I know of Category 5 racers who can produce over 300 watts of average power for a 20 minute time trialbut yet get dropped on the most basic training rides; Conversely, I know of riders that can only produce 250 watts for the same time trial who continually make the front group in a ride or race. What is the reason? Most likely, it is the ability to ride in a group effectively.
Here are tips on how to improve your success on the next group ride or race.
Whether your goal is to not get dropped on the next century ride or place in a big race, the concept of drafting is the fundamental component of success. Because of this cycling can be considered a game similar to chess. If you are drafting behind a rider at 25mph, you are able to conserve about 30 percent of your energy versus the rider who is on the front. In a group of 100 riders, there are 99 places to hide from the wind. In a race, the win is achieved by the rider who spends his or her energy at the right time, not by the rider who spends the most energy. As such, you only have so many matches to burn, and it’s important on knowing when to use them. So conservation of energy is paramount in cycling success.
Related to drafting, there are other components that come into play. For instance, what direction is the wind coming from? Always be looking around you for flags or trees and notice which direction they are blowing. If the wind is coming from the right side, you can conserve energy by placing yourself on the leftward side of the group. If it is very windy, expect gaps to open up ahead of the rider you are following and immediately jump across these gaps before they grow bigger. Another consideration of riding in a crosswind is to relax your upper body and grip on the bars. The natural tendency is to grip the bars tightly in such situations, but if a burst of strong wind comes to you, the bike with you will be jostled dangerously. If you relax your grip in this situation, the bike might initially feel the crosswind but it will come back to you, as you weigh more than the bike. If you are in a pace line, make sure to follow a rider of equal or larger body size as you to get the best draft.
Related to conservation of energy is economy of motion. As you evolve as a rider you will learn to be smooth and not waste energy in your riding style. It’s important to hold a steady speed in a group to save energy; Otherwise, you will annoy the entire peloton. Riding at varying or fluctuating speeds saps energy; If you drove a car that way, you would get horrible gas mileage.
Try to soft pedal instead of coasting when the group eases off a bit. This will please the rider behind you but also train you to pedal at different intensities which will make you a better rider.
Another misconception is that riding at the front of the group is harder than riding at the back. Because of the accordion effect, it is actually the opposite. If you are on a rolling or twisty course, the worst position is at the back of the group. This is because you have to brake or slow down before the hill or turn happens; whereas, the riders at the front get to carry maximum momentum and don’t need to accelerate up the hill or out of the turn as much as the rear of the field. Ideally, the easiest spot to be is in the top 10 of the group yet not on the front. This way you get the draft advantage but don’t have the accordion effect. This might mean you are obligated to pull through, but it is still easier than not being in this position. Plus, it’s a great place to be if you want to avoid being behind a crash. Furthermore, being at the back of the field means you are around riders who are ready to get dropped and will require you to bridge the gap they open when this occurs.
Speaking of momentum, this is where using a powermeter comes in handy. Have you noticed how some group rides surge on the hills, only to slow down once cresting them? This is usually a sign of a inexperienced group of riders. In contrast, the more advanced group understands how to use momentum as their friend. As such, when rolling into a hill, the riders will continually shift down to an easier gear as they lose momentum, but will do the opposite once they crest the hill. In this way, they keep their power more constant. The end result is that their average speed is significantly increased. This especially comes in handy when in a breakaway with a few riders, as you want to work together to be faster and evade the peloton.
Brace for the Attack!
There are times when in a race you need to be on high alert to avoid danger and bridge gaps. One such scenario is when a breakaway is getting ready to be caught by the peloton. If you ever watch pro racing on TV, you might notice that the breakaway usually gets caught, but only in the last few kilometers. Why don’t they try to catch them sooner? If it’s a flat stage, the guy who’s the best sprinter enforces his team to chase but in a choreographed manner so that they only catch them towards the end. This way they avoid any counter attacks that are inevitable once the capture happens. If you are in the group catching a breakaway, brace yourself for the counter attack. You might want to go with it, as this is one of the most intense times of the race. And you can only do this if you are close to the front, which is another reason not to ride on the back of the peloton. Another time to be on high alert in a race is after a crash occurs. It might seem like the best course of action is to stop and see if everyone is okay, but the opposite occurs. As soon as you hear the crunch of bikes coming together, brace yourself for the attack.
Another reason to be at the front might be to limit your losses on a hilly course. If you roll into a hill at or near the front, you can afford to lose a few places and stay with the group once you crest it.
Keep in mind that staying at the front takes constant vigilance. If you aren’t constantly reacting to the dynamics of the peloton, you will end up losing position and end up at the back. So the saying goes: If you aren’t moving forward, then you are moving backwards. Some riders wait for things to happen and then react; good riders see everything and anticipate what will happen. This not only will make you more successful, but will also help you in avoiding danger. Are there times when it is okay to go to the back of the peloton? If necessary, you can normally get away with slowing up and fading back when the course is somewhat flat and nontechnical. But don’t get used to it!
These are just a few skills that will allow you to better your position and success on your next group ride or race. There are many more nuances that contribute as well. If anything, I recommend being a student of the sport, which involves watching and studying how racing plays out at the highest level. Doing so will allow you to know when to burn your matches at the right time and, most importantly, enjoy this sport to the maximum and become a chess champion!