Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of running into a couple of my riding buddies about fifteen miles from home at an espresso stand in the beautiful little town of Littlerock Washington. The espresso stand is called Hillbilly Beans and makes the best unsweetened mocha you will find anywhere. We stood around talking and drinking coffee for quite a while. When we got back on our bikes and headed back to Olympia, it became clear that not only were we on a relatively flat road, but that road was nicely lined up with a fairly stiff tail wind. Well, one thing leads to another. It started off slow enough, three of us taking short pulls, each one going just a little bit faster than the last one who’d been at the front. Soon we were going fast, just inside each of our comfort zones, working hard, but not struggling. It doesn’t happen this perfectly that often, but when it does, it is truly a wonderful experience. Sort of like hitting a baseball on the sweet spot of the bat and watching the ball just go and go, further then you ever thought you could hit one. To me this is the essence of “Sportive” riding, friends riding together, going fast. Close to their individual limits, but going faster than any of them could have gone by themselves because they are riding together as a group.
Part of what made this great experience possible was that I’ve been riding with both of these guys for over a year and they have learned how to ride safely and efficiently in a group. Frankly, when I first started riding with them they were both a little scary. Green, really fit and strong, but either new to cycling or been away from it for a while. Both persevered. They learned the lessons, and picked up the secrets. After I got home yesterday I ask myself if there was anything that I could have done to make that process easier and perhaps quicker. I don’t think there is any way to short circuit the technique and fitness part of cycling besides getting on the bike and putting in the time, but the knowledge part, maybe we can pass that along. And in fact perhaps it’s my dues payment to those poor souls who showed me the way.
For something that is so hard to learn and to do correctly the sad thing is that the directions are painfully simple:
1. Ride straight, never change direction quickly even to avoid road hazards. Better to run a group through a chuck hole than to chop someone’s front wheel out from under them by swerving into them. If you are at the front of a pace line try to anticipate road hazards far down the road and move the group away from the hazard gradually.
2. Always ride directly in back of the rider in front of you. While riding in echelons makes sense in road racing (where riders in effect ride in the wind shadow of the rider nearest the direction the wind is coming from) this type of riding doesn’t lend itself to riding on public roads that are not closed to traffic. In addition the horrendous condition of many of our shoulders makes even relatively small variations in track potentially disastrous. In addition part of what makes a pace line work is the assumption that each rider is directly following the person in front of them. Failure to do so can create huge problems as riders move from the front to the back.
3. Never accelerate or decelerate quickly any place in a pace line. Even coasting or tapping your brakes can have very ugly results. Smooth and steady should be watch words for this kind of ride.
4. Remember that this is a “Sportive” ride and is not a race. When you go to the front of the pace line, if you think that everyone in the group can go a little bit faster, leave enough time for the rider who just pulled off to get firmly attached to the end of the pace line and then gradually accelerate. Turns at the front should be short, usually about one minute in duration, certainly no longer then two and one half minutes, and always rotate to the left and all the way to the back. If you are just hanging on take a short pull, maybe fifty pedal strokes and fall back. Not only have you saved some energy but you’ve notified the rest of the group that your just hanging on, so that no accelerations are called for. Remember that this is a Cycle Sportive” ride not a race. The ideal scenario is that everyone that starts together finishes together. If someone overspends there “energy checking account” someone, usually the ride leader, should ride in with them, which is often why the ride leader rides at the back of the pace line and doesn’t pull thru, so that no one can get dropped with their departure not being noticed. A good indicator that someone is struggling is that gaps are constantly opening and closing. Often a small reduction in speed and effort is all that is required to allow things to consolidate. The weakest rider on the ride needs to have the best technique. I know it is unnerving to ride close to another rider but it offers the biggest advantage and needs to be taken advantage of, especially if you are struggling.
It is not much more difficult than driving on the freeway and certainly much more fun and rewarding. I hope this helps, if you have any other thoughts or questions please feel free to get a hold of me as I love to talk about bicycles and bicycling. Ask anyone. Maybe by next year you’ll be one of the people that I’ll be talking about having a great ride with!