Group riding skills: there’s more to it than you think

Participating in a pace line is to have the ability to go further and faster than you could alone and it’s the thing I enjoy most about cycling. For me it’s a sort of zen like experience that requires focus and concentration to be fluid and smooth. When it works well it’s a beautiful thing. But when it doesn’t work, it can be really frustrating and dangerous.

The Houston-based BNW Cycling Team demonstrating their pace line skills. Photo by Jeff Rohling

Recently, there was a serious accident on one the group rides that are organized by Society Cycle Works in Sugar Land, Texas. I’m not sure of the details of the accident but one of the riders, whom I know informally from other group rides, went down hard, taking other riders with him. This rider was injured so severely that he needed to be airlifted to a nearby hospital. My understanding is that while his injuries are severe he will make a full recovery but will certainly be off the bike for good while.

As is usually the case when accidents like this occur, many said that a lack of group riding skills were to blame. Although I was not there and cannot say with certainty what caused the crash, poor group riding skills is one of my biggest frustrations when riding in groups. On many occasions, I have dropped out of group rides because of this.

When I first joined the Benicia Bicycle Club, in Benicia, California, I had no group riding skills. I had been riding several years at that point but I usually rode alone. But on the BBC group rides, group riding etiquette was talked about frequently. The club had a few older, very experienced gentlemen who were very good at giving advice in a helpful, non-threatening manner. In addition, the club often met for breakfast and monthly meetings so it was easy to get to know other club members. It’s much easier to take advice from people you know and trust that they have your best interest in mind.

But that doesn’t seem to happen anymore and the clubs around here seem to be more exclusive and focused on racing. You don’t really get to know the people with whom you are riding and who wants to be yelled at by a stranger? Many moons ago, I was a member of the South West Cycling Club here in Houston. I remember riding with the group and there was this one guy who barked out orders like a drill sargeant. He was telling us which chainring we should be using. My first impression was “who the f*** is this guy?” I didn’t know him and he certainly did not know me. I didn’t stay in that club long.

Organization is the key to safe group rides and the first step is to specify the speed and distance the group wants to ride. Most groups try to categorize riders based on average speed. So you have A, B and C groups. You might also have a B+ group. These classifications are typically based on average speeds. But average speeds are misleading. You remember that time on a ride and you were flying but at the finish you discovered that your average speed was only 17 mph. Groups should be upfront about the actual speeds they plan to ride and the categories should not be based on average speeds. This will help less experienced riders choose the right group.

Speaking of speed, the idea of a pace line is to maintain a certain speed over a course with sprint zones in certain areas. If you’re new to the group you may not know where sprint zones are located. It will become obvious when everyone else has ridden away from you. Some groups will actually point these out. Once you’ve ridden on a certain route with a group, you’ll learn where they are.

For advanced users: An echelon is a good way for a pace line to handle a severe crosswind.

When you’re not sprinting, you should be maintaining a certain pace and rotating through the line to let fresher riders move to the front. You see, the idea is that each rider does some work at the front, gets tired and moves to the back. Once it’s your turn again, you’re fresh and ready to put in your two minutes (or five). One important point to remember is to not burn all of your powder when you’re taking a “pull” at the front. Rotate back before you are spent. This happened to me recently ( I actually didn’t think anyone was on my wheel) and when I was spent I slowed down creating a bigger gap between my group and the group we were trying to catch. When you are ready to rotate back, pull out into the wind and “soft pedal,” drifting towards the back. Be careful of noting where is the last rider in the line or else you might rotate right into another rider. Good riders at the back of the line will typically say something like “I’m last,” letting you know its safe to pull in behind them.

So how do you learn proper group riding skills besides reading? I suggest finding a mentor or an experienced buddy who regularly shows up at the weekly group rides. Pay attention and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

I’ve listed a few of the items I think are important. This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list so take a few minutes to do some research on your own.

  1. Do not coast in a pace line. The only time it is acceptable to coast in pace line is when there is a reason that is obvious to everyone to slow down or stop such as a stop sign or traffic light. The key to smooth pedaling in a pace line without coasting is learning how to “soft pedal.” If you’re not soft pedaling, you will tend to pedal in spurts to maintain your position in the line. Riding behind someone who is trying to maintain their position with spurts of vigorous pedaling interspersed with coasting is extremely disconcerting and stressful. I tend to react to someone who begins to coast by slowing down because I think there is a problem. To soft pedal, you reduce the force you’re applying to the pedals while maintaining your cadence. The key to this is learning how to “pedal in a circle.”
  2. Do not overlap the wheel in front of you in a pace line. If you overlap, you’re vulnerable when the rider in front of you suddenly slows or changes direction and you’ll likely be the person to go down.
  3. When in a pace line, do not focus on the wheel directly in front of you. Keep your head up and watch the heads and shoulders of the riders ahead while also scanning down to check your wheel position. If you are too tired to keep your head up, you should not be in the pace line.
  4. Do not yell out hazards in a pace line. How many group rides have I been on where there is one guy who is the “town cryer” of the group yelling out “Car back!!!” or “Right Turn!!!” so loudly that I’m startled. No one else needs to say a word because this guy is yelling so loud that everyone can hear. Calling out hazards should be done in a calm way preferably by pointing towards the hazard. The warning should be passed along from the front to the back of the line using a voice loud enough so the next rider can hear it. Conversely, in a “car back” situation, the warning should move from the back to the front. When you hear the warning, you should repeat it to indicate that you received the message and then pass it along to the next rider. Again, it’s not necessary to yell.
  5. Don’t half-wheel. You’re half-wheeling when you’re at the front of a double pace line and you keep edging ahead of the rider next to you by a “half-wheel.” Every pace line, especially a double pace line, should have an agreed upon speed. If you’re half-wheeling, you’re incrementally increasing the speed of the pace line and that is not cool.
  6. Do not clear your nose or spit while in a pace line. While there are some who are good enough at this to avoid spraying the person behind them, I’d rather you not take the chance if I’m the person behind you. Best to wait until you’re at the back or move out of the line if this is necessary.
  7. Do not wear earphones while in a group ride. You need to hear what is going on around you whether its a warning from another rider, a mechanical issue with a bike or an emergency vehicle coming up behind. If you want to get lost in your tunes, ride alone.
  8. Speaking of music, please leave your bluetooth speaker at home. I love music but there is already too much going on in a pace line to add an additional distraction. It’s the same problem as using earphones but it’s forcing it on everyone else. And what makes you think everyone is going to like your selection of music?
  9. Is your only bike a time-trial bike? If you’re a triathlete, why are you on a group ride? If you insist on riding a TT bike on a group ride, please stay off the aero bars. You can’t maintain adequate control while stretched out in that position. Some may argue that it’s okay if you’re at the front but I’d prefer not to complicate things with exceptions.
  10. When riding on four lanes roads, a group can use the full right lane. So use the full lane if you’re at the front. That is, don’t ride too far to the left or right. If you ride too far to the right, you’ll encourage drivers to split the lane with you. Can you do this on two lane roads? Not if you’re following Texas laws. Bicycles are not allowed to impede the flow of traffic and if you’re riding two abreast on a two lane road, you’ll cause cars to back up behind you. Police have been known to ticket cyclists for this offense.

Have I missed anything? If so, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading and if you’re a cyclist participating in group rides, thank you for doing your part to make the experience safe and fun for everyone.

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