Now onto Part 3 in our series on Group Riding. In the first two, I wrote about why we ride in groups and covered some of the techniques and the pacelines we use. Now, we’ll wrap up with a smattering of techniques and tips to help you master the skill of group riding. Let’s start during our preparation for the ride.
If I’m going on a group ride, I’ll do a few things to help me out. First, I make sure I have a couple of tubes and my flat repair gear in order. I never want to be the guy without a tube or air to fix my own flat. One tube usually doesn’t cut for me on any ride, because if I flat, now I have to head home because if I flat a second time, I’m dead in the water. With two tubes, I’m still rockin’. So, be prepared for mechanicals, within reason, so you’re a help to the group, not a burden.
Next, for a group ride I’ll open the packaging of the food I’m planning on eating and put it into my jersey pocket in a way so that I can access it easily while riding mid-pack. For me, it’s always the left pocket because I like to eat with my left hand on the bike. The center pocket is harder to get to , so I’ve usually got my pump and maybe a packable vest or jacket in there if the weather looks dodgy.
Speaking of dodgy weather, or just days that start off cold and get warmer, it best to dress in layers. This way, we can play a bit of “strip poker” on the bike and shed layers slowly as the day and the ride heat up. One way I make this easier on myself is to put my arm warmers on last, so that the uppers are over my jersey sleeve cuffs. That way, when I GO TO THE BACK (hint, hint) to take them off, I can get a thumb under them and pull them off quickly. On days cold enough to need them all day, I put them under my sleeves, because it looks better. It’s also common to pull them down around our wrists while mid-pack util we can get them all the way off, or pull them back up. Practice this solo first. It is NOT common to remove knee or leg warmers while riding. Not saying I haven’t seen it done, but man you’d better be good!
Another skill that is critical to have down in a group ride is drinking. You need to be able to grab your bottles, drink and replace them without looking down or swerving, so practice this while not looking down when you’re riding on your own and you’ll get the hang of it quickly.
Here’s a gotcha that I’ve seen take down people time and again: throwing your bike backwards while transitioning from a seated position to standing. This usually happens when the road gets steep enough that people want to climb out of the saddle for a bit. When you climb out of the saddle, your body is positioned further forward over the bike and in the transition, it’s easy to throw the bike backwards into a rider’s front wheel behind you. It happens fast and often catches riders by surprise. The way around this is to let the rider behind know that your are going to stand by telling them or by using a hand signal (hard to describe in words) but the best way is to modify your technique. The way I transition to standing is to select one gear harder than I’m in to give me a firmer platform against which to pedal, then I stand slowly, while initially keeping my hips over the saddle. This uses a little more leg strength, but not for long. Then I slowly move my body forward over the bike, using the platform of the harder gear, instead of throwing the bike back. A really good one to practice on your own and one that will be noticed and appreciated in the bunch.
Catching a little wind… If you are in the draft and feel like you’re constantly running up on the rider in front of you, rather feathering your brakes (remember smoothness is key), try moving slightly into the wind and sitting up. Often, this creates just enough drag that you can keep pedaling along smoothly and makes for a better experience and a smoother wheel to follow. Just don’t run up alongside that wheel in front.
Speaking of using aerodynamics to help in a group ride, if I’m trying to save energy, I’ll make myself as small as possible and ride in the drops often and really try and sense where the draft is. You can feel the turbulence on your shoulders if you ay attention. Finding a big strong rider to follow never hurts, either. I try to never follow guys like Pete and Tim, because they’re half my size and twice as strong!
Let’s talk about hand positions. Road bars are great because they offer all sorts of hand positions; the tops are the horizontal parts closest to the stem, the hoods are the rubber covers for the brake/shift levers and the drops are the curved bits down low. Hands can get fatigued and it’s nice to have options, but on group rides, we want to cover our brakes and we can’t do that from most bar tops. In a pack, I only ride on the hoods or drops unless I’m on the front and usually only if we’re climbing. I still make sure and hook my thumb under the bar. I’ve had enough “no-seeum” bumps in the road nearly dislodge a hand from the bars to convince me it’s worth it. On my own, I’ll mix it up a bit but not in a group.
Finally, let’s talk about the front shift and the dropped chain. There will come a time on most rides where you will need to shift the front chainring from the big to the small in order to have the gearing to climb a hill. The biggest mistake I see people make is shifting to the small ring either too early or too late, and not anticipating a gear change in the rear. In the first example, the rider will go from a nice comfortable cadence to spinning like mad, which causes a serious hiccup that the riders behind have to adjust for. The solution for this is to simply shift up 2 gears in the rear at the same time. If you’re already on the hill, shift up one in the rear. This gets you close to the cadence you were pedaling and lets you get back on the gas in a split second. Done well, the rider behind never has to know you made a front shift. In the latter example, you’ve started the hill in the big chainring and have run out of gears in the back. Now you’re stuck having to either mash your way up the hill in the big ring, or do a front shift while momentarily coming off the gas. On a hill, this is awkward and creates a big hiccup for those behind. The solution? Make the front shift earlier.
Onto dropped chains… they usually happen during a front shift, but whether you drop a chain off the front or the rear the first thing you should do is STOP PEDALING. You need to first control the bike and not run into anybody. Once you’ve got that under control, let people know you’ve dropped your chain, so they can make their way around you; chances are, they already have. Now look down and assess your situation. If you’ve dropped your chain off the cassette in the rear, just pull over. There’s no sense in trying to recover while rolling because it’s pretty easy to do frame and wheel damage and even lock up the rear wheel while trying. If you’ve dropped the chain off the front and it’s not jammed, remember that you’ve got a chain catcher of sorts on the front – the front derailleur! The derailleur cage will still move your chain from side-to-side (assuming the dropped chain is not a result of derailleur or cable failure), so if you’ve dropped your chain to the inside, you can often recover by upshifting and pedaling VERY slowly. Losing the chain to the outside can be trickier if it drops onto the crank or pedal spindle, but I’ve recovered many by making a downshift and pedaling slowly. If in doubt, just make sure you’re clear of others and pull over. If you’re dropping chains often, something is worn out or needs to be adjusted. Take it to a reputable bike shop. I happen to know a good one! 😉
That’s it for our series on Group Riding. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the posts and I especially hope you’ll get out and join us on a ride. It’s so much fun. Take care and I hope to see you soon!