Cycling survival in a bunchDonovan van Gelder
Even if we hadn’t all been forced to ride our bikes on the spot as we have in 2020, most of us would still have hidden from the chilly temperatures and dark mornings of Winter by spending quality time on the indoor bike. As the social distancing regulations ease and the days get longer and warmer it is a great time to show off that hard-earned Winter form in the local group rides and, in the not too distant future, road races.
While apps like Zwift are fantastic for getting the most out of ourselves training indoors, and the racing is pretty realistic and super-competitive, it is easy to forget that a successful ride on the road, in the real world, demands more than just a high FTP and strong legs. We can’t crash in Watopia! Riding on the wheels, surrounded by other riders, involves skills that need to be practiced and perfected. Nervous or less experienced bunch-riders can waste a lot of extra energy just holding position in a bunch or making the most of the slipstream of the rider in front of them. Energy which could come in handy in the latter stages of the ride.
Here are some tips and tricks for making your bunch riding more enjoyable, efficient and safe, as well as making you a welcome addition to the local group ride, rather than a wheel to be avoided.
Don’t look down – When riding on another cyclist’s wheel, avoid looking down at the wheel in front of you. It takes practice and perseverance but keep reminding yourself to look over the rider in front of you and let your peripheral vision take care of the gap between your wheels. Looking at the small gap between our wheel and the one in front causes us to react to every little change in that gap. We will end up touching the brakes too often and not always when it is necessary. This makes it impossible to stay close enough to really maximize the drafting effect. Looking passed the rider in front also allows us to anticipate changes of pace before they happen and keeps us aware of the road situation up front so that we are prepared to react before required.
Don’t look back – If we have mastered staying nice and close to the rider in front of us, we definitely don’t want to look back, over our shoulder. Chances are high that even the most subtle change in speed or direction of the wheel we are following could result in our wheels overlapping and touching. That is almost always a certain recipe for disaster and the inevitable purchase of some tar. There is no need to look behind us when we are riding in a bunch. If we find ourselves in a small group braking away from others and we want to check the gap, we need to wait till we are on the front of the group so that there is no wheel in front of us to ride into. As we swing off the front of the paceline after doing our turn into the wind, we can easily look back on the opposite side to the one that the next rider will be coming through on. That should give us an unobstructed view back down the road to gauge what sort of damage we are doing.
Stand up on the correct pedal stroke – When we want to get out of the saddle, we need to make sure that we time it so that we lift ourselves out of the saddle as we are applying pressure on a pedal and timing it as we start the power phase of the pedal stroke. So, as the pedal is moving from 12 o’clock to 1 o’clock. That way our bikes will keep moving forwards as it has been doing. Riders become a danger to those behind when they stand up when their foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This results in a pause in pressure on the pedals and causes the bike to lose momentum and even move slightly backwards. If the rider on our wheel is as efficient as we have become at sitting close to the wheel in front of them, they will have little or no time to respond to that sudden jerk backwards. At best they will need to react violently and lose their momentum. At worst they touch our wheel and go down, taking down others with them. Making us very unpopular at coffee afterwards.
Keep it steady in the paceline – When our group is rolling through and off in a paceline, the tendency is to get too enthusiastic as our time to take a pull approaches. What we really need to do is nothing different. The rider on the front swings off and eases the pace gently so that we can keep going at the same pace as we take the wind on our nose. Obviously we will then have to increase the effort slightly because we are not in the draft anymore. Picking up our effort while still coming out of the rider in front’s slipstream will cause us to accelerate passed. This will cause a ripple effect down the line behind us, with each rider having to accelerate a little more and a bit more violently. If the line is long, the last riders will be doing full gas sprints to close the gap. Another way to end up sitting on our own at the coffee shop after the ride.