Although cycling has its benefits and is relaxing and fun, it’s always more pleasurable to ride with someone than to ride alone. However, riding with someone or riding in a group requires adherence to certain rules. It also requires skills that may take a little practice before mixing it up with the local club. No one likes a squirrel in the pack so I thought I’d outline several common sense "rules" of etiquette to follow when we are out there enjoying the scenery with a group of friends. These "rules" will increase your enjoyment and safety whether you are just putzing along or if you are hammering in a fast paced training ride. You surely don’t want to peel yourself off the pavement or cause someone else to be seriously injured by displaying poor riding habits. With this in mind, lets discuss some important issues!
- Be Predictable – This may be the most important rule (even for solo riding) and it involves every aspect of riding from changing positions in the group to following the traffic rules. You might say that all the other rules support this one. Smooth predictable riding isn’t just a matter of style…here the word survival comes to mind! If unpredictability is the only predictable part of your riding style, you are a hazard to yourself and everyone else who has the misfortune to ride with you. Have you ever been on a ride where the group stops at an intersection and people scatter all over the lane? Some going through on the wrong side of the road and others turning left from the right side? Some running the stop sign and others doing it right? It’s confusing and irritating to drivers of vehicles as they approach a situation where cyclists are going in all different directions or just blowing through stops! Part of being predictable is riding within the rules of the road as a vehicle. Groups should maintain integrity when approaching intersections. That means staying in the correct lane, stopping together, and starting together as traffic allows. It goes without saying that if we demand the right to ride on the road, then we must be willing to ride responsibly…especially as a group.
- Don’t Overlap Wheels – This habit will get you in real trouble. This is a good way to test your ability to do cartwheels if you don’t adhere to this rule. Some people do it from lack of concentration, others may just not know any better, but sooner or later they’ll crash. There is no recovery from a front wheel deflection. All it takes is for the person in front to move sideways a few inches…if someone is overlapping his wheel, that someone will go down along with practically everyone who is behind him. Many times the person in front can recover, but not the people behind.
- Be Steady – This includes speed and line. If the person behind you fails to adhere to #2, you will contribute to a crash if you wallow around all over the road. When everyone is working for the group, maintain a steady speed as you go to the front. Ever notice how easy it is to ride behind some folks? If you take note of their riding style you’ll probably notice they don’t yo-yo around in the pack. They are rock steady. When they take the lead, they don’t accelerate. If they are strong enough to accelerate the group, they do it after the previous pull has rejoined the rear of the group and then only gradually so as to not string out the pack. When they are leading, they ride a straight line and their speed will be constant with the conditions. What a joy to ride with someone like this. Sometimes steady doesn’t just mean speed. It means steady pressure on the pedals…uphill or downhill, headwind or tailwind. When you are following someone like this, life is good! When they are following, they don’t make sudden moves or they know how to control their spacing by using their body position instead of using the brakes. Sudden braking will set off general alarms from everyone in the rear and make you very unpopular. If you do use the brakes, feather the front brake only and keep pedaling against the resistance. This allows you to moderate your speed without disturbing trailing riders.
- Announce Hazards – When you are in the lead, you are responsible for the safety of everyone behind you. You will become very unpopular very quickly if people behind you keep bouncing off of potholes, running over rocks, or reacting to unsafe traffic situations that you fail to point out. You need to be very vocal when approaching intersections, slowing, stopping, or turning and all actions should be smooth and deliberate. Sudden, unannounced actions will throw terror into any peloton. Riders in the pack should relay these warnings to the rear. When you are following, announce oncoming traffic from the rear…in this case others should relay this info toward the front.
- Signal – Signaling lets everyone (vehicles and riders) know your intentions…remember #1? This makes you predictable. Also, it’s a good idea to make eye contact with oncoming traffic at intersections. One note here, use your right arm straight out to signal a right turn. It’s uncool to stick out your left bent arm to signal a right turn; more importantly, it’s impracticable and ineffective. In a big group combine this with a loud vocal warning of your intentions.
- Don’t Fixate – If you are staring at something (i.e., the wheel in front of you), eventually you’ll hit it! When you walk in a crowd, you don’t stare at the back of the person in front of you…so you shouldn’t ride like that either. Learn to be comfortable looking around or through the riders ahead of you. This will allow you to see things that are developing in front of the group. With a little practice you will be able to "sense" how far you are off the wheel in front of you.
- Stay Off Aero Bars – This shouldn’t require much discussion. They are much too unstable to be used in a group ride. Plus, you don’t need to be on aero bars if you are in a pack as you will receive more aerodynamic effect from the other riders anyway. Maybe…one exception…when you are at the front pulling you can get away with it, but never, never, never when you are within the group or following a wheel. I know there are some people, usually triathletes, who are more comfortable on the bars. But, sooner or later, steering with your elbows in a group will add new meaning to the term "lunch on the road." Plus, it really tics off those behind you when you go down in a pack! Use aero bars for what they are meant for…solo fast riding.
- Don’t Leave Stragglers – If you get separated at intersections, as a matter of courtesy, the lead group should soft pedal until the rest have rejoined. Another note here is that if you are the one who will be caught by the light, don’t run the red light to maintain contact. If they don’t wait for you to catch up, you may not want to be riding with them anyway. Also as a courtesy to those who may not be able to stay with the group, the pack should wait at certain points along the route to regroup. Especially, at turn points and if the stragglers don’t know the route. Now obviously this is not applicable during a race but we’re not talking about a race…No one should be left alone on a group ride. If you don’t adhere to this rule, your "group" will get smaller each week until you’re riding solo.
- Know Your Limitations – If you’re not strong enough or too tired to take a turn at the front, stay near the back and let the stronger cyclists pull in front of you instead of making them go to the back of the line. Unless they are a complete…well you know…they will appreciate that more than having to get past you to get back to the front. Plus, it strokes the animal’s ego as you admit that he/she is the stronger rider. Another point here, don’t pull at the front faster and longer than you have energy to get back in at the rear (Remember, your "pull" isn’t over until you do). I’ve seen this scenario many times, it comes "biker wannabe’s" time to take his/her pull and the pace is getting up there. The thoughts running through his/her mind is, "I need to show these guys that I can pull 2 mph faster than everyone else has been pulling." They go to the front and hammer. Legs begin to burn after a monumental pull…now it’s time to pull over and let some "lesser" rider take a turn. Well, the "lesser" biker is all refreshed after tagging on a wheel and is ready to punch it up another notch. It’s bye-bye to the first rider as he/she gets blown off the back…toast! Testosterone and ego is a volatile mix (even for you females) and it can get you dropped in a heartbeat.
- Change Positions Correctly – A common beginner faux pas is to stop pedaling just before pulling off the front. This creates an accordion effect toward the rear. Keep a steady pressure on the pedals until you have cleared the front. After pulling off, soft pedal and let the group pull through. As the last couple riders are passing through, begin to apply more pressure to smoothly take your position at the rear. If you don’t time it correctly, you’ll create a gap and have to sprint to get back on. A technique used to reenter the line is to move your bike sideways first then your body. Try it. It will feel awkward at first, but it is the safest way to move within a group. It’s just a small subtle move not an exaggerated one. If you lean your body first and misjudge the speed or the person in front of you slows down, you’ll touch wheels and be leaning the wrong way…bad situation! If you move the bike first, you will have a chance to pull it back.
- Climbing – Ever been behind someone when they stood up going up hill and all of a sudden you were all over them? If you need to stand, shift up a gear to compensate for the slower cadence and stand up smoothly keeping a steady pressure on the pedals. This will keep you from moving backward relative to the rider behind you. Apply the opposite technique when changing to a sitting position. Downshift and keep a steady pressure on the pedals to avoid abrupt changes in speed. It takes a little practice, but your riding buddies will be glad you spent the time learning how to do it right.
- Descending – The leader must overcome a much greater wind resistance as the speed increases. If you are leading, keep pedaling. If you don’t, everyone behind you will eat your lunch. Riders to the rear will accelerate faster downhill as drafting becomes more effective at the higher speeds. If you are following, back off a couple of bike lengths to compensate for the greater affects of drafting. If you are closing on the rider in front, sit up and let the wind slow you or use light braking to maintain spacing, but in both cases you should keep pedaling against the resistance. Keeping your legs moving not only makes it easier to keep the spacing, but also helps the legs get rid of the acid build up from the previous climb.
- Relax – This one is really important. It will allow you to be smooth and responsive. You can bet that if you see someone who is riding a straight line and is very steady, he/she is relaxed on the bike. It not only saves energy, but it makes bike handling much more effective. Anytime you are riding in close proximity of other riders there’s always the chance that you may come into contact. If you have tense arms and get bumped from the side, the shock will go directly to the front wheel and you will swerve, possibly lose control, and possibly cause a massive pile up. If you are relaxed, it’s much easier to absorb the bump without losing control. A good exercise is to go to a grassy field (which is softer than pavement if you fall) with a friend and ride slowly side by side. Relax your arms and lightly bump each other using your relaxed elbows to absorb the (light) impact. You will become familiar with how to safely recover from that type of contact. It may save you some road rash someday.
You might be labeled a "Fred" if you wear clothing that doesn’t match or you still use clip pedals and downtube shifters, but you can still be a valued member of the group if you practice good, safe riding techniques. Riding in a group can be fun and exhilarating…it can also be safe if everyone knows and follows the rules.