Group riding brings many benefits to your cycling. You cycle further for less effort, experience camaraderie, learn from others, and there is a particular skill set to riding in a large training peloton to master. To ride effectively in a group, there are rules to follow to avoid accidents and to ensure that the training session is effective.
Group riding creates a slipstream. The rider or riders at the front hit the wind resistance as on a solo ride. For the rest of the group, this breaking of the wind resistance allows them to ride at the same pace as the lead rider for less effort. Riding in this slipstream or drafting, as it is known in cycling circles, is believed to save up to 30% of energy which is significant.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at group riding to understand how it works.
The first thing to understand is that a group ride is not a race. It is not an opportunity to show your prowess as a rider. Instead, it is a training ride where you cover more distance for less energy because of the group dynamic. To avoid accidents and be effective, you follow the rules of the group ride to the letter.
The lead cyclists ride at a consistent speed that everyone in the group can maintain. Should a hazard become apparent, the lead cyclist or cyclists should indicate a hazard either through a shout or hand signal and ride around it.
It is important here not to flag every hazard. The rule of thumb should be to warn of hazards that can cause an accident.
Depending on the group’s skill level, you may want to have the stronger riders taking more turns at the front.
When it is time to switch riders at the front, the lead two check that there are no overlapping wheels; they split left and right, slowing their pace. This allows the peloton to ride through the middle. The two former lead riders then join at the back of the peloton, where the last rider will call ‘last rider’, signalling that the riders can join the peloton.
The new leaders will maintain the same pace and position so not to disrupt the flow of the peloton. If this is you, do not brake or hesitate. Just fulfil your role at the front of the peloton.
Should you see a hazard, a hand signal in the direction you are taking to avoid it should be sufficient. If you see it late, ride through it as last-second movement could bring down the whole group.
For an effective group ride, it is important that you ride within a few inches of the cyclist in front. If you are riding in pairs, you will ride within a few inches to the cyclist to your left or right. Bar to bar if you will. This tightness allows the slipstream to be effective.
When cornering, the tight bar to bar position should be maintained. Never inch ahead of the rider next to you; this is known as ‘half wheeling’ and is unacceptable. You should never disrupt the flow of the peloton.
When riding close to the other riders, it is important to stay aware of where you are in the peloton. You must follow the rider in front and maintain your position.
Should there be an uneven number of riders, one cyclist will ride in the centre of two others with the front wheel slightly inside the rear wheels of the two cyclists in front and not hang on the back wheel of one rider. This helps maintain the slipstream. The riders behind the solo cyclist will ride with their front wheels overlapping the solo rider’s rear wheel.
As the ride progresses, the cyclist at the front will warn of hazards with hand signals and shouts. Your role is to follow the peloton as it weaves around hazards that can cause crashes.
A loss of focus may result in a bad accident.
When riding in pairs, your front wheel should be just to the side of the rider in front. So as they slow down, there is a buffer zone between you. This gives you time to adjust your speed accordingly and maintain the flow of the group.
It is important that there are no sudden speed changes such as those caused by yanking hard on the brakes. This will almost certainly result in a crash.
Should a gap appear ahead of you, increase the pace slightly until the gap is closed. You should not increase speed dramatically and then slam on the brakes. This is quite dangerous.
Group rides work when movement is steady and gradual. Sharp, sudden movements will result in accidents.
The pace line is where the peloton rides single file. This may be adopted should riding two abreast not be possible, or there are a small number of riders. Again, the same principles apply when switching lead rider.
When the peloton goes into a descent, your group may want to break the group ride and reassemble it once on flat roads. Depending on the speed of the descent, it can be difficult to maintain position and the leaders have less time to warn of hazards.
Group rides can be used at every level of cycling. If you are a competition team, the group ride can be incorporated as part of your tactics. If you are riding a sportive with your club or friends, you can work out a strategy to ride the sportive as a group. Here, you’ll save energy and ride further for less effort.
If you’re riding competitively or as part of a sportive, bear in mind that the pelotons that form with strangers are very much an every man or woman from his or her self affair.