A pack is what forms when a group of cyclists is too large to ride in an orderly paceline. Unless there is uniform consent about the kind of paceline, what the pace is, and how quickly the group should rotate, some rider will tire of riding sheltered in the group and head for the front with the desire to spice things up. One man’s pleasant conversational pace is another man’s funeral march. Likewise, one man’s tempo pace is another man’s absolute limit. Things get interesting in packs. Your first goal is to stay safe. Your second is to have fun and get fit.
Hold your line. Holding your line is considered one of the most essential skills to riding in a group of cyclists. When riding alone, holding your line is considered relative to the construction of the road and obstacles in the road. In a pack, holding your line is considered relative to the rider in front of you. Picture how a school of fish swims—they turn as one and somehow, miraculously, do it without bouncing off each other. As the pack moves left and right relative to any roadside obstacles and through turns, it is important to follow the line ridden by the riders immediately in front of you.
Protect your front wheel. The easiest way to go down when riding in a group is to allow another rider’s rear wheel to come into contact with your front wheel. Imagine drawing a half circle with your front wheel that describes the bike’s steering radius. Consider that roughly three-foot-radius arc from left to right around your front wheel sacred. If someone moves into it, back away to protect your front wheel.
Getting dropped is part of life. Most riders gets dropped on their first few group rides. Many experienced riders will get dropped from early season rides if their fitness is off. If you are new to a group ride, ask if there are regroup points and try to find out what the route is before you roll out. If you are unfamiliar with the roads in the area, carry a map with you, just in case. Be aware that most group rides don’t sustain a high pace for all that long. If you can, maintain a high, but manageable, pace after you are dropped; it is possible the group’s pace will drop and you’ll be able to catch on to the group even before reaching a regroup point.
Beware the accordion effect. As the group accelerates and slows, the overall shape of the group will change. A group of riders four abreast and eight deep can quickly become 16 riders in double file, or worse yet, 32 riders in single file. This is because not all riders will accelerate at the same time or the same pace. Delays in reaction time will result in the riders at the back beginning to accelerate after the riders at the front. To stay with them, the riders at the back must accelerate more sharply in order to make up that lost ground.
When slowing, the delay in reaction will cause the group to bunch up because the riders at the back will begin braking later than the riders at the front. For this reason it is important that the riders at the front slow no more than necessary and stop no sooner than necessary. Should even one rider stop short, that lack of stopping distance for the riders behind can result in a crash.
Learn how to backslide. One way to avoid being dropped is to move up in the group before a big acceleration or big hill. This requires some knowledge of the ride, of course. By being near the front when the acceleration or hill comes, you have the ability to drop back through the group, much like pulling off the front of a paceline, and then hopefully the pace drops before you reach the back of the group, and the end of your rope. Many riders use stoplights to move near the front of the group in anticipation of a fast portion of the ride. Be aware that many of the fastest, most experienced riders will object to you moving to the very front of the group if you aren’t strong enough to help maintain the pace. When pulling up to a stoplight, it is better to move near the front than to the front.
Learn how to move up. For new riders, the easiest places to move up are at the edges of a group. It takes some time to begin to feel confident that you can move through gaps in the group as they open. Rather than trying to ride up to the front of the group with your nose in the wind, move to the outside of the group and wait for another rider to come by. Once a cyclist passes you, check over your shoulder quickly to make sure that rider’s wheel is free and hop on the express to the front.
Choose your position in the group. Where you position yourself in the group will determine how you need to ride to stay in the group. The strongest riders tend to ride at the very front of the group (the first 10 riders or so). If you are up there, you will be expected to take a pull and to be able to close a “gap.” A gap is what riders call a space that is equal to the length of a bike. If there’s room for a rider between you and the rider ahead of you, you are said to have left a gap.
The area near the front but out of that rotation of riders at the front is the position with the most even pace. Many riders will work just hard enough to try to be near the front without actually being at the front for this reason; this also happens to be one of the safest places in the group. The middle of the group can be crowded but offers a terrific draft. Accelerations in the group’s pace are more noticeable here. The back half of the group offers the best draft, but changes in pace can require violent accelerations.
Close gaps left by others. If you are in a rotation and the rider ahead of you pulls out, thereby leaving a gap of more than six feet, a quick way to make friends is to try to close the gap, provided you are strong enough to do so. If the pace is too high for your ability, give the rider a quick wave to indicate that you need some help. After signaling, pull out of the rotation and drop back.
Drink on the bike. If you are going to ride for more than an hour, you will need to drink some water to replace the fluid you lose through perspiration. If you are riding on your own or in a small group, there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you stop to take a drink. If you are riding with a fast-moving group that seldom stops, it’s important to drink as you are moving.
Drinking with one hand means you will be steering, shifting, and braking with the other hand. More than almost any other skill in this chapter, it is important you are comfortable grabbing, drinking from, and replacing the bottle without looking at what you are doing.
For maximum control, it’s a good idea to drink with the left hand while controlling the bike with the right hand. Keeping your right hand on the bar gives you more control than you’ll have with your left. If you need to shift gears as you drink, the rear derailleur (which is shifted with your right hand) offers finer adjustments in gearing. Similarly, if you need to brake suddenly, the rear brake offers more easily modulated braking power; a big fistful of rear brake won’t send you over the bar the way the front brake can.