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One of the popular bike routes near me has a few groups that ride together on Saturday and Sunday. The groups get as big as 30 to 40 riders and they move fast (25 to 35 mph). I have occasionally joined the group at the very back and hung on for dear life. Being at the back, I always get dropped when they speed up. Does anyone have any advice on how to get comfortable farther up in the pack?

It is a mostly flat road with some rather poorly maintained sections of potholes. It is usually the potholes that cost me enough speed to drop off. In the middle of the pack am I just stuck hitting whatever is in my line?

For the curious, the route is Sheridan Road along Lake Michigan north of Chicago. Great ride if you are ever in the area.

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Large group riding slightly terrifies me. I'm interested to hear others' tips! –  Rebekah Sep 1 '10 at 10:51
    
Does your bike have skinny tires, and no suspension? Maybe that's why you're spooked by the potholes. That kind of bike is fast on a good road, but maybe something more rugged will give you the advantage here, in spite of a loss of efficiency, by letting you forge on ahead without minding the surface irregularities so much. –  Kaz Oct 3 '12 at 19:09
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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Group rides of this size and speed often consist entirely of racers. If a steady double paceline hasn't formed, then to be more specific, this is one of those rides that is, in effect, a race itself.

So with that in mind, so some general thoughts about these types of group rides:

  • If they are all wearing the same jersey and you are not, ask permission to join in first.
  • Keep the same line as the rider in front of you in turns.
  • Practice bumping shoulders and hips with some friends on a soft, grassy field so the first time you take an inadvertent bodycheck isn't at 35mph.
  • Protect your front wheel. Your invisible wheel fairies live within a foot or so of your front wheel. Do not let anyone else's wheels steal them.
  • That said, do not stare at the wheels in front of you, look up the road, hips of the rider in front of you is often a good place to look for distance.
  • You probably want to, if at all possible, be at the front, but not on the front. In a group of 30-40 riders, this means probably in the top 10 or so. Note that everyone else wants to be here.
  • Do not take it personally if you get yelled at. Contemplate what you did that caused yelling and endeavor not to do it again.
  • Get more speed. Racing is more about dealing with high speed surges where you have to ride at 30+mph while Exciting Things Happen than it is about keeping a good average speed. Try to stay on and sprint as hard as you can when things get fast until you get dropped. You will get faster.
  • If you are not yet comfortable, there is nothing wrong with hanging out at the back, suffering and watching how the ride unfolds. It takes a while to get comfortable riding close to other guys at these speeds. Take it easy, it's safer for everyone.
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I would suggest getting to the front of the pack whenever possible, this is especially true before climbs or other obstacles. This gives you the opportunity to slip back relative to the front of the pack but still stay in touch at the end of the climb.

Secondly you can get fitter and then put the hurt on the others.

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If they're not calling out the potholes, and pointing them out (literally), then you're in a racing situation, and not really a friendly group ride.

If you were in a true group ride, I'd say to keep your hands ready at the brakes at all times, and stay as close as you can stand to in order to draft.

If there are pace changes, they are more subtle at the front, and more brutal at the very back. It's a 'crack-the-whip' situation. Staying near the front, but not at the front will be the best choice.

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My experience is limited to single pacelines, but here goes:

  1. The spot with the least effort is at the back, because the slipstream at its is widest here. If you're having trouble hanging on to the back then you may not cut it further up the group -- you'll just open up a gap and annoy everyone caught behind you.
  2. The problem in the back is that every time a rider varies their speed, it ripples back through the line and gets worse and worse. So at the back you'll have to stay focused since the paceline may appear to speed up and slow down often. Near the front the line will appear much smoother.
  3. If you notice a gap opening up, pedal hard to close it. The wider it gets, the further you fall out of the slipstream and the more effort you'll need to apply. Fall too far back (even just a few feet in a big, fast group) and you're toast unless you're a strong sprinter.
  4. Keep within a foot of the next rider's rear wheel, but don't get closer than you're comfortable with. Keep more distance if they seem to surge ahead or fall back often.
  5. Never overlap their wheel -- if your wheels touch, you're most likely headed down and they may never even notice what happened.
  6. Don't focus on the wheel ahead of you. Scan ahead for obstacles (which others should be pointing out), turns, climbs and traffic stops.
  7. Resist the urge to use your brakes -- better to swerve (safely) out of the paceline rather than brake hard and have the rest of the pack pile into you.
  8. A good paceline rotates front riders constantly -- when you're the second rider, make a note of the paceline's speed. When it's your turn up front, do not accelerate, maintain that same speed at a nice steady rhythm.
  9. Your turn might be up after a set number of minutes or distance, depending on the group. But if you're tiring too quickly, better to end your turn early rather than slowing the line down or being unable to take a turn later on.
  10. When your turn's up, check over your left shoulder to make sure there's no traffic coming up alongside the paceline. An exaggerated shoulder check also lets the next rider know you're ready to switch. When the lane's clear, peel off to the left (might be the right in the UK?) and coast or soft pedal to let the paceline roar by. As the last rider approaches, accelerate hard and duck into the slipstream at the back of the line (don't wait too long or you might get dropped).

Pacelines can be a lot of fun. They work best when the more experienced riders in the group take some time out to explain how things work to newer riders. And it helps to fall in with riders at your level. I like riding with the fast guys but once my legs start screaming I drop off the back and find a slower group.

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Because the pack is moving swiftly and you're so close to the wheels in front, you have to have implicit confidence in those in front of you, and those in front have a duty of care to those following them. So clear hand signals and appropriate calls are key. You shouldn't have to put up with whatever comes at you, common courtesy should mean that you should be able to avoid the worst of the potholes and similar.

Aside from the good advice about pack position and so on, you should expect to see and use some of signals:

  • to warn of impeding obstacles (parked cars, slower cyclists, etc.) you'll use the opposite hand, behind your back and point away from the impediment. So if you're drifting right, use your left hand to point to the right. And vice versa.
  • major turns (e.g. starting from the route commander) might give proper arm/hand signals - especially from the back of the pack to following traffic.
  • if there are pot-holes coming, physically point at them and following them with your hand while you avoid them
  • if a car is approaching from behind, shout it forward so that the pack can thin out and become narrower to aid being overtaken
  • similarly if going down a narrow road and meet a car coming the other way, shout it back
  • when approaching a junction, if you see it's clear, don't just hammer through, make an explicit shout as to whether it is clear or not - "Clear" means no guess work. "Car Right/Left" is also very helpful.
  • when you're at the front and the new guy replacing you is coming from the back, when they've passed you, tell them "clear", so they don't have to guess
  • when you're at the back and the line is rotating the other way (i.e. people roll off the front and go to the back) if you're the last man at the back and someone's about to fall behind you and become the new last man, say "last man" so they don't have to guess about how many more there might (or might not) be.

My club also publishes a short overview of rules and ettiquette.

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