I was fortunate. My experience as a roadie and my experience riding in a pack began almost contemporaneously. I didn’t get involved in cycling on my own accord. I was dragged into it (and I use “dragged” in the nicest sense) by my friends, who had already gotten me into mountain biking and thought I would enjoy road cycling with them as well. If I remember correctly, my third or fourth ride was with the Chicago chapter of Colavita – my first group ride.
My first group ride consisted of everything a first group ride should: I hung out in the back, got dropped, got a bit lost, got into a rotating paceline not knowing what the hell I was doing and was asked to once again assume my position in the back of the group. Thereafter, I would return to the same parking lot nearly every Sunday of the riding season to join the same group for our club ride for several years to come, and even now on occasions.
Now, my former teammates can joke with me about what a horrible wheel I was to follow when I first started riding, and we laugh about it, but at the same time, I was glad to have been a member of a club where safe pack-riding was emphasized, discussed and mentored. I still remember Pat riding next to me and getting our bars within an inch of each other as we were moving 20+mph just to get me used to riding in close proximity. Not only was this important for safe group-riding, but on some narrow roads in northern Illinois it was necessary not to get run over.
As a result of several years of riding in a tight pack (figuratively and literally), I feel very comfortable in a crowd. I feel at home surrounded by cyclists. I don’t mind if I have wheels on all sides of me – it feels normal. I know that there are many cyclists out there, racers even, to whom this concept is foreign, and because I really don’t like to tell people how to ride their bikes, I figured I’d offer some practical advice for safe pack riding and mass-start racing that some of you might benefit from, or in the alternative, forward to your friends whom you consider the squiggliest wheel in the bunch (and hopefully they will read past this paragraph). Here are some concepts to keep in mind and skills to learn.
Awareness. This might seem obvious, but you have to be at all times aware of who is around you – most importantly, who’s in front of you and who is to the sides. Yes, it’s important to know if there is a guy behind you, but he should be focused on the rider ahead of him (you) so the responsibility for his safety is shared. You might think that’s a no brainer, just look around and see what’s happening, but it’s not always as easy. When the peloton is moving slowly on a long straight road, you can take the time to see who’s next to you. When you’re taking a corner 4-wide at 30mph, that task becomes much more difficult and you have to train yourself to use virtually all of your senses (maybe the guy riding next to you put on some very strong cologne in the morning) to figure out what’s going on around you as you are focused on not letting more than inches come between you and the wheel in front of you while holding your line.
A good way to practice being aware is during casual rides with friends, when the pace isn’t too fast and you’re not trying to outsprint each other for the next city limit sign. As you’re riding along, quiz yourself once in a while on whether you know (without turning your head at that moment) who’s to the sides of you and who is behind you. If you don’t know, you weren’t being as aware as you should have been.
Smoothness. A group ride usually travels two abreast, but a mass-start race can vary from a single strung out line to a 10-abreast bunch. In either case, any move you make to change your position in the peloton should be smooth and not jerky or erratic. There are at least two reasons for this: First, if you want to shift right and do it quickly as another guy moves left and also does it in a jerky way, you’ll just collide in the middle. On the other hand, if you both start moving smoothly, you’ll have time to react and hopefully avoid the collision. Second, it will give those around you time to react to your movement. Maybe as you decide to shift, your teammate is drafting you in a cross-wind, with a slightly overlapped wheel. If you jerk to the side, you’ll take him out (and maybe yourself too), but if you start moving slowly, it will give your teammate time to react and either back off your wheel or move with you. You do not want to set off a chain reaction of movement in a peloton that’s riding together as a tight bunch – nothing good will come of it.
Look first! Another obvious one, but I’m constantly surprised when someone starts moving into me in a race without looking, as if I’m not there. Turning your head before starting to shift sideways is key, regardless of your speed. Moving smoothly and looking will avoid many unnecessary crashes. You wouldn’t change lanes on a busy highway without looking, why do so in a bike race?
Learn how to stand. When climbing hills solo, or with just a couple of people and not tightly together, the thought that we may have poor standing form never occurs to us, but in a tightly packed peloton, heading uphill, this skill is key, as I’ve personally been held up by two slow-speed, uphill crashes in races. There are two things to keep in mind when standing on a climb.
First, practice keeping a straight line as you get out of your saddle. A good way to do this is to hug the white line (or imagine one) on the side of the road on a hill, get out of the saddle, pedal a few strokes and see if your bike shifted sideways. If it has, you may have just caused a crash. This is a learned skill that takes practice and some balance, that’s all.
Second, you need a basic understanding of Newton’s third law of motion – for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. When you get out of your saddle, you are pushing off the pedals and propelling your body forward (up). The reaction is your bike slows down or moves slightly backwards. If you are pacing a teammate up a hill in a race, that could mean your rear wheel going into his front wheel. And I’m not trying to say that it is okay to do this to someone who’s not your teammate. Learn to get out of the saddle without breaking pace by following these steps: (1) unless you are getting out of the saddle because the pitch changed greatly, like in a switchback, shift down a few gears before standing up so you’re not pedaling air when you do; (2) use your upper body to throw the bike forward a bit as you are standing up to counteract the forces driving your bike back; and (3) when sitting down, don’t sit back on the saddle, but rather throw your bike forward under you with your upper body.
Get used to contact. If you plan on racing criteriums or road races, there will be times when guys will come in contact with you. They’ll rub shoulders with you as they go past; wind may blow them sideways and your hands or handlebars may touch (hopefully you’re not half-wheeling and won’t get locked up); or someone may touch your side as a way to ask you to shift. I’ve actually had one guy in a race put his forearm in my hip and try to move me sideways so he could get behind the guy I was drafting. If your heart rate goes through the roof each time someone touches you in a race, you need to practice riding in close proximity in non-race settings. When riding with friends, practice riding close together, with only about an inch separating your bars. Focus on keeping your bars even (not half wheeling) and once in a while, take turns moving into each other and making gentle contact with your wrists, then separate again. Call this out the first few times so your riding partner and you are ready. As you get more advanced, i.e., contact in pack riding doesn’t startle you anymore, do it at random times, like it would happen in a race.
These are the basic skills you should learn to be a safe rider in a tight pack. Contrary to popular belief, practice doesn’t make things perfect, it makes things permanent, so don’t be shy about asking for critique from one of your riding partners. Some of the best bike-handling tips I’ve gotten were from friends who watched me ride.