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The Ultimate Guide to Cycling in a Group: How to Have Fun In A Pack (Without Having Heart Palpitations!)
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.
It never gets old, my friends.
We rolled out last night to one of our last, last best evenings for TNIL-2020. This late in the season, though, if it’s warm, it’s due to the warmth being blown up to us. We had a stiff southwest wind to contend with. That’s good and bad… half of the ride is really hard – the other half is mildly hard. But the last 10k, it’s all tailwind all the way home.
It’s that last 10k that this story is all about.
I broke rule #1 in Tuesday Night in Lennon. I hadn’t brought my good legs. I left them somewhere along a 20-mph century Saturday afternoon. The slog into the wind was absolutely brutal. Still, I did my best to do my part. I knew I’d be alright if I just hung on till the tailwind.
We turned the corner, a hairpin righthand’er and… we had a tandem up front so the first hill was mercifully reasonable. Once we crested, though, the tempo picked up.
The next three miles is simply getting to and through the next hill till the fun part. Over the last hill we had the whole group together so there was no regrouping, we just rolled on, the two tandems up front and pulling hard. Over the crear and with some down and tailwind we went from 21 on the way up, to 27-mph (43 km/h) in a hurry. With the second tandem up front, it was like they were taking it to the barn as the passed 31-mph (50 km/h). I made a quick motion to everyone behind to stand down for the sprint so we could give it to Mike and his wife. They’d earned it. They selflessly lead us out all season long, they needed one after that effort.
We slowed a bit through town, but once across 71, we were right back after it. Chuck was in the lead and I was second. He took it up to speed and I held it through my turn. Up an easy incline at 22 to 24 and we were on the homestretch with a cross-tailwind.
We put on a clinic in smooth, steady speed. I knew the A Group would be right on our heels. We only dipped below 23 once at an intersection, to wait for a farmer to complete his turn. That stop cost us some time.
Chuck and I were one, two again. He led up the incline and wound the speed up and I took it up a notch to 26 before flicking off to the back and a rest. Clark was next, then David, then the tandems took over with under a mile to go. Dave and Val put in an excellent effort and flicked out to Mike and Diane, who put the hammer down. They “took the baton” at 25-mph and started working the pace up. 27… 28-mph… 29… Unlike previous weeks, I knew I was going for this sign. I was second bike behind the tandem and they appeared to have plenty of leg left to get to the end so I shifted to the drops, chose the right cadence and upshifted, waiting to come even with the farmhouse that signifies 20 seconds to the City Limits sign.
I could feel riders jostling in the back and tried to hold back so I didn’t burn my matches before crossing the line… I jumped 20 meters early, starting at 30-mph, and put everything I had into the pedals. My Venge leapt forward, hands in the drops, ass-high, head-low. 32… 33… 34… I shot across the line and looked back. More than a length, and the A Group was just coming across the line.
It was all fist-bumps and laughs on the cooldown mile. Another fantastically satisfying Tuesday night in the books. It wasn’t the fastest we’d ever done, but there was smooth and fun in spades. It was one of those nights that, in the dead of winter when I’m longing for a good ride outdoors and there’s a yard of snow on the ground (call it a meter), I’m going to remember that night.
We rode the last 10 km (6.2 miles) at a 24.25-mph average. , or 39 km/h. 15m:23s… Not our fastest 10 k, but definitely smokin’.
The evenings are getting short. It’s almost October and there was a 15% chance of rain… for those not following along with me on Michigan’s weather, that equates to a 100% chance of getting 15% wet. It was so sunny earlier in the day, though – certainly it couldn’t rain. I readied the Venge.
We were scheduled to start fifteen minutes early so we could finish in the daylight which meant a really fast warm-up. We almost started without my riding buddy, Chuck, but I managed to remember that he was actually on his way… I turned on my Garmin and forgot to pause it while we did laps around the parking lot waiting.
Surprisingly, the others waited with me. Chuck pulled into the parking lot a few minutes later and we were rolling a short while later. The warm-up was fast… and true to Michigan form, about two miles into said warm-up, dead into the wind, it started spitting on us. On a normal day, Craig pulls most of, if not the entire, warm-up. Into the wind, though, I had a feeling it was going to be a little much for him and he did fall to the back. He and McMike were holding 20-21 into the wind. I took a bit, then we singled up for the mile north. The few miles heading east back to the parking lot was in the neighborhood of 24-25-mph and it started spitting again. We completed the seven mile loop in less than 21 minutes.
Doing the math in my head, I needed one or two more miles for my 1,000 mile September so I relegated myself to at least the first mile in the rain. After the first mile, the drizzle slowed and I thought there might be hope so I kept pressing. A quarter-mile later it started coming down. I was ” that close to turning around when the sun broke through the clouds. It warmed up noticeably for a second and I decided to stick with it, come what may.
That was the last bit of wet for the evening, and what came next was worth sticking it out.
We had a small group – two tandems and six or seven singles – so there was a quick turn-over up front but the rest at the back was pretty decent… and most everyone did their part except a new guy who had to hide from time to time to keep from getting dropped (which we were perfectly cool with once we evened up the two lines).
What ensued, from the moment the lines equalized, for the entire rest of the ride, was one of the most enjoyable Tuesday Night Rides in memory. It was one of those where all of the cylinders were firing perfectly and the group did its thing. There were a few points where I struggled a little bit, especially toward the front in the headwind, but I knew if I just stayed on through the headwind, the tailwind home was going to be a blast.
I wasn’t wrong.
The hills held a couple of seconds of rough riding – they’re always exceptionally fast with even a mild helping tailwind – but once we were through, it was all fun and games. Mike I. and I were up front for the descent into Vernon and we were on the pedals like we were being chased. The norm is around 28-mph but we were well above 30 (48 km/h) before flicking out and heading to the back. I didn’t even bother with a sprint. Nobody did, we just kept our lines rolling.
Heading north was no different from the west tailwind – all go and no slow. The front of the group hugged the centerline as we rolled on so there was plenty of echelon room. For the final stretch home, it was like a finely tuned machine. With three miles to go, both tandems came to the front and I shouted out something about the tandems leading the group home and made a train’s “Wooo-wooo” call. That got laughs.
Chuck and I were next up and we did a good stretch maintaining that 25-27 before flicking off for the next two.
We didn’t even sprint for the City Limits sign, just rolled across the line as a group at 28-1/2-mph. It was hi-fives and happy times all the way back to the parking lot. We didn’t break any speed records. We weren’t even all that fast, but I can tell you unequivocally, fun was had last night, all around. I’m glad I stuck around for Vengin’ in the rain… (Chuck’s line when he noticed I’d ridden the Venge and it was raining. He actually sang a few bars… badly.)
It never ceases to amaze me how fortunate I am to have the friends I do. Life sure is good.
Tuesday Night In Lennon was some kind of special last night.
To start, the warm-up was entirely out of hand. With a perfect 75 F (23 C) and a light breeze out of the southwest, I knew it was going to be fast, but I wasn’t quite ready for this. One of the guys, Craig, has two speeds: complete stop and “all go, no slow”. We turned in a 20-mph warm-up – 7 miles in 21 minutes, flat. Who does a warm-up at 20-mph? Oddly, that unnecessarily fast warm-up felt quite good…
We let the A Group, which was substantially larger than the B Group, go and get a minute on us before we rolled out of the parking lot. We were slowed by a car coming up the road that was just enough to keep the group together out of the gate which meant a measured acceleration to cruising speed. I was second bike back and ended up with the first tailwind pull, a mile-and-a-quarter up the road. The pace had been expertly wound up to 22-mph and we took it from there. A quick stop at an intersection for traffic to clear and we rolled out – and found someone had dropped their water bottle on the other side of the road. Jason stopped to pick it up and we waited for him, crushing our average (it dropped from 22 down to 20), but that’s kind of how we roll.
Somehow, I ended up at the front again, so I took another mile. I felt quite good, but I had it in the back of my mind that I could have just screwed myself taking that much time at the front.
The next 23 miles were some of the smoothest, most enjoyable miles I’d ever ridden on a Tuesday Night. Into the headwind down the notorious Shipman Road, crosswind, hills, cross-tailwind – it didn’t matter. Everyone lined up right and we all did our share to get the group up the road. We made it through the hills with the group intact, all but one, who was only fifteen seconds behind. We waited and collected him for the big push home.
The tandem and Joe took us up the hill to the descent into Vernon. Clarke and I were second bike and as we crested that climb, he and I took control of the pace and dropped the hammer. We took the pace from 20-mph at the crest of the hill and slowly built it to 32 (52 km/h). I held on up there as long as I could before my power started dropping and flicked off. I latched on at the back and watched as a small group went up the road for the City Limits sprint.
Until this year, I’d tried to position myself to be in the sprint every week. This year, however, I decided I’d concentrate more on the lead-out and give everyone else a crack at the sprints. I’ve found I like the lead-out almost as much as the sprint.
From that point we had about 7-1/2 miles to go and it was right back to smooth and steady – a perfect rotation at the front (other than one minor misstep by a new kid who just started riding with us last week). The southerly breeze had dropped to a point we were barely stacking against it in the draft. We kept our pace between 23 & 26-mph (37 & 42 km/h), pushing down the road like a finely-tuned machine.
I was third bike, behind the tandem, with a mile to go. The guy up front flicked off and Mike and Diane took over. They started cranking it up with just seven tenths to the finish and I was right on their wheel, down in the drops to stay in their draft. 26-mph, 27… 28 started creeping to 29.
I was in perfect position to launch off the front if they just held out, but with less than a drag race to go they petered out and started bleeding speed. Jason came by just in the nick of time and I went from the tandem’s wheel to Jason’s as he cleared my front wheel. 29-mph… 30… I thought about simply hanging on and giving him the sign, but just for a split-second. In the drops, butt planted on my saddle, I hit the gas and worked around Jason. 32-mph… 33… I was pushing with everything I had to hold him off – the City Limits sign just ahead. Pulling on the bars to leverage against my driving legs I crossed the line first, half a bike ahead of Jason.
I stopped my Garmin and uploaded the ride before starting another for the mile-long cooldown. It was all smiles and fist-bumps as we heading to the church parking lot to pack up and roll home. We came around the final corner to this:
That’s about a wrap on our season. We don’t have much time left and we’ll be knocking the time back by 15 minutes next week so we have enough daylight to finish. Only five or six more Tuesdays until the night ride that’ll signify the end of the year.
We just found out the other day, one of the guys we ride with regularly on Sunday Funday has COVID – the first in our close-knit gaggle. He’s not a fortunate asymptomatic, but he’s nowhere near a hospital, either. More on that in a later post. So far his tandem partner is safe, too – it appears as though she didn’t catch it, even riding with him on the tandem. Fingers crossed.
New Year’s Eve is what we recovering folk call “amateur night”. We don’t stay out much later than midnight because we don’t want to be on the road with the amateur drunks. The pros are bad enough, the amateurs are that bad and stupid.
It was snowing, lightly, when we backed into the driveway.
I was awake at 4:30… and out at the end of the driveway in my robe and hunting boots at 7am, long before the sun broke on the horizon. Surprisingly, what little snow we did get, it didn’t stick. The roads were clear.
I sent out the “We’re riding at 8:30” text at 7:35, after talking to my buddy, Mike. I didn’t expect much of a turnout, but was happy to see Phill pull up in his truck. Mike and Diane rolled up on their bikes just behind him.
My wife and I took the tandem. It’s more work, but I’m loving that bike lately. Riding it, to put it simply, is fun. The tandem has it’s benefits, though…
We started into a cross headwind, with a little more cross than headwind. After three miles, my wife and I went to the front and stayed there. One of the beautiful benefits to riding tandem is the ease with which you cut through wind. It’s almost unfair. Six miles in, we turned into the wind – we’d decided on a route that would minimize the north/south travel with a steady SSW wind. At that point we relinquished the front for a bit and the group singled up. Another two miles and we were up front again and we never bothered dropping off the front after that. With a cross-tailwind the joking around could finally start up. With the others on their gravel bikes, the pace was always going to be easy and it was nice to just pedal the bike and have a few laughs.
It was a mix of tailwind and cross-tailwind all the way home – the wind having shifted to more of a WSW, and that was a welcome change. We rode the back way in to drop Mike and Diane off and pulled for Phill for the last two miles. We pulled into the driveway with a shade more than 25 miles, almost on the nose, on the computer but only 24.6 on Strava GPS and a smile stretched across my face.
The perfect start to the new year (it’s a very rare year we’re not stuck indoors on January 1st).
I’m heading back into work this morning after my long winter break. I had a great time with my wife and kids, even if last evening devolved into a ridiculous slapstick comedy of errors.
You know those days as a cyclist; you know you should probably phone it in for a day off. The radar shows you’re hit but the hourly forecast says you’ll be fine (from three different weather sites). You show up, do the warm-up and figure you’ll cut it short if it looks hairy… Right?
Then, it looks hairy but you’re having too much fun because the winter went on forever and you’re tired of that stupid trainer anyway, so you hope for the best. You ride on, only for the skies to open up on you.
Two miles later you’re hoping you can outride the rain. Two miles after that and you know by the size of the drops hitting your helmet that it’s gonna get bumpy. Then, because the group you ride with is awesome and strong, you do outrun the rain.
That was last night, in a nutshell – and it was awesome.
The weather was iffy at best. The radar was awash in green and we were scratching our heads as to whether or not we should even ride. On the other hand, the hourly forecast showed no appreciable rain until well after we’d be finished. As is typical with me, I don’t mind if I’m caught out in it but I find it difficult to start in the rain. It really wasn’t raining, so I supported going with it, and ride we did… and wet we got, though it was more of a “damp”, really.
As for the rented mule part, including last night’s 38+ miles, I’ve ridden 213 miles in the last five days and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time up front. I do this, in part, because I can. I also do it because there were a lot of people who did the same for me when I was a noob. We had a double pace-line with four cyclists per side rolling last night and I took a lot of turns up front. I spent so much time up front, I had nothing left for the sprints – both the midway sprint where I simply got beat by Chuck who’d ridden my wheel until I was out of gas 50 meters before the sign and the final sprint where I finished dead last in the group. I had nothing left in the tank. While I didn’t get my sprints, as I’ve written before, sometimes you’re the sprinter, sometimes you’re the lead out in group rides. Last night I was the lead out, I just led out for a bunch of miles. What was important, at least to me, was that I left everything I had on the road. It was awesome.
And by the time my fish and shrimp dinner was set down in front of me, I wasn’t thinking about the rain or being wiped out… I was thinking about how awesome it is to be me, and that’s what cycling is all about.