By Dede Barry
Photography by Walter Lai and Chris Monette
Video by Michael Barry

Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride, especially when the experience is shared with friends. But riding in a tight group can be intimidating for a new cyclist. Understanding a handful of fundamentals will help to build confidence and comfort. The result will be a safer, more enjoyable ride for you and the group.

The obstacles faced on the road can usually be overcome with fundamental bike handling skills. If you can improve your ability to handle your bike, you will perform better and be safer. In learning bike handling, the skills that one must focus on are: drafting, echelon riding, reaction time, climbing and descending.

Many cyclists tend to look at the rider or wheel in front of them when in a group, which leads to crashes. The rider should be scanning the road ahead, looking for movements in the group, potholes in the road, or upcoming corners. When focused on the wheel in front, reaction time is limited and crashes occur.

For a beginning rider, the first challenge is learning how to hold you handlebars so that you have control of the bike and can react quickly to obstacles. Grasp the handlebars too tight and your ability to absorb bumps in the road will be impaired, leading to overreactions, which can result in an unnecessary crash.

On the road, you will have best control of your bike riding in the drops with a slight bend in your elbows and with your hands in reach of the brake levers. A relaxed grip on the handlebars will allow you to easily move your hands up and down the bars to grab the levers for shifting and braking. You will be ready to react if you hit a pothole or if someone in front if you makes an erratic move. For most, it is not comfortable to do long rides in the drops of your handlebars, but keeping them there when you are descending, or riding on technical portions of the road will help you maintain better control of your bike. When not in the drops, resting your hands on the brake hoods will distribute your weight well, put you in a more aero position and allow you easy access to your brake and gear levers.

Early on, bike handling skills can best be learned on the grass, as an error on grass, or any softer surface, rarely results in cuts or bruises. Riding on grass will help you to learn how to balance your weight on the bike on uneven terrain. Riding next to a friend, you can practice bumping, riding in and out of cones, and linking arms in order to become more comfortable in proximity to other cyclists. In order to stay upright, you are forced to keep your weight balanced and react to unexpected movements.

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The bigger the group size, the more intimidating it can be, but if you focus on riding near the front of the group and surrounding yourself with the more experienced riders, you will be safer. You can learn how to descend by following the line of an experienced rider. They will guide you in setting up the turns and twists in the road. Also, when traveling through corners, proper weight balance and pedal placement in critical. Think about having three points of contact when cornering and descending:
1. Sit square on your saddle.
2. In the apex of the sharp turns, be sure to always have your outside foot at 6 o’clock (the base of the pedal stroke) and inside foot at the top of the pedal stroke.
3. Place hand weight/pressure on the inside handlebar and outside foot.
This will help you to maximize centrifugal force and travel safely at high speeds through the turns.

Maintaining position in the group is easiest if you pay close attention to the direction that the wind is traveling and ride in the draft of the riders in front of you. If the wind is coming from the left, you wan to stay on the right side of the riders in front of you, the opposite is true if the wind is coming from the right. If it is a direct headwind, stay within an inch or two of the rear wheel of the rider in front of you and you will save energy. As the road winds and turns, wind direction will shift and you need to adjust accordingly.

Echelons can be tricky to learn for a beginning cyclist, but if you adhere to the drafting advice above, you just need to learn to rotate in the direction of the wind. If the wind is coming from the left, rotate up the right side and down the left. If the wind is coming from the right, do the reverse. If it is a headwind, the group should be in a single line with the front riders taking short pulls and then pulling off and drifting to the back of the group.

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Paceline diagrams by Dark Horse Cycling Club Toronto, Canada

Pacing is important in an echelon as well. Maintaining a steady speed when you pull through on the front is critical. If you speed up rapidly, you can make it difficult for the rider that just pulled to stay with the group and if you slow down, you will cause bunching of the group. If the goal is for the group to increase the speed, do it gradually, as it will be more efficient and you will be able to maintain a higher speed with less risk of dropping riders who are weaker or having a tough moment.

If you feel you are the weak link in the group but want to remain there, sit on the tail end of the group for a rotation or two and take shorter pulls at the front. Save your energy and you will increase your chances of staying with the group.

If you feel you are the strongest rider of the group and the goal is to keep the group intact, don’t surge at the front, as you will wear out and drop the riders who are not as strong. Rather, use your strength to take longer pulls at the same steady speed.

One of the most common bicycle crashes on the group ride is caused by wheel overlap. Riders need to stay close together in order to maximize drafting efficiency, but when riding close, there is little margin for error. As riders fatigue, the likelihood of an overreaction increases if there are bumps in the road. Maintaining focus will increase safety for everyone.

With a little practice with some experienced riding partners you’ll quickly be flying along with a group of friends. On a bike, there are few better feelings than riding at speed in a smooth paceline or cruising over the countryside chatting with friends.

Team Sky Riding In A Tight Paceline

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