Much gets written about ‘riding in a group’ (I’ve done it myself). The two words that always seem to crop up, along with ‘etiquette’, of course, are ‘DO’, which is bad enough as the implicit tone is a bark, and ‘DON’T’. And new comers to group rides can feel as though they’ve stumbled into something between an army drill session and a formal dance with people shouting, pointing and gesticulating at them every time they do something wrong.
Of course some communication is essential but the formations and protocols are based pretty much on logic and common sense so for the most part your verbal communication can be about interesting things, like the weather.
So what are these logical, common sense elements that should really render the Ride Sergeant Major redundant?
Perhaps the first thing to establish and verify what ‘Group Riding’ means. A group of cyclists have gathered to ride together but each may have quite different ideas about what that means in practise. It makes a lot of sense to check that everyone who sets off together shares the same expectation for that particular group ride.
At one end of a continuum is a column of riders in pairs where the gaps between the riders never exceeds a few centimetres for the entire duration of the ride regardless of the terrain, the weather, the roads, the traffic or the speed. This end of the continuum is occupied by professional teams on training camps. At the other end of the continuum is ‘everyone ending up at the same destination’. In between there are various stages of togetherness including ‘taking the same route’, ‘regrouping periodically’, ‘remaining in sight’, ‘single file’, ‘ones and twos’, ‘regrouping after hills’, ‘a loose bunch’ and ‘all over the road’.
To my mind, if a group has gathered to ride together, it should aspire to ride like that professional team as far as possible, and revert to ‘singe file’ or ‘regroup’ when doing so is either impracticable or irresponsible.
A well formed group is safe, predictable, efficient, sociable and socially responsible. It can also be great fun and great training. Most of the other ‘options’ are not particularly safe, often unpredictable, hopelessly inefficient, unsociable and inconsiderate. Sometimes, and for some, they can indeed be great fun and great training – but that’s rarely the case for everyone. There are nearly alway losers: maybe riders in the group, obviously or subtly, or maybe other road users.
Two tight lines might look a bit regimented but it’s much more relaxed than in an ill-formed group. The people on the front keep an eye on the road ahead and call or indicate obstacles, pot holes, oncoming traffic or a slowing down. Those at the back keep an eye out for traffic behind and call forward when there’s something to say. Those in the middle pass the messages on and make sure they stay in the middle. By that I mean that if they find themselves behind a split or in front of a split they do or say something. Everybody takes responsibility and nobody gets lost or left behind. If there is one rule of group riding amongst all those DOs and DON’Ts that’s it.
A well formed group is incredibly efficient. Simply riding in close coupled pairs, with a slight echelon for side wind, allows you to ride faster, further or with less effort than you can on your own, and with less stress than you can in an unordered bunch.
You might think that it only works if everyone in the group is of similar ability. Au contraire. With a little bit of thought and discipline it’s quite possible for those not so fast to enjoy riding with faster riders and for faster riders to enjoy the the company of those not-so-fast without anyone having to compromise their own ride.
So what gets in the way of this wonderful group riding nirvana?
Twitchiness for one.
To ride very close alongside someone you have to be pretty confident that you’re not going to bump into each other, and to ride very close behind someone you have to be pretty confident that your front wheel is not going to come into contact with their back wheel. If your bike is a bit twitchy that confidence can be hard to find. And even then it’s probably bravado.
So what is it that causes your bike to be twitchy? Is it your bike or is it you?
Whilst some bikes are inherently more twitchy than others most will go pretty straight if you give them the chance. The combination of the spinning front wheel and the steering geometry (the head angle, rake and trail) gives a pretty strong self-centring effect. An old cycling friend was a liability when he was holding on to the handlebars but rode perfectly straight no-handed. On some bikes the self centring effect is so strong that it can be difficult to persuade them to change direction at all (think dutch town bikes). Racing bikes are designed to respond quickly, but not to be twitchy. What makes them feel twitchy is having too much of your bodyweight on the handlebars. At any sort of speed it’s leaning to the side that makes a bike turn, not turning the handlebars. If you’re resting heavily on the handlebars any shift in your weight causes uneven pressure on the handlebars which in turn causes the bike to lean. To avoid turning to the side, or falling off, you instinctively steer the bike back underneath your centre of gravity. Unfortunately that instinctive correction involves first steering further to the side that you inadvertently leaned to. If there’s someone next to you you’ll bump them. If there is a wheel overlapping your yours, front or back, you’ll touch it.
So if you like the idea of riding in a group, and you aspire to the professional end of the continuum, but the reality is proving to be rather stressful, the problem might not be you and it might not be your bike. It might just be the way that it’s setup. A good bike fit cannot guarantee that you’ll suddenly feel comfortable in a group, but it can certainly make you feel more comfortable controlling your bike.