By Coach Steve
John Tesh, CBS sports commentator: "The cycling peloton
(pack of riders) is like the Internet - many people don't understand
how it works, but when they do, it's cool."
I've been asked many questions about what to do, and what not to
do, during our group rides. So I'm writing this to elucidate some
of the finer points of pack riding and hopefully make our cycling
outings more safe and productive.
Safety has to be the number one concern when we ride on public
roads. And the most important consideration is the responsibility
of the lead rider to make all following riders aware of any impending
danger. This means that the lead rider of any group should consider
the lack of unobstructed vision behind, and therefore, the
slower reaction time of the following riders. The lead rider must
attempt to avoid all potholes, cracks, rocks, and road debris by
taking a wide berth around these hazards. The lead rider should
also make the followers aware by pointing toward the location of
the obstacle and/or yelling (this is necessary to be heard over
wind noise) a warning as well. Of course these hazards may include
any other vehicle, on the roadway, or entering the roadway, from
side streets and driveways. Due to sand, potholes, cracks and other
road debris as well as the potential for vehicles to pull out suddenly,
I recommend that as a group we ride farther out from the edge of
the road than we would while riding alone.
When riding on open public roads, a single file formation is the
only acceptable way to move as a group. Of course, there are times
when we would all like to form a nice double paceline (side by side
formation) but this can only be done when we know there are no vehicles
passing. Needless to say, this is a very rare occurrence on Fairfield
County roads. Distance between riders is another important issue.
I recommend a spacing of one wheel length between riders normally
and much more distance on very fast stretches or downhills. The
drafting advantage of a lesser distance than this is negligible,
but the risk of overlapping wheels in our only moderately experienced
group is substantial.
Awareness regarding traffic flow is invaluable. When I pull-off
the front of the paceline, I always take a quick took back over
my shoulder to check for passing car. If there is a vehicle coming
up fast, or at all, I wait to swing off (move to the back of the
It is each rider's responsibility to maintain the smooth flow of
the group. When riding in a paceline, sudden movements of any single
rider can be disastrous. This means that abrupt braking, swerving,
and any type of erratic riding is always a dangerous, poor technique.
When the lead rider is careful to make all the followers aware of
what's coming sudden reactions are seldom necessary.
Each rider in the paceline is responsible for maintaining his or
her place in that line. This means that if you let a gap open up
everyone behind will be "dropped" either temporarily or for
the rest of the ride. And, they will be completely within their
rights to verbally and physically abuse you after the ride. But.
of course we Road Hogs are far too civilized to do this!
While leading the paceline, each rider must make his or her own
best judgment regarding how long to lead. The proper way to pace
yourself is to maintain the same speed as the former rider at the
front, pulling longer if you feel strong, shorter if you can't keep
the pace. If the speed is obviously beyond your capability, then
you should stay at the back and tell each rider to 'pull-in' in
front of you as they move toward the back of the paceline for their
wind-break. Of course, if you are the one fixed to the back of the
line, after the ride you may be victim of finger pointing and name
calling with disparaging terms such as: Wheelsucker, wimp, or girly-man.
Ouch! But we Road Hogs are far too sophisticated and restrained
to ever say such things, right?
When a rider in front of you is clearly getting dropped, a quick
decision is required whether to stay where you are, or "jump-across"
the gap before it gets too big. If the group is moving very fast,
the latter may not be an option. This is known as the "crunch" time
in bike racing terminology - when the pace is so fast that the paceline
string breaks, the riders who can keep the pace end up in the lead
group, and those that can't are "off the back." The rider who is
"going backwards" (struggling) and perhaps letting the gap open
up has no obligation to tell those behind that he's "losing it"
perhaps because if he's really doing all he can to hold on, oxygen
is at a premium, and speaking is not an option. It's the responsibility
of the riders behind to assess and respond to the situation in this
There are many other fine points of importance regarding pack riding
but most are beyond the scope of this article. So, I'll just mention
a few of the key tips: When a rider changes from a sitting to standing
position on a hill for instance, his or her bike will suddenly move
backwards as much as a foot-and-a-half. This is a temporary reduction
in forward momentum due to a body position shift toward the front
of the bike. Beware of overlapping his or her wheel when this happens!
It's generally best to match gearing/cadence in a group, but sometimes
the experienced rider will gear "down one" to save energy while
drafting and gear "up one" when they "hit the front" for extra power
and top end speed.
Riders tend to let a much larger gap open up between cyclists when
cornering, so with each position back from the lead rider increased
proportionally, the total distance from engine to caboose can double
or even triple. This means that the further back you are after the
corner, the harder you will have to work to "get back on" the back
of the paceline.
For subtle speed reductions in a fast moving paceline, it is possible
to simply move from behind the "wheel" ahead of you rather than
braking. To do this, just move to one side or the other (when there's
space) thus slowing as you lose some of the drafting effect.
Crosswinds are rarely a consideration in our region of wind break
by thick vegetation and tall trees. But, when there is a crosswind,
the best draft is obtained by moving laterally from directly behind
the wheel ahead, to the downwind side. How far 'off center' depends
on the exact direction and speed of the wind, but I can tell you
that in a huge crosswind I've spent many a road race or team time
trial with my front wheel even with the cranks of the rider ahead
of me - drafting efficiently.
Remember, concentration and awareness of what's happening around
you is everything while riding so ride safely by expecting the unexpected!