Keeping up with cyclists who are faster than you is a pedaling art. Watch experienced riders and you’ll be amazed how their seemingly simple pedal strokes keep them in the group of fast moving cyclists. The experience of being “dropped” or “left behind” can be demoralizing; one moment you are socially rolling along with a group of like-minded cycling souls and the next, you are blind-sided by a sudden burst of speed and powder that leaves you in their dust. You question yourself, your fitness, and it doesn’t add up: you’re fit, you’ve got great endurance, and you’re not new to this bike-riding thing! How did you just get dropped?
Experience, such as my 20 years of riding, is one thing that enables you to hang. But what are the secrets? What do you need to do to be better at riding in a group? There are two main things: you have to be comfortable drafting off of other cyclists and you must train your anaerobic system. Before we cover how to do those two things, we need the source of motivation—you need to want it!
When I began riding, I knew this one particular woman who could hang with the boys. My first races were in Central Park. Every Saturday, I’d race Central Park in the morning and then jump in my car to drive to one of the best group rides in the nation, the Gimbals Ride out of Yonkers (basically, another race). At both events, I raced with the men because that’s what this girl was doing. Because she was, I was inspired to ride with the guys. It was a real challenge; I often hoped for the luck of the red light to catch back up to the group. However, I paid close attention to the super girl, watched her movement in the group, and eventually had the power and know-how to “hang.”
You have to identify your reason for pushing through the challenging moments you might face, whether it’s a specific training benefit you’re after or simply to avoid getting lost in the middle of nowhere on an unfamiliar route. Whatever drives you, be sure to combine that motivation with the following rules of the road for successful group riding.
Don’t shy away from a group because you think they are faster. It’s beneficial to train with faster riders (just as long as the variance isn’t too drastic), so have the courage to join the group and the grit to keep trying.
Rule #2 is about maintaining a good position in the group that is protected from the wind. You have to stay out of the wind to conserve energy. To stay out of the wind, you have to be able to stay close to the rider in front of you and next to you. What does that mean? You have to be on the correct side of the person (or group) opposite of the wind, and you have to be close enough to not allow wind between you and the rider in front of you. That proximity is key. I’ve been next to many riders who think they are drafting when the reality is that they are too many bike lengths away to reap any benefit. What is the correct position, then? It has been proven that, when you are in someone’s slipstream, you save about 30 percent energy expenditure with drafting. I’m talking about six inches or less—if your reaction is, “no way—that’s too close,” make your goal one foot and work towards six inches. Maintaining that position is an ongoing activity; you don’t just find it once and then, by luck, you’re sucked along. You have to keep working to keep your bike in that protected zone. If you get distracted, the group turns, and suddenly you’re facing the wind, the energy expenditure to get back in the draft may cost you (this isn’t as serious as it sounds—I just wanted to show you where energy can be saved. If the wind direction is about to change, you need to move in the group accordingly). If you are not comfortable with close proximity to other riders, you need to practice (and keep practicing). Practice with riders you know; practice in smaller groups. Keep in mind that your bike is an extension of you and, if you are nervous, your energy will be evident in the bike’s movement. To keep relaxed, you need to be confident in your skill set and in the skills of those around you, which is achieved through (you guessed it) practice.
Knowing the course helps tremendously. If you don’t know the route before hand, it’s a good idea to stay in the front third of the group, which is close enough that you can see the front but not so close that the rotation of riders suddenly lands you in the lead. Yes, every rider should take a turn at the front and do a fair share of the work (remember the benefits of wind protection from Rule #2?); however, you can’t lead if you can’t HANG! You want to be up far enough that you know what’s coming so you can react appropriately and complete the ride with the group. For example, you always want to move up before climbing hills so that if you fall off pace, you fall within the group rather than right off the back.
Rule #4 is all about energy conservation, and my motto is don’t spend your dollars early. What does this mean? Imagine that, when you start the ride, you have three dollars in your pocket. Each time you find yourself putting in a big effort, you’ve spent a dollar. The more dollars you have saved for the second half of your ride, the richer your experience will be. Spending your ride dollars too early will cost you later. Common mistakes in early expenditures are pulling at the front just to show how strong you are and putting in a big effort or acceleration in order to close a gap. One way to avoid the dreaded gap is to look ahead, predict that it’s coming, and stay close to a rider who is clearly going to hang. Another way to conserve energy is to stay protected by keeping off the front and out of the wind. You ALWAYS want to conserve your energy in the first half of the ride.
This rule is the big one and one that you can work on your own. Most of us don’t train the anaerobic system and it’s this exact system that is called upon when the group sprints up a hill or pushes the pace over the dam.
I’ll use the Austin Tri-Cyclist ride as an example. Competitive cyclists love this route as Southwest Parkway has some difficult hills that require big power. The power surges needed are short but intense. In order to hang with the group, you need to simulate this effort on your own. One way to do this is with intervals on Southwest Parkway riding those exact hills. Approach the hill as if you were doing a time trial race and you are racing the clock. You want to go as fast as you can without fading, so pacing is required. But you need to race up it, all the way over the top. You need to stand up twice to accelerate (in the beginning to get the effort started and at the end to put in the last big effort to get to the top). Once you’re at the top, you need to keep big pressure on the pedals and accelerate on the flat or downhill. Power on the pedals! Don’t take a break until at least 20-30 seconds over the top! Forcing yourself to carry the effort OVER the top of the hill and not seek relief right at the top is a great mental as well as physical effort. Start with four repeats of the same hill on Southwest Parkway and build to six. Positive attitude is important. You need to train your brain to send your muscles the right messages, as your power output is very responsive to your mental state! When it gets tough, tell yourself “I can do five more pedal strokes.” Keep repeating that. Once you’ve done the repeats and pushed yourself through multiple anaerobic efforts, your body will start adapting to that type of effort and it won’t be such a shock to your system.
Mt. Bonnell repeats – Begin with four circuits up the south side of Mt. Bonnell. As soon as the hill begins, break it up into thirds, going harder each third. You should be anaerobic by the time you are on the last pitch to the top. Maintain a good cadence, running on the pedals when it’s steep. You have to race the top and ten pedal strokes over the top; in other words, treat the Mt. Bonnell steps as the finish line. It’s these anaerobic short efforts that will prepare your body for the accelerations of a group on a hill. Build up to six to eight repeats once a week.
Most of Austin’s bike shops offer group rides on the weekends. There’s Austin Tri-Cyclist (ATC), Progress, Mellow Johnny’s, Jack & Adams Bicycles, Austin Bikes, Bucks Bikes, Nelos, and the list keeps going. Having a group ride to look forward to has many training benefits. Simply committing to one can be the difference between getting out the door or not.
The actual training benefits are plenty, but only if you are able to keep up with the pace of the group. My hope in sharing my experience is that you’ll get more from your group ride and find yourself able to hang.
Jen McRae is a professional cyclist currently racing with Team 787. Since 2005, McRae has had several podium finishes at the United States Criterium National Championships. In addition to professional racing, McRae is a cycling coach for Chann McRae Coaching, which provides training for cyclists and multi-sport athletes. Jen coaches the juniors on the 787 team of which her daughters, Henna(10) and Elle(8), are members. Jen also teaches cycling classes at Pure Austin Gym.