By taking the time to improve your group riding, you'll find that your overall cycling experience will improve significantly.
In an earlier post, I wrote about 4 free ways to go faster on your bike. One of these was to learn effective group riding skills. You'd think this would be easy, but from experience, I've learned that for many riders, it's not as simple as they'd expect it to be.
I do a lot of coaching with groups of young bike riders and it's always noticeable just how much better they are at riding in groups than their adult club counterparts. I suppose that much of the difference is down to the repetition of this skill in coaching sessions, which adults tend not to access. So I thought I'd share a few of my top coaching points to improve your group riding.
Before I do, it's worth adding the context that even if you're not good at drafting, you can save 15% of your effort when drafting. If you're very good at it, that figure can be closer to 40%. It really is worth the effort it takes to practise effective group riding.
So without further ado, here they are...
1. Use your brakes sparingly.
Many years ago, one of my cycling mentors claimed never to use his brakes. However, telling you not to use your brakes at all wouldn't be responsible.
The main problem with braking near the front of a bunch is the concertina effect that happens behind you. A light touch on your brakes may seem like a small thing, but your light touch is magnified as each person behind you has to brake just a little harder. Ten riders back, they're slamming those brakes on pretty hard!
So how do you slow down if you're not going to use your brakes? Rather than braking, simply sit up a little so that the wind passing over the rider ahead catches you a touch more. Or move out to the side, again just a little, with the same effect. Learning this simple trick will dramatically improve your group riding.
Some of the tips that follow will also help you to feel less need for your brakes.
Riding in a bunch requires that you focus on what you're doing and what others around you are doing. You cannot simply ride along in dream-land or absorbed in conversation with the rider beside you.
A little bit of focus on the riders ahead of you will pay dividends in your awareness of what is happening and likely changes of pace etc.
There is almost nothing worse than being in a bunch with a rider who has no idea what is going on around them. Even if they don't cause a crash or other incident, they make everyone nervous. A nervous bunch is neither a safe nor a fun place to ride a bike.
3. Focus on the hips and body of the rider ahead of you.
It seems logical if not natural to look at the wheel ahead of you if you're trying to judge a wheel's distance, half a wheel or even 6 inches, but it's far from effective because you will never feel safe doing so.
You see, wheels don't have body language and as a human being, you're wired to read body language.
Watching the body of the rider ahead will improve your group riding because you'll be able to pick up the subtle cues that they are going to accelerate, slow down, move to side etc. You'll also see any hand signals, pointing out that pot-hole or badly parked car that you need to avoid.
Finally, your peripheral vision will allow you to see a bit further ahead in the line and this will help you to pick up yet more sub conscious feedback and thus be able to anticipate what is going on in the group.
4. Learn to close gaps smoothly and gradually.
Holding the wheel of the rider ahead of you is vital in a group riding situation, but too many riders see a small gap open up, panic and sprint to get back on. Unfortunately closing the gap this fast means that they then need to brake to avoid running into the rider that they've caught too fast.
This then means that they yo-yo on and off the wheel ahead, using a huge amount of unnecessary energy, not to mention the chaos that this acceleration, deceleration and braking causes in the group behind them.
A better way to do this is simply to increase your cadence gradually until you start to close the gap and then judge when to back off (without braking) so that you ride smoothly back onto the wheel. You can practise this at the back of any group you're riding with, as long as they're not way stronger than you. Losing touch with a fast moving group by even a little is often a case of "one metre, two metres, five metres... ride home alone."
5. Move smoothly to the front of the group and maintain the pace.
You know a group riding novice because they inevitably blast to the front of the group and bury themselves doing their turn on the front. If you get a number of people doing this, your nice comfortable 20mph ride becomes a 28mph smash-fest, leaving riders spread out all over the countryside in various states of exhaustion.
Instead, get a feel for the speed of the group and set out to maintain that speed and no more. Yes, you will have to work harder when you're on the front. After all, you're no longer hiding away behind other riders and the wind you've not yet felt is going to have an effect on you. Pulling out from behind someone else often feels like someone's attached you to an anchor.
Allied to this, if you need to slow down, for example for a corner, do it smoothly and predictably. Preferably provide some warning too (shouting and hand signals work well and are much appreciated by the guy in 40th spot).
6. Get used to riding close beside other riders.
As with riding behind others, riding close beside other riders reduces the required effort still more. A lot of riders are concerned about bumping into someone beside them. Simply hold the widest part of your handlebars, soften your elbows slightly and strike up a conversation with them (while you keep your eyes ahead).
If you happen to drift sideways your elbows will touch, not your handlebars. Don't panic, just straighten up gradually and all will be fine.
Learning to relax whilst surrounded by other people is vital if you're going to improve your group riding.
That's six group riding tips that you can apply on your next club ride, which will make you far more effective in the bunch. Practise them a bit, then get in a bunch race and realise that if you're good at this group riding thing, it's not as hard to stay with the bunch as it used to be.
There are loads more, add your favourites in the comments below.