El Tour de Tucson: The psychology of group riding

A personal survival guide

I know I said I'd work on a nutritional plan this week – and I did make changes to the crappy way I eat which are starting to pay off in my riding.

But then my kids made these caramel and candy coated pears for Halloween, and we went out of town for the weekend and ate on the road, and, well, we’ll come back to nutrition next week.

This is why, with five weeks to go, I needed an alternative focus for the week. Since every piece of advice I get about riding in El Tour de Tucson says that hitting that 5:30 goal will only be possible if I work with groups of riders, I decided to analyse my group riding skills to see if I can make improvements.

We’ve all ridden in groups, right? Probably most of us are comfortable riding side by side with other riders or tucked right up behind someone else’s wheel. But most of my experience is in groups I’m comfortable with; where I got to spend a few rides getting to know the dynamics of the group, spot the fastest wheels and figure out who’s the most likely to cut me off when they move in front of me.

In the Tucson event, I will have no prep, no time to ease in. So I jotted down a list of rules and reminders to carry in my head while riding in a group. (Caveat: these are my personal rules for working in a pack effectively and safely. I’m not trying to create The Definitive Guide to Pack Riding. There are at least 1,000 pros who could probably come up with a better list.)

Leading the group at the start is impressive, but dumb – Too often, I am excited to start a big ride and put myself near the front of the group. Before I know it (and usually just before the ride really heats up), I end up on the front, wearing myself thin to avoid looking like a wimp by dropping back to the shelter of someone else’s draft. For me, too much work too early is a recipe for losing grip when things get fun and fast. I should either take the very first pull so I can have enough time to rest before the speed picks up or sit in the back until the real ride begins.

Six inches is close enough – Staying close to another rider’s wheel can be unnerving but I know it provides the best shelter from the wind. The best approach to following, for me, is to focus on getting to within six inches, to find the position directly behind or off to one side that shields me the most from the elements, and avoid overlapping wheels with the rider in front. Closer than six inches and any change in my leader’s momentum (they get out of the saddle, move to avoid an object in the road or hit their brakes) and I could be on the ground before I can react to the danger.

Get in the drops – I sometimes forget that the lower extensions of the handlebars on my road bike can be held while riding, giving me a more aerodynamic profile and letting me save even more energy when riding behind someone else. This is especially important to remember when riding behind a shorter person or getting close to the front of the group (where the cumulative effect of multiple riders blocking the wind is lessened).

Look three riders ahead – I’m scared to crash. I’ve seen minor falls result in massive carnage. Although there’s no ultimate assurance against crashing, I can see trouble forming much better by keeping an eye three riders up the line rather than zoning out on the wheel in front of me. This also lets me react to changes in the group’s momentum sooner.

Have an escape route – I get really nervous when there is more than one rider on my left and a curb or other riders on the right. I should always have an escape route out of the group.

Take smart pulls – When it’s time to go to the front, it is important for me to remember to keep the speed consistent and take a fair pull. For me, that amounts to staying there for 15 to 30 seconds before rolling off and drifting to the back.

Catch the caboose – I get dropped so many times by missing the tail end of a riding group after taking a pull. If I am smart about my pull and don’t overdo it, I should be able to catch the train as it passes. The key is not letting my speed drop too much when I come off the front, then keeping an eye out for the back of the line and starting to accelerate when there are two or three riders left to pass me. I can usually slot right into the back of the group after that and recover.

Close gaps without blowing up – Sometimes, no matter how well I stay with the wheel in front of me, speed changes up the group cause a gap to open. Too many times, this is where I get dropped – I quit in frustration from not being able to keep up or blow up trying to hook back on. What I need to remember is that if I avoid panic, get in the drops and focus on consistent speed, I can usually close gaps in a controlled manner.

You will not die if you sprint to close a gap – When pulling a gap back gradually doesn’t work, it's better to downshift and sprint across the gap like a Green Jersey is on the line than simply fall away and get stuck riding without the shared energy and protection of a group.

It’s okay to drop out ­– I plan to start El Tour as hard as I can to get into the best possible group to reach my ultimate goal of 5:30. But there may come a time when I need to realise my limitations. Rather than blowing up by gutting it out in too fast a group in the first 50 miles, I need to remember to be smart, drop back, spin a little to recover and grab the next group riding by.

I had a consistent week executing the training plan – sprint ride, tempo ride, mountain climb and weekend ride – and I feel like I am on track for Tucson but thinking through group ride tactics was good for me.

I carried that fanny pack of happy thoughts into Saturday’s 65-mile fast group ride and I am happy to say I was with the fast group a lot longer than even one week ago (three-quarters of the ride rather than one quarter).

I got to use pretty much every rule on the list at least once but the ones that had the most impact were ‘Closing Gaps Without Blowing Up’ and ‘You Will Not Die If You Sprint To Close a Gap’. Good times.

Next week: Getting that nutrition in order.

Mountain bike hill repeats, anyone?

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