Speeding along in a group can be the most efficient and enjoyable way of riding your sportive, but there are a few basics you need to know about before you get stuck in
It’s far easier to carry a higher average speed in an efficient group than on your own and it is also part of the fun of taking part in sportives. Riding in a large group can appear daunting at first but anyone can learn how to be a safe, smooth rider and benefit from the faster pace of riding in a bunch. Firstly it helps to learn some of the dos and don’ts of group etiquette. Once you know these things, what looks erratic and risky at the outset becomes clear and easy to follow.
Riding in a group is one of the most enjoyable parts of being a cyclist, and the language of the peloton is universal. You may find yourself riding along in a multi-cultural group of riders from all over the world with no single common language, but all able to communicate and enjoy riding together using the language of cycling.
Riding in a group is simply about being considerate to the riders around you and thinking about how your actions may affect them. Be observant of what is happening around you and communicate any potential problems to riders near you.
In a bunch all riders are responsible for each other’s safety. The only way a group can safely ride together is if the riders at the front and back act as the ears and eyes of the whole group and the messages are passed along the lines.
When you see a pothole, point it out before you go round it so the rider behind you knows what you are about to do and can avoid the hole. If you need to move out around an obstacle or parked car indicate with your arm behind your back which direction you are moving in, before you change your line. If you are stopping or slowing, indicate with your hand down at your side, palm toward the rider behind you.
A shout of ‘car up’ (approaching from behind), or ‘car down’ (approaching from the front) warns other riders about traffic. If necessary you may need to warn people to ‘single out’ to give the vehicle room to over take.
Often group rides can be really noisy, with people calling out every pothole, obstacle or vehicle. This can make people feel nervous and jumpy. Stick with hand signals as much as possible and only shout a warning if it is necessary — shout too much and you become the boy who called wolf.
Keeping a relaxed posture on the bike is important. It’s surprising how much energy you can waste when you’re tensing up your body and panicking about keeping up. Relaxing your shoulders and holding a smooth, straight line will help you to feel confident and avoid expending unnecessary energy shifting around in the saddle.
When cornering with other riders around you try to maintain a smooth and predictable line and avoid heavy braking. Groups often adopt a tighter formation on hills, so if you stand up in the saddle, change up a gear and apply extra pressure on the pedals to avoid momentarily slowing and hitting the front wheel of the rider behind.
Positioning is everything when you’re riding in a bunch or on a wheel. Free speed is up for grabs if you find that magic sweet spot where you’re protected from the wind. This is fairly close to the rider in front — 30cm or less — and is where trust and communication come in. You need to know the rider in front will be smooth and avoid any sudden braking or swerving.
One important rule is never to overlap your front wheel with the rear wheel of the rider ahead. Touching wheels is a common cause of crashes. Get as close as you can to benefit from the shelter but don’t overlap wheels.
If you’re worried about being dropped from the pack then the aim of the game is to hide where possible and expend as little energy as possible. This means avoiding sitting out in the wind, and tucking in behind a rider you trust. A larger rider will offer more shelter, for obvious reasons, but a smooth rider can make it feel a lot easier to keep up.
What’s more, don’t allow yourself to drift right to the back as this is where gaps in the group are amplified and you will have to work even harder to get back on after tight corners or changes in pace. Try and stay in the front third of the group, near but not on the front. Staying in this position takes focus; it’s easy to drift to the back without realising.
If you’re worried about being dropped on the hills, try to give yourself some ‘slipping room’ if you want to stay with the group: if you start the hill near the front of your group, then you can ride it slower than everyone else and hopefully still be in the group (albeit near or at the back) when you reach the top.