Thursday, April 19, 2012

En Masse

A passing peloton makes an arresting whir.  The sound is like nothing else, a clear example of synergy at its greatest.  A peloton is synergy itself.  Riding in a group can unlock a whole world of possibility that alone is simply not feasable.  The peloton exists everywhere in nature—and for good reason.  The birds and the bees have got nothing on cyclists.  Whether flock, swarm, or peloton the idea is the same:  share the load to accomplish more than what would be possible solo. 

 Riding with others transforms cycling from a workout to a culture, a community.  Our entire sport is predicated on the peloton.  Though individual in its nature, cycling is made whole when done en masse.  The effortlessness of 27 MPH in a group is like no other feeling—exhilarating, freighting, and addicting all at once. 

Socially, group riding makes the individual rider part of something—a cooperative that can carry a suffering cyclist through difficulty, or propel someone on good legs to speeds otherwise unacheiveable.  Riding alone will teach you to dig deep and overcome personal barriers, but riding in a group will teach you to push beyond of what you are actually capable—to your absolute breaking point, deeper than you could ever imagine pushing when by yourself.  

Group riding is an essential part of being a cyclist, and thusly you should try to master it and hold it in high esteem.  Understandably though, many cyclists shy away from riding in large groups.  It’s scary.  It can be difficult, and maybe worst of all—there can be crashes that are out of your control.  My goal today is to give those of you who feel slightly sheepish about being enveloped in a swarm of cyclists the skills to conquer that sheepishness and reach new heights in your riding. 

Admittedly, group riding is a skill garnered through experience—not reading a blog.  Hopefully though, I can give you some food for thought, so to speak.  I will do my best to give you some tips that will make your foray into group riding a smooth and joyous experience—one that will be as exhilarating as it can. 

Tips to Keep You Safe

Heads up!   
 It can be tempting—especially when you’re really suffering—to keep your gaze focused solely on the wheel in front of you.  Beginners tend to stare at the gap between their front wheel and the wheel they are on, which is understandable because you certainly don’t want to rub tires or overlap wheels.  This can be dangerous though.  Keep your head up and look at the shoulders of the rider in front of you.  This will simultaneously give you a sense of your relationship to their wheel, and what the rest of the group is doing (stopping, turning, accelerating, avoiding a pothole, etc.). 

Look Mom, no brakes!
This is one of the most important safety rules that people constantly ignore.  Imagine the peloton to be a flow of heavy traffic on the freeway; if one car brakes, the effect reverberates backwards through traffic until it comes to a halt—and could likely cause an accident.  It’s the same in cycling.  Regulate your speed by soft pedaling (keeping your pedals spinning, but not putting any power down—think feathering your accelerator in your car), only braking when absolutely necessary.  Don't grab a handful, just feather them to scrub a bit of speed to keep you in line.  This keeps the flow of the group consistent and everyone happy. 

Half-wheeling: Don’t do it.
Half wheeling is the act of riding halfway next to someone—not quite behind them, but not quite next to them.  The problem with this is that you are in a very vulnerable position: if the rider you are half wheeling needs to change lines for whatever reason they will run directly into your front wheel.  You will crash.  They might stay upright, but you will crash.  Either ride bar to bar with someone or behind them.  Don’t half wheel. 

Like birds, bikes naturally travel in flocks.

Tips to Keep You Fresh

Avoid the back.
Some riders, when they feel they may not be able to hang with a group automatically put themselves in a position to be dropped before the ride even starts by riding near the back of the group.  If you are struggling or feel worried about getting dropped during the ride stay in the middle of the pack.  This is where it takes the least effort to ride—and will often keep you out of harm’s way.  Here you can get the maximum draft without the yo-yo effect that happens in the back of any peloton. 

Efficiency: Not just for the workplace.
Be efficient.  Sounds simple right? It can be harder than you think.  It is definitely a skill you have to cultivate—so cultivate it.  Don’t waste energy on descents or brake when coasting will do the trick.  Don’t ride in the wind where there is a wheel readily available.  Carry speed through corners.  Things like this will keep you rolling faster with less effort: always a good thing. 

Don’t pace yourself.
Sounds a bit backwards, but you should do everything in your power to hang on before getting dropped.  Plenty of people don’t push too hard thinking that they will be able to recover and chase back on to the group.  While this is possible, it is always less work to stay with the group if possible.  Drafting is a powerful thing.  You will be surprised how hard it is to close even a small gap on a large group once you let that gap develop.  If you go as hard as you can and you still get dropped, so be it.  There is absolutely no shame in that.  If anything, you should be proud that you are pushing yourself to your limit.  You will be rewarded and get stronger for your efforts.  Before you know it, you will be sitting in like a pro.  Make sure you are familiar with the route or have a GPS enable phone to get you home if you do get dropped.  Cue sheets are often available for organized group rides, and if you don’t have a phone that will get you home, throw one in your back pocket.  

Tips to Make You Friends

Group riding has many common courtesies that other riders will appreciate if you follow.  Respecting your fellow cyclists is the quickest way to earn their respect and make the experience fun for everyone.  Follow these rules to avoid a scowl from your fellow riders:

Point these things out!

Potholes and road hazards: Point them out.
Riding in a large group of riders is often like the blind leading the blind.  The group depends on the people who can see what is coming to point out any holes or hazards.  This message is then passed back throughout the group.  Don’t swerve last second leaving the guy or gal behind you helpless to avoid whatever is in the road.  It only leads to flats, broken wheels, or even crashes.  Look out for those around you—a quick point or wave of the hand will do. 

Keep your fluids to yourself.
It’s not pretty, but everyone has to do it.  When you are really going hard it is only natural to have to spit or clear your nose, but do it away from your fellow riders.  Step out in the wind for a moment and do your business and you will kindly be let back into your place in the paceline.  Your fellow riders will thank you and hopefully do the same when you are on their wheel.  As great as it sounds, I would prefer not to do the ride with the remnants of someone’s mucus on my arm.  Thanks. 

Complaints: There is a time and place.
As a general rule of thumb group rides take a decent amount of effort to keep well organized and well run.  If you have a complaint about how the ride is going, there is a proper way to voice those opinions, and loud and obnoxiously in the midst of the ride is not the place.  No one wants to ride with someone who is constantly complaining about the pace or route of the ride.  Make suggestions in the proper way or keep them to yourself.  If your complaints are correctly voiced, but ignored, then don’t go on the ride, or better yet: start your own ride and run it your way. 

Group rides: They’re not races.
Though some rides are ridden at a high pace, or meant to be some kind of race simulation, always keep in mind that they are not races.  Cut-throat tactics, elbowing for position, and other such practices have no place in social group rides.  The main idea is to go out and have fun, while not being dangerous or taking unnecessary risks.  There are no cash prizes, merchandise, or upgrade points available, so don’t ride like you’re looking for them.  

Like I said, these are just general tips that are jumping off points to build on as you ride more and more group rides.  It is very much a “learn by doing” skill to develop.  Sitting in and observing those around you will clue you in to the subtleties of the tips I just talked about.  Maybe the most important thing to remember is to just be a nice person, have fun, and push yourself to hang on.  Eventually you will experience and grow to love everything that is riding with a large group. 

Cadence leads our “EP” ride the first Saturday of every month year round.  Come hone your newfound skills with us and meet some new people!  The ride leaves at 9 am from Cadence for 35 miles of rolling hills.  All riders welcome.

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