Before the internet, before custom bikes and titanium and carbon fiber, learning to ride was an apprenticeship. The goal was to become a member of the peloton, not merely someone who is sort of fast on a bike. You were invited to attend a group ride only if you showed interest and a willingness to learn. You were uninvited if you did not. You learned skills directly from the leader, as well as other experienced cyclists on the ride, who took an interest in riding next to you on your first rides. Here is some of what you learn on a true group ride:
- To ride for months each year in the small chainring.
- To start with a humble bike, probably used.
- To pull the paceline without surging.
- To run rotating pace line drills and flick others through.
- To ride through the top of a climb.
- To hold your line in a corner.
- To stand up smoothly and not throw your bike back.
- To give the person ahead of you on a climb a little more room to stand up.
- To respect the yellow line rule.
- To point out significant road problems.
- To brake less, especially in a pace line.
- To follow the wheel in front and not overlap.
- The ride leader and his lieutentants were serious about their roles, because the safety of the group depended on you, the weakest link. If you did not follow the rules, you were chastised harshly. If you did, you became a member of something spectacular. The Peloton.
Rules of the Road
Leading: Riding on the front of the pack is a position of responsibility. Not only are you the eyes of the group, but more importantly you are the one responsible for making decisions that affect everyone else on the ride. What may be safe for you may not be safe for the other riders behind you. Running red lights, splitting cars, squeezing through traffic, etc., forces everyone behind you to do the same thing. Set a pace that is appropriate and keep the pace steady and smooth. A group bike ride is NOT a race. You are not to “attack” off the front or try to show everyone how strong you are. That’s what races are for.
Holding a line: To avoid overlapping wheels, ride as if you are on rails. Use verbal and hand signals to avoid obstacles in the road. Ride smoothly and predictably, do not accelerate or brake too quickly and announce when you are stopping or slowing. Do not at any time sprint ahead and disrupt the flow. Even if there is a corner coming up, stay side by side and go through the corner like a well oiled machine. Riding with your bars ahead of the rider beside you is called “half-wheeling” and is a major faux pas. It’s up to you to keep up with the speed of the slower rider next to you. Try to keep to the side of the road, there is no need to take over the whole lane and annoy car drivers.
Following: There should be NO gaps in a group ride. As soon as you see a gap, fill it by riding into the space in a steady and controlled manner.
Peeling off: When you are tired of riding at the front and feel it is time to go to the back, make sure the rider beside you knows this. Once you have both established that you are going back, check briefly that there isn’t someone overlapping your back wheel, then both riders slowly and gradually move to the outside and let the group come through the middle. Do not suddenly veer off to the side, peel off in a steady and controlled manner.
Too tired to go to the front: If you do not want to go to the front, sit at the back and let the riders coming back from the front of the group slot in ahead of you. It is not acceptable to work your way up to the front of the group and slow down because you don’t feel strong enough to be at the front. If for whatever reason you do find yourself at the front, go through and take what is known as a “token pull”. You go to the front for a couple seconds, agree with the rider beside you that you are both peeling off, and go to the back.
Moving in a group: If you need to go to the back of the group, or need to move out away from the side of road because the road is damaged (for example), just steadily move in whatever direction you want to go in. The key to all group riding is to do things gradually and steadily. Even if there is a rider right next to you as you pull out to the side of the road, if you do it gradually, the other rider will naturally have time to move over with you. If you do anything sudden you will likely cause a crash. This is also very important when “peeling off” and “filling a gap”.
Obstacles and hand signals: All obstacles should be warned of by a simple hand signal. When you see an obstacle in the road ahead of you, put your hand down and give a signal that lets the riders behind you know if which direction they should go to avoid it. Traditionally a quick wave of the hand will suffice. It is NOT acceptable to yell, then weave around it at the last minute. If you only see the obstacle at the last minute, ride through it! Better to get a flat than to take down the whole group. An obstacle worth pointing out is one that will damage a bike or person behind you. Don’t point out manhole covers unless they are deeply set in the road, or leaves or small cracks in the road.
Slowing and adjusting speed: You should ride ever so slightly to the side of the rider in front of you; so when they slow down, you either stop pedaling and start to slightly overlap your front wheel with their rear wheel, or you touch the brakes gradually, once again using the “wheel overlap” as a buffer zone so as not to slow down too suddenly for the riders behind you. This is probably the biggest crash causer on group rides.
Many thanks to Peter Wilborn, author and bike lawyer.