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By: Simon Hayes
Rider performance – technique
I guess we all know the feeling. That critical moment when the wheel in front of you hits the point where you know you’re not going to get it back. It can be a hideous feeling. Your lungs are burning, your legs are burning and quite possibly, your mind is burning as well.
The thing is, I don’t think there’s a road bike rider on the planet who hasn’t been in this situation at one time or other. You might be a weekend rider who struggles for time on the bike, or you may be a pro who is having a bad day. Quite simply, if you ride a road bike, it will happen to you at some point.
There are however, a few tricks that will help to minimise the damage. Riding in a pack or even in a paceline is a learned art. Having the skills to do it well takes time, but each ride will help you learn a little more and prevent you from dropping off the back, as well as giving you the ability to limit any damage if you do find yourself in that position.
Pacelines, Small Groups and Big Bunches
There are subtle differences to the way you ride depending on what kind of group you’re in. The most common bunch ride for many riders is a small group of between three and six riders. If you’re new to riding in a group, this is a good place to learn your basic skills. Chances are you’ll know all or most or the ride members and be familiar with each other’s fitness. Here you can practice sitting on a wheel, taking a turn at the front and so on in relative comfort. It’s the best place if you’re an absolute beginner.
Sooner or later you may find yourself graduating to a bigger group. Many clubs have early morning weekday and weekend rides. Here you can hone your skills and even pit yourself against other riders. The larger clubs will even have an A, B, or C based group. This is so that the group is more likely to be able to keep together for the duration of the ride, as well as being considerably safer. If you’re not sure which group to join, choose the easiest. You’ll soon be told if you’re in the wrong group. More often than not, a group of this size will ride in a ‘paceline’. This means that one line moves up the left-hand side while the other line moves back. Imagine a chain that goes round and round with everybody taking a turn on the front, then gradually dropping back until they’re the last wheel before moving up again. A good paceline is very efficient and they’re an excellent place to learn and develop race fitness, as well as getting used to riding with a greater number of riders.
Big groups are quite different and you will usually only find yourself in a big group of more than 50 riders if you are in a race situation, though there are of course exceptions. Your first time in such a large bunch will be a fairly nervous one, so it’s important to relax as much as possible. For the first time you’ll probably find yourself nearer the back for the mental benefits, i.e.; not crapping yourself up the front, being leant on and sworn at. But you’re also more vulnerable to being left behind as movements up the front can take longer to be translated to the back. This is how a race splits and we’ve seen it happen many times during the Tour. It’s like the action of a whip and you don’t want to be cracked if you can help it.
Tips for Staying in the Bunch
Don’t Be A Hero
When you’re taking your turn on the front, there’s no need to act like a super hero and ramp up the speed. Firstly it will upset the riders behind you and more importantly you may not have it in the legs to keep up when the next rider comes across. Riders mainly get spat out of pacelines immediately after taking a turn on the front, so remember to ride conservatively. This will have a secondary effect of allowing the next rider to come over more quickly, putting you back in their slipstream.
Anticipate the Climbs
Unless you’re a gun climber, try to position yourself near the front of the group as you approach a tough climb. That way you can gradually move back through the pack as the stronger riders come through. With a bit of luck you’ll still be in the group, albeit at the back as you go over the top.
If You Do Get Dropped, Chase Like Crazy
If you find you’ve lost touch with the group, stick it into a fast gear and chase as hard as you can to get back on down the other side. As a general rule, a pack will rarely force the pace once they’re down again on the flat. Most riders will want to regroup to recover from the climb and also take advantage of a larger pack instead of being in a small breakaway.
Most of us will have two to three really hard, all-out efforts in us during a ride. Use them wisely. This is true for riding on the flat as well as climbing. Sometimes a group will surge and you’ll lose touch. If you decide on an all-out effort to get back on, try to time it for when the bunch will be slower, such as through a built-up area. Then you can have a quiet recovery moment to yourself once you’re back in.
Don’t Forget to Fuel
A common reason for being dropped, particularly in smaller groups, is that riders are so concerned about staying on a wheel they forget to eat and drink. Then the energy levels plummet and they can no longer hold on. The best time to eat or drink depends on the size of your group. If it’s small, you can do it while setting the pace on the front. But in a larger group or paceline you’re best off doing it as you drift back from taking your turn in the wind.
You may find that eating has to be done in stages. Get the food out, pedal, unwrap it, pedal and then eat and pedal. But grabbing a quick drink should be easier. Don’t forget to keep an eye on everyone else though. Remember how Tom Boonen got caught out by Cancellara in the 2010 Paris-Roubaix? Don’t let it happen to you!
Keep Your Head Up
One of the things I see too many novice drafters do is stare at the tyre in front of them. In a group, you need to be looking about three to four riders ahead. This allows you to chase any sudden breaks and also allows you to take evasive action if necessary. Of course you need to be aware of the wheel in front of you, but you can do it by keeping an eye on the rider rather than their wheel.
Additionally, don’t look down at the road when you begin to get tired. It’s tempting to let your head droop, but you really need to be watching what’s happening at all times.
Pick the Sweet Spot
You would think that the best place to get the maximum drafting benefit would be right behind the rider in front of you. This is true if you happen to be riding in a velodrome, but it’s less true on the road. More often than not you’ll be riding in some form of cross wind. This means that the best spot will be slightly to one side of the rider ahead of you. Take notice of the wind direction and adjust your position accordingly.
Select the Right Wheel
It’s a disappointing thing to get dropped when it isn’t your fault. Pro riders are constantly watching each other to see who is feeling good or not that day. There are many signs such as uneven pedalling, shoulders moving from side-to-side and laboured breathing that can tell you if a rider is struggling. If you’re in a paceline and you see somebody struggling, take the time to suggest that they miss a turn at the front, or be ready to jump across almost immediately so they’re back in your draft. In a larger group, try to find a stronger wheel and move to it. Larger groups are much less forgiving to weak riders and sooner or later that guy will be gone. Don’t let him take you with him.
Let a Gap Form
If you’re riding in a paceline, as you near the front let a small gap form between you and the rider in front of you. Then as he or she prepares to move across, you can accelerate into their draft just before they move over. The momentum from this acceleration will mean you won’t hit a wall as you move into the wind. You should be able to carry this speed easily past that rider giving yourself plenty of time to move over without having to fight to get ahead.
Riding in a big group is, as much as anything, a matter of trust. You need to be able to adjust to differences of speed without upsetting those around or behind you. A smooth group is a good group and brakes do not allow for a smooth group. If you need to slow down in a bunch, either use your gears or move into the wind for a moment. Both of these will have the desired effect without causing a pile-up.
Suck It Up, Princess
Everybody gets dropped from a bunch at some point. If someone tells you they never have, then they’re lying. When you do get dropped though, don’t beat yourself up about it. Try to turn a negative into a positive by figuring out why. Was it that extra naan bread you had with your chicken tikka last night? Maybe you’ve been doing extra overtime at work? You could be two days away from a really bad cold and not know it. If you get dropped, there’s always a reason. And even if that reason is that you’ve put on 15 kilos and haven’t been on a bike for six weeks, well, at least you’ve now got a starting point, haven’t you? Small steps from now on will be the key.
Riding at the pointy end of a big bunch can be a nerve wracking experience. It’s fast, you get leant on and sworn at. The ideal place is right in the centre about 20 spots back, but be aware that 100 other riders will be fighting you for this position. Photo: Graham Watson
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