There’s a lot to remember when you’re riding in a pack of 50 or more of your closest friends on race day. When’s the next climb? How far from the front am I? Is the person in front of me a good wheel or is he or she squirrelly?
From a spectator’s point-of-view, a peloton looks like a static group of riders rolling at a high rate of speed. However, the peloton is a dynamic bit of organized chaos, and where you are within it will make or break your results at the end of the day.
1. Riding in a peloton the situation can change quickly, be prepared.
Like I said above, the peloton is a dynamic bit of organized chaos. Someone may form an attack and it appears the riders on the front aren’t going to chase. The pace stays steady as the attack slips over the horizon. The gap opens from seconds to minutes.
Then the 10 KM to go sign appears and in seconds the field accelerates dramatically. The riders at the front of the bunch refuse to have a sprint finish for second place.
The chase is on and the bumping and nudging among riders in the peloton becomes a little disconcerting. It’s at this time when it’s most important to be aware of who your surrounded by and be working on a plan to get closer to the front.
When the pace is heated up, eventually, riders begin to tire. A tired racer or a racer pegged at his maximum (keep in mind it might not be your maximum) has a slower reaction time is more likely to make a silly mistake like rubbing tires with the person in front of him or even drop a water bottle while taking a sip – don’t laugh I’ve seen it happen. A loose water bottle can be catastrophic for the field.
Keep your eyes open and look for riders who are tired and making mistakes. Get away from them. Be prepared for the pace to surge again as the group reels in the breakaway.
2. Group riding rules include good bike etiquette.
Much of maintaining the equilibrium of riding in a bunch is remembering to be smooth. If you’re surrounded by riders, one of the worst things you can do is stand up suddenly on the pedals to close a small gap or just to stretch your legs.
When you stand up and take a couple of big strokes on the pedals, your transfer of weight involuntarily sends the bike a little bit backwards. Yes, I realize this sounds like it defies the laws of physics, but the next time you’re riding in a peloton, watch for it. A sudden change in movement can catch the racer riding behind you off guard and it might send your rear tire into his front tire.
In a reaction to your sudden movement, the riders next to you might swerve and the racer behind you might grab a quick handful of brake. If everyone’s on top it and no one’s overlapping wheels (which is not likely because there’s always someone in the bunch who will overlap because he or she is trying to move forward in the field by wedging into a tight spot) after a few terse words, everyone will settle down. But, if your sudden move was too much, the chain reaction could result in riders going down.
Don’t be a squirrelly rider who makes sudden moves. If you must stand up on the pedals do so very smoothly or move to the side of the field where you have some additional space.
3. Riding in a pack, stay away from the back.
It depends on how big the peloton is, but it’s best to position yourself in a place where you’d be satisfied with the results if the race ended at that precise moment. In other words, keep yourself in the top 20, and don’t be the person on the front of the field towing everyone around. If you’re feeling that fresh, save it for a sprint or a break that you’re sure will stick.
Keeping yourself in the front-ish of the field will save you a lot of stress. Most of the better riders are toward the front, so you’re less likely to encounter a sketchy wheel, and you’ll be ready for any change in the course or the peloton–a big climb followed by a fast descent, or a break just before a sprint, point or king of the mountain point.
All that being said, it’s not always possible to be at the front. You might have gotten a flat or you took a feed (or created your own bathroom facility), and you find your self at the back of the pack.
Working your way forward is priority number one. One of the quickest ways, if there’s room, is to roll up the side of the field. Most riders will move over if you ask as you slip past, just be wary if the centerline rule is in effect. If making it up the side isn’t possible then you’ve got to thread the needle through the field.
Finding your way through the pack is about finding openings and putting your front wheel where there’s a hole. There is no room for hesitation when you’re doing this, so if you see a spot be assertive (not pushy) and fill it with you and your bike. Most of the time you can make it to the front in short order with minimal effort.
Putting it all together.
I’ve been in every place you don’t want be when riding in a bunch and have the puncture wound scars from the a squirrelly rider’s 53-tooth chain ring to prove it. But it has taught me to find the right wheels to follow and what I need to do to be part of a photo finish at the line.
Nobody is “good” at all these things right away. Riding well in a bunch takes practice, and for some of us (me) it takes an unforeseen and undesired outcome to reinforce: being prepared, keeping it smooth, and keeping your self in the top 20 of the pack.
The next time you’re in a race or riding in a large group, see what it feels like to move from the back of the field to the front. Look for the rider who’s throwing his bike around a little too much. And, hold your position in the front. The sprint for the finish will make all of your efforts to stay to the front completely worthwhile.