having put in tens of thousands of miles with cyclists of varying talent, I can spot a noob to group riding from a quarter-mile away, so I know to watch when I’m on their wheel that they don’t create a gap I can’t bridge across. See, when a seasoned cyclist is out of gas, they’ll signal for the group behind to pass and unceremoniously fall off the back to spin home. This is the polite thing to do for everyone else. Noobs don’t exactly know how to be polite when they drop, so if and when they do, they tend to take everyone behind them with them. I can see this coming by paying attention to how someone is riding because I’ve seen it a hundred times and gone around them to bridge the gap and survive with the main group. Another noob to group riding won’t be able to spot this coming because they don’t know the telltale signs to look for… it’s for that reason we look at “gravel bike guy with his camelback” the way we do. Seasoned road cyclists don’t wear camelbacks and/or ride knobby tires on a 22-mph 100-mile ride.
Use a speedometer and make “current speed” the biggest (or only) item on the display. The number of cars that have passed you means absolutely nothing when you’re cruising down the road at speed. Knowing how many calories you’ve burned or the elapsed time of your ride is utterly worthless as you’re hurtling down the road at 50 feet per second (15 meters per second). Current speed, however, is immensely important. Get a sense of the pace and when you take your turn up front, hold the pace the group is riding at. Don’t go all crazy and try to bump it up a couple of miles per hour, and don’t stay up front so long you can’t hold the group’s pace. If you get the thought that those behind you are waiting on you to speed things up, you’re mistaken. They want you to maintain the pace.
When you get out of the saddle to climb a hill, you surge forward as you stand up. You DON’T pull back on the handlebars to stand. The former means you create a little gap. The latter means you drift back and put those drafting you on edge, or worse, on the ground if they rub your rear wheel. Don’t be that person.
While we’re on that last item, don’t overlap wheels and don’t follow directly behind the wheel in front of you. A couple of inches either side of the wheel in front of you could save you from a face plant if the person in front of you happens to pull back on their handlebar when they get out of the saddle to climb a hill.
Always remember the most important item when it comes to group riding:
The least important thing is what you want. The most important things are the safety and happiness of the group. Look out for others as much as you look out for yourself (or more) and you’ll be just fine.