Bunch or group riding can be intimidating or a little scary. However, bunch cycling is a skill that can only be learnt in the bunch. So get on your bike and jump in. Bunch cycling is a great way to get fitter, learn new skills and enjoy the scenery of longer rides not to mention the apre-cycling.
The first thing to learn and remember is that everyone is there to have fun and enjoy themselves. Most groups are very welcoming of new cyclists and more than happy to help teach the rules of the bunch. It is important to introduce yourself and explain you are new to bunch riding.
When it comes to riding in a group the first lesson to learn is awareness. You should be super vigilant of your surroundings. When you start out assess the rider in front of you and give wobbly riders a slightly bigger gap. Keep an eye on the rider behind you as well. Your eyes should be up the road in front of the lead riders if possible. Don’t stare at the rider in front of you.
To help with your awareness you should not ride directly behind the
rider in front. Instead you should ride a few centimeters to the left or right. Your partner should do the same on the same. The other purpose to riding slightly off centre to the rider in front is to give you a larger gap should the rider in front brake suddenly. You have a few extra seconds to brake and pull alongside of them and maybe bump shoulder but it is better than crashing into their rear wheel.
Group riding is a very social activity and chatter in the group is half the enjoyment. While you are chatting, you must remain aware of everything going on around you. That means you can’t turn your head to look at the rider next to you when you are talking. This sounds obvious enough, but for many people this is human nature. Some cultures also find this extremely difficult. After all non-verbal forms the majority of our communication.
The second thing we need to learn is to ride close to the rider in front. If you are new to cycling and you don’t know the riders in front’s skill level this can be a difficult task. As explained above, offset your front wheel a little and keep looking towards the front of the group – not the rider immediately in front of you. The latter is not easy when you start but over time you will get comfortable with this technique.
Gaps in the group are a big evil (there are a few). If you let a gap grow from you to the rider in front grow the chances are someone from behind will yell ‘close the gap’. If you can’t ride fast enough call the rider behind you around with your hand. Gaps can form quickly, especially when the group speeds up after lights or slowing down. The best method to manage this is to ride in your small chain-ring (small front cog). This is counter intuitive to many, however on long rides the small chain-ring is where you should stay for the majority of the ride. Especially the first hour or so.
The small chain-ring requires you to pedal a little faster. However each pedal stroke will be light and easy. This will likely feel a little awkward to start, but you will quickly adapt. Pedaling at about 90-95 rpm is ideal. This will keep the pedals light and create the sought after ‘tapping’ effect. Many beginner cyclists will automatically choose the bigger gears because this makes you go faster. While this is true, it will stress your muscles as the pedals will be heavier. Your muscles are not designed to push heavy for long periods of time. However by tapping your pedals at 95 rpm your body will require your aerobic system to work hard. Keep in mind your aerobic system is designed to work for hours and even days on end.
This higher RPM or cadence is an important skill to hone as you ride longer. There is plenty of time for heavy big gear work during the week and at your speed or threshold sessions. However the long ride is about working on endurance. The body needs time to adapt to endurance tasks. The long rides should largely be in heart rate zone 2 (z2). Of course there are hills and bunch sprints etc which will require a harder effort but the overall ride should be an easy HR.
Another somewhat threatening component to bunch riding is the various “calls”. Calls can sound like angry yelling sometimes. Calls allow people at the front of the group to warn those behind of their impending actions, obstacles or hazards. Calls do vary from group to group but hey should all be short, clear and loud. When you hear a call from the front it is important that you pass the call back by repeating it. Yes, if you are mid-sentence chatting to your buddy you make the call and continue your conversation – “I love my new …STICK… Di2 on the XR6 really makes me cycle better”.
Seven important calls to know:
“Stopping” – This call is usually only made by the front cyclists for things like traffic lights etc. In an emergency situation a rider from inside the group can also make this call - it means a rider needs to stop now e.g. a puncture. It should not give rise to a discussion. Every rider in the group should stop including those at the front and behind.
“Turning left/right” – with associated hand signal
“Slowing” – means the brakes are being used.
“Hole left/right” – is used to warn of a pothole or crack in the road. Many cyclists just use the call “hole” without explaining which side the hole is on. Adding a left or right to the call is very helpful to those behind. At the same time as the call you should point to the hole. Keep in mind it is often better to ride straight through the pothole (soft elbows and correct tyre pressure)
“Stick” – similar to hole however sticks should not be rolled over if at all possible to avoid. Sticks will often break and fly up to surrounding cyclists and often into wheel spokes.
“Over” – this call should only be made by the right rear rider and only after that rider has moved over a lane. The group changes lanes from the rear forward. The lead riders will raise their hand signalling the rear rider to check when safe for the group to move over a lane. The rear rider should ensure that any cars have cleared the groups lead riders before calling over.
“Rolling” – simply means the group is going to rotate. Most Sydney groups will rotate anticlockwise – meaning the front right rider will move over in front of the front left rider who is now back one position. The rider behind on the right moves up to the lead and assumes the lead right position, see below pic. In experienced groups the direction of the rotation will be based on wind direction.
When it comes to actually riding your bike try and keep an even balance between the three contact points – hands, bum and feet. The lighter your hands are the better. Light hands allow you to point to hazards and signal direction changes. They also help reduce tension in the neck and shoulders which is a common problem for cyclists. Relaxed elbows will also allow you to absorb the impact of bumps and holes in the road better.
In the group there are two big no-no's. Half wheeling and overlapping
wheels should be avoided at all costs. Both are safety issues but also bunch efficiency. See pic
Key to happy group riding is safety. Much of what is written above is about safety in some way or another. My first work on safety is to prioritise your own safety first, however keep in mind that your actions will impact those around you. If you don’t feel confident to take your hands off the handlebars and point at a hole you don’t have to simply call “hole left”. Similarly if you don’t want to ride on the front simply ask the rider to your left if you can roll in front – but do this before you get to third wheel.
Of course your bike should be in good working order. Check your bike for safety:
check tyres and brakes in good working condition,
check front and back lights if riding in winter or at dawn or dusk,
carry a pump, gas is not a substitute
check tool kit includes 2 spare tubes and tyre levers; and
carry 2 full biddons, drink the first biddon the first 60-90 mins if possible.
Once you have all that sorted the open road is calling.
With a little (read: a lot) awareness, a small chainring, some light tapping, soft elbows and a few calls you will be charging through the mountains with the group.