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.
There’s a lot to remember. When’s the next climb? How far from the front am I? Is the person in front of me a good wheel, or are they squirrelly?
1. Riding in a peloton, the situation can change quickly, be prepared.
As 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 sign appears, and the field accelerates dramatically in seconds. 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 become a little disconcerting. At this time, it’s most important to be aware of who you are surrounded by and work on a plan to get closer to the front.
When the pace is heated up, eventually, riders begin to tire. A tired or racer pegged at maximum has a slower reaction time. In addition, a tired rider is more likely to make a silly mistake, like rubbing tires with the person in front of him or even dropping a water bottle while taking a sip.
A loose water bottle can be a catastrophe for the field.
Keep your eyes open and look for tired riders 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 riders surround you, one of the worst things you can do is stand up suddenly on the pedals to close a small gap or stretch your legs.
Your weight transfer involuntarily sends the bike backward when you stand up and take a couple of big strokes on the pedals. Yes, I realize this sounds like it defies the laws of physics, but the next time you ride 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 reaction to your sudden movement, the riders next to you might swerve, and the racer behind you might grab a quick handful of brakes. If everyone’s on top of it and no one’s overlapping wheels (which is not likely because there’s always someone in the bunch who will overlap because they are trying to move forward in the field by wedging into a tight spot) after a few harsh 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 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 at the front of the field towing everyone around. If you feel 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 of the peloton–a big climb followed by a fast descent or a break just before a sprint, point or king of the mountain point.
Remember, it’s not always possible to be at the front. For example, you might have gotten a flat, taken a feed (or create your bathroom facility), and found yourself 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, be wary if the centerline rule is in effect. If making it up the side isn’t possible, 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 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 to be when riding in a bunch and have the puncture wound scars from the squirrelly rider’s 53-tooth chainring to prove it. But it has taught me to find the right wheels to follow and what 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 yourself 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 throwing his bike around a little too much. And hold your position in the show. The sprint for the finish will make your efforts to stay to the front completely worthwhile.