A Roadie Primer: How to be a Rider of Road Bikes
June 05, 2017
(bump from 8/16) There is a lot of info out there on road riding. It's kind of a technical side of biking. It relates to being a "roadie." Lately, however, I have to say that this has been a somewhat unappealing aspect of biking for me. Even so, it's an aspect requiring a lot of skill. And it's fairly popular. And the truly needed skills simply aren't often taught.
Yeah, I'm kinda down on it these days, but I've been a roadie for decades so I still love it down deep inside. Maybe it's because I don't live near great roads anymore. Anyway, I've had some great coaching. I've helped a few riders. I've done 100 races and over a thousand structured group rides. So I'm going to pass along the best of what I know, plus the basics.
Coaching isn't much a part of the road scene. Sure, some clubs have coaching and run their riders through some basic drills. Mostly coaching today relates to workout plans or to advanced tactics. I really don’t see much skills drilling. So if you want to be a roadie and you don't have a coach directly available, check out what I have to say and you'll be ready to ride -- in style and in one piece. Or google around and read some books and watch some videos. That will work, too. But I bet my primer is shorter and better! :) We'll see.
I confess that my goal is to blaze through the topics. I don't spend much time on humor, anecdotes or amusing description. Yeah, that's what makes reading fun for some folks. I'm just going to deliver the goods. (Maybe someday I'll add the fun stuff in if I want to get more readers. Which I do.)
I learned from the best. And I used to know a lot. But now I'm old andhave forgotten a lot. We'll see if I still have what it takes to save folks a lot of time in getting up to speed in the Dark Art of being a Roadie!
I was lucky to have Mike Walden as a coach for a short but influential time. He was one of the best bike coaches in the US, bringing up several world and national champions from his little Detroit Wolverines Sports Club. He was old-school and he focused on skill. To engrain skills he used drills. Generally his riders across the board didn't crash much and they got good results. We would have whole summers where nobody crashed in training, despite intensity and lots of sprints. My hunch is that crash-proofing would be easy for most any rider.
First, why is road riding cool? Well, it’s the fast, pure, honed side of biking. It’s crisp and tight. The efforts — and rewards — are more like fighter jets and race cars. It’s about speed and acceleration. And in the racing — and even in the horseplay — it’s about tactics. Road riding doesn’t have to be about racing, though. But I’m treating it as distinct from touring. It’s a scene that’s far removed from trail running, for instance. But, rats, even with trail-running I really enjoy a "fighter jet” feel, so that might be a bad example. Yeah, every sport has its hone. Road riding is more purely about the engine than is, say, mt-biking, which has a lot more bike-handling thrown into the engine mix. Still, this isn’t most of its appeal. It’s about riding and far on cool roads and to nifty locations. It’s about climbing an awesome mountain road in the “zone” with flow. It’s about riding sweet, quiet roads with marvelous undulations, hopefully. It’s about weather and variety and challenge. It’s about spending time with friends and everybody taking care of each other. It’s about singing songs and telling jokes and stories and relishing your skill. It’s about heroes and history. Riding rough pavement is like riding the cobbles of France. A road with steep short climbs lets everyone pretend they’re racing a Belgian classic. When it rains you can go out and lap it up like Irishman Sean Kelly had to.
Be sure to watch the movie "Breaking Away" to see a bit of the goodness of roadies!
There's a purity to roadie-ism that can actually widen out to include life.
Road racing is comprised of regular group rides, all sorts of special training, criteriums, road-races and time-trials. There are short events and all-day affairs. There are stage races a week or more in length. It’s done over all possible terrain, but usually on paved roads. Gravel riding, though, is probably part of road riding. Riders can specialize or generalize. There’s flatland riding, long steep hill climbing, and shorter roller-hill climbing; there's skill in descending. There are sprints from big packs then there are lonely breakaways, solo or in small groups.
Now, why is being a roadie lame? Or, what do you need to be alert to so you can avoid getting sucked into lameness? Well, because of the time and effort it takes to be a roadie you can find yourself feeling generally special without having done anything for anyone other than perhaps another rider. Teams tend to have a hierarchy based on who is doing best, with other riders helping the best get the most results for the team, but this can get taken too seriously and the actual equality of everyone can get overlooked. Because of the needed focus and regimented time it can be easy to lose sight of the valuable variety in cycling. Riding a 3-speed to get groceries can be seen as a waste of time. Indeed, even just walking can be seen as “bad for you.” Life can easily come to revolve around road racing — to the exclusion of life. Other normal people won’t appreciate you for this. Which might provoke you into retreating further into roadie-ism.
Just for the painful fun of it, every would-be roadie should watch the movie "The Triplets of Belleville" to see a little bit of the lameness of roadie-ism. It's also just a good movie.
The risk of the purity of roadie-ism is that it can also exclude life.
Now, there is a big reason why car drivers and many “regular” people react against roadies. Sadly, they also tend to lump all bikers into the same group. It’s the tendency of roadies to socially segregate from everyone else. They ride by people in yards and on porches without waving. They start rides in parking lots without interacting with other folks around them. And they use the public roads as if they were private gyms. This is big. A workout is a private thing. So doing it in public causes stress.
Add to this the fact that roadies expect everyone else to cater to them and to go out of their way so that they can have a good “workout.” It's kinda like going to a park and making others move their picnics so you can have yours. Be very careful about making such asks!
Now, adjusting our car driving to fit in other road users is just part of being safe, but people will resent being asked to do too much to accommodate others. Sure, car drivers and motorcyclists are also out just having fun or running their vehicles through their paces: but this doesn't hardly impact other road users.
The more that roadies can integrate with their communities, the better. However, there’s a strong tendency for roadies to show up, do a ride, then go home -- which is more of that gym mentality. This doesn’t win them any friends. Of course, to them it’s not about making friends. They do that during some other time segregated from their bike time. Road time is workout time. My point is they need to be careful. An easy way to improve their social impact is to socialize in a way that includes everyone around them both before and after their ride. And also to engage the public during their rides. This is very hard to do when wearing exotic attire and dark sunglasses, but it can be done. Also when exerting at your maximum it’s hard to have a different mindset than one would have in the weight-room of a gym where you’re sweating in your own private challenge.
The possibly best way to create goodwill and social connection is to do other kinds of riding than just road riding. Be a person who people recognize from biking to the grocery story and bank. Bike to work. (There, too, bike commuters can be similar to car commuters in terms of being in their own space, cut off from others in a way that everyone seems to notice, at least in many parts of the USA.)
Also, work your club. Volunteer. Be a club officer. Help with juniors. Recruit kids. Do stuff for biking. Not just for racing. For any and all kinds of biking. Whatever works in your neighborhood. Since biking can easily become a way of life make sure it includes all of life instead of just becoming a kind of self-centered gym addiction. That is, narcissism.
The problem there is that people typically do not recognize roadies when they aren’t dressed as roadies, and then only their peers can tell who they are. …It’s quite a trick! ...And quite a bind that roadies are in.
The purity of roadie-ism can easily come to extend everywhere and suddenly you find that your life has become: work, eat, sleep, ride the bike. And you find yourself living alone in an empty apartment with only some bikes and nutritional supplements for company. Monasticism has its charms, but it's better to rationally select them than suddenly find yourself in it. Also, it’s easy to find yourself broke thanks to any addiction. Then you can also find that your friend teammates are only friends while you’re on the bike helping them.
In other words, the demands of road riding (ok, of any sport or obsession) can result in weakness in every other aspect of life. Literal weakness. Like if you try to shovel some snow you throw your back out. Or a child could wrestle you to the ground and snap your arms like twigs. Also, you can find yourself sick at the slightest deviation from your regimen. And because of the extreme riding efforts. Every cold germ that comes along can feast on you if you’re over-doing the roadie-ism.
So you might start it thinking you're doing it for fitness. If that ends up consuming you then it won't be fitness anymore. You'll start getting hurt and sick. Not fit. You'll start walking the edge of over-training. Not fit. You'll be gaunt and scrawny. Not fit.
In short, you can end up ugly and boring. You might end up wearing any stupid old clothes whenever you’re not wearing your garish kit. You might start embracing looking like an alien, with blobular bike, helmet and outrageous attire.
Or you can be aware of the various impacts, build up the upsides, beware the downsides, and enjoy the perks. So, have at it!
Starting at the beginning, with the most important things...
POSITION AND BIKE FIT
The point of a good position is that it gives you your best ergonomics: if you’re set up right then your power can easily come from the best source: your glutes then thighs. A good position is also the most relaxing. You ride neutral, not with strain. Your legs should support both your torso and your butt. You shouldn’t feel much weight on your hands or on your saddle. You should feel like you’re floating along. You’re an athlete who can put out total effort right from where you are. Good position is also safe. Unweighted hands let you control your bike separately from the other parts of your body — so if one part of you gets bumped it doesn’t get transmitted into the steering as a swerve or bobble. Meaning, you can hit a big bump and your hands shouldn’t be affected. Another rider might bash into you from the side and this shouldn’t affect your steering. And when you change pedaling, when you sprint, or kick it hard, or get out of the saddle — none of that should affect your steering. Your hands stay light and responsive on the bars no matter what happens to anything else. Got it? Here’s how...
You want a bike set up so you're stretched out enough that you can comfortably ride with a bend in your elbows. And when on the tops you should have a break in your wrists plus a bend in the elbows. When you're in the hooks that you feel like your hands are definitely out in front of you with a jet fighter pilot feel. When you’ve dropped low your elbows should be brushing near your kneecaps.
With bent elbows you should be able to ride along and let go of one hand and your shoulder shouldn't drop. If you let go of both hands while in a riding position your head shouldn’t drop down much toward the stem.
That is, you need to be relaxed. You need to be breathing deeply, fully, in a relaxed way when you ride -- belly drooping. As you ride, shrug your shoulders. Wriggle them. If you're in the push-up position shrugging might cause you to swerve. Shake your hands out now'n'then. (Heck, if you use the push-up position you're likely getting numb hands.) Keep a feeling of lightness. Ask yourself Where's my weight? The answer should be "kind of nowhere." You shouldn't feel a lot of weight on your saddle or your hands. Really, carry your torso weight in your thighs, as you pedal. Float it. Feel a bit like a jockey on a horse.
Good position results in a kind of “C” shape lower back rounded-out into the butt area. It also lets you see easily down the road. Rounded back and bent elbows lets you easily see ahead.
Riding with straight elbows is OK as a change of pace for a little bit every few minutes. It’s a bit like changing a hand position — only make sure you’re doing it when everything is clear and easy. Straight elbows means weighted hands. It means any impact or change to your body or your bike can easily affect your steering.
…And I note that straight arms how most of today's roadies ride. …And it’s a big part of why anyone crashes.
With straight arms if you hit a pothole or someone bumps into you or you suddenly hit heavy resistance like when you have to bail out onto a soft shoulder: your center-of-gravity can be shifted a few inches. And that's all it takes for an endo or other loss of control. But with bent arms you can push the bars forward instantly against any resistance, or react however else is needed, without hardly changing your CoG. Heck, it's even easy to instantly lower your CoG a bit further by flexing your arms more. ...It's far better to force your wheel against a pothole and pop the tire or even smash the rim than it is to suddenly get weight-forward.
Road bikes have curved bars to let riders rest their hands during long rides and also to let them ride most efficiently in a variety of settings. Riding with the hands on the “tops” is best for going up steep hills. Riding on the part of the bar angling forward is called riding on the ramps. It lets you lower your back a bit more and get a new hand angle. Riding on the hoods means using the shifter/brake lever in some way. This lets you get a lot of power from your glutes and lowers your back even more. Riding in the drops allows the strongest hold for maximum power and sprinting.
This isn’t really about roadies per se but basically what seems best to me is to start with your saddle definitely too high then lower it one mm at a time until it feels right. Also be sure to verify it by ride hard up some hills. Max uphill performance seems to ask for a higher saddle. Once you get into roadie riding you’ll often be wanting to ride your fastest, so setting up for uphills will put you in that sweet spot for all terrain. You’ll end up with a fairly straight leg. But you don’t want your hips to rock or to feel like you’re grinding on your saddle.
GEAR: IT *IS* ABOUT THE BIKE
It’s such an old saying by now. As for the bike everything is relative. Nowadays most people will need a bike that weighs 20 pounds or less to be comfortable with truly fast group riding. You want a bike that is on par with everyone else's bike in the group so when people make accelerations you can move exactly with them rather than having a lag caused by your bike weighing 5 pounds more than theirs. Ideally you will have a modern road bike. Most of your peers today will have carbon bikes weighing less than 20 lbs -- be sure to be in that ballpark. Your tires should have smooth tread and be 23-25mm wide — no wider than 32 mm. And probably have more than 80 psi (yet don't overinflate to the point of harshness or skitteriness -- 100 is fine unless you weigh over 200). Ideally you want aero wheels and bladed spokes. Anything else is underbiking by way of too much bike. You’d need to be fitter than the others in your group. If you are, then no worries.
I’ve noticed that a carbon frame really absorbs road chatter and small bumps and even takes a lot off the shock of hitting potholes. This material does so much shock absorption while still being fast that it seems significantly safer. With my aluminum bike (carbon fork) I would have to hold on tight and respond with some alarm when I accidentally encountered broken-up pavement at high speeds in a group setting. With my newer carbon frame I am not jostled nearly so much. There is no surprise or shock at all! I feel the risk of hitting road hazards is much less. I suppose it’s a bit faster but it also seems much safer — enough safer to make me now laugh at rough pavement. ...I suppose it is mostly just a flexier carbon layup. I've heard that carbon can also be made as stiff as anything else.
Personally, I’ve used carbon sports gear very aggressively for decades now and haven’t broken anything. However, this is my first carbon road bike frame. I intend to use it as hard as everything else. I suppose I do have a “feel” for using tools, though. Everyone is different. Use what you like.
Now, some bikes can look kind of intense, so maybe try to pick a bike that says “cool” to you, but otherwise, I suppose it’s just a tool. Just realize that depending on your youth and fitness that extra few pounds, or the need to be seated when you change an old-fashioned gear lever, can mean a lot for how much fun you have on rides where everyone else’s bike is Space Age. That is, if you’re fit enough, you can get away with “underbiking” — using a bike that’s not as fast as the others because whatever their fitness level might be, you can handle it. However, if you’re just learning or you’re likely to be barely hanging on, don’t push it.
CLOTHES (I MEAN “KIT”)
For clothes you want all bike apparel. In a design that does not look ugly or garish. But good luck with that. If it's hot out you want a jersey that can zip down a long ways. Get what keeps you cool. Don’t wear something you tend to overheat in. Some jersies are made of lighter more open material. I even saw a semi-mesh material being used by the winner of the 2016 Olympic men’s road race.
You don't want anything that will flap. Even slightly flapping clothes are a hazard for people riding behind you because they affect visibility past you. And they slow you down, even if just a bit — it adds up quickly.
You'll want gloves and socks. Gloves are important to protect your hand in case a wipe-out. I like to use a sweatband but I don't see many others doing that.
EAT, DRINK, PREP
You want to carry a water bottle for rides of up to an hour or two, and two water bottles for rides over two hours or if it's really hot. You don't actually need very much water for moderate-length sessions. It can help to drink a bottle before you ride and then one when you're finished. For an hour-long ride you’d probably be fine with half a bottle. People often carry too much weight in water for moderate training rides.
Eat a snack an hour before a training ride. Eat something right afterward, too. Eat a gel or powerbar during a ride if it’s longer than 2 hours.
Make sure your bike is clean and your chain has been lubed and wiped recently. You don't want to brush against your chain in the parking lot and get a big black mark on your leg. Trust me. You’ll want to test your bike before group rides to make sure nothing squeaks and that everything works perfectly. Run through all your gears as recklessly as you can to make sure you won’t derail in the heat of fast riding.
SKILL: PRE-RIDE WARMUP
I first learned about skilled riding thanks to Mike Walden's coaching on the velodrome. A few organized track sessions coached through a wide range of games will hugely improve anyone's road skills -- plus be so much fun. Before every track session Mike had everyone do a 5-minute set of calisthenics. He might have done this for his road rides as well. (It's been decades...) It was neat how Mike always included everyone: elite gold medalists along with juniors and beginners. Everyone had to do the warm-up drill. I could tell some might have thought it was silly, but they did it every time. We did arm rotation, shrugs, stretches, tricep stretch, head rotation, isometric pressing of the head from all directions, elbows-to-knees twist-marching, *finger flexing*, some pushups and crunches. I forget the exact items. But the main point is loosening up your whole range of motion before you ride. ...One big benefit from this is making it easy to look back without swerving.
Once you're set up on your bike important thing is how you ride. How should a roadie ride? --Just like his friends. Namely you should look down the road and ride. Then you'll ride balanced and in a straight line. That's what you and everyone you’re with should do. Next you want to be moving your feet the same as your friends. Which means you should all be in the same gear. And your foot speed should be quite fast: 80 to 100 RPM. That way if you change your foot speed a little you won't change where you are in the group more than a few inches. And that's important.
Groups with riders who are using widely differing gears will have widely different footspeeds. These riders will shift around in the group, fore and aft, in relation to each other. So all while they ride, they’re each coasting and braking at different times, and letting little gaps go. They chat a moment with someone and suddenly they’ve gone from 2 feet to 4 feet behind the rider ahead of them and the rider behind them has to touch a brake and this ripples through the group. Then after you brake a bit you have to pedal harder to catch up again. This is all bad. And makes everybody work too much and feel nervous. Indeed, matching footspeeds in a group is an easy safety measure. Groups riding with the same footspeed really won’t ever have riders running into each other, while groups with riders using widely varying gears will have collisions way too often.
By contrast, if everybody rides in the same gear with fast foot speed all the bikes will be in stable positions in the group. People subliminally match their foot speed to each other even if their attention drifts. Also, everyone should be looking forward through the group. Do not focus on riders near you. You can easily sense the position of everyone using peripheral vision.
A sign of a group of beginners is everybody peddling very differently from each other and yo-yo’ing back’n’forth in the group.
In a pro group, everyone rides close together. It almost feels like the group is stationary. No matter what happens the group is steady. It is relaxed. It’s going fast without working.
Try not to ever coast or brake in a group riding steadily on flat terrain, not even micro-coasts. If you need to slow slightly just ease up on your pedaling pressure while continuing to pedal. If you need to slow more rise up higher on your bars or move out into the wind a few inches while continuing to pedal.
Half of the art of being a roadie is having a nice easy time while riding in groups that are doing all sorts of things from training to recovering to racing.
Mostly, it's people with slow foot speed and big gears who cause the problems.
The next big skill is handling your bike. When you ride a bike your power should come from your hips. With bent arms your power won't be connected to your shoulders in any awkward way. With straight arms it is easy to find yourself horsing the bike when you want to apply power. That means jerking the bike around, and that's bad.
Mostly you want to drive from the butt. Your sensations of power and exertion should radiate outward from your glutes. It's hard to keep track of things that are moving especially things that are moving fast like your feet so drive from the butt which is a calm and simple location. Let all the flailing of your limbs take care of themselves.
Now you need to know how to turn. You can turn a bike in two ways: leaning or steering. When you are descending a hill that has curves in it you will lean your bike around those curves as you coast. When you want to ride your bike around a flat corner, you'll want to keep pedaling through that corner so that you don't slow down. Then you’ll want to steer your bike: you’ll move the bars as much as you “bank” the bike. When a person with locked arms tries to turn he tends to swoop and lean the bike to turn, even when he’s trying to turn on flat ground. Leaning stresses traction more than steering. It also has the least control. The more you steer your bike, the more traction your tires keep, and the more control you keep over your course. It's easier to steer a bike when you have bent elbows. Go slow on a quiet road or in a parking lot and feel the difference between lean-turning and steer-turning. You can keep your bike very upright and still steer around corners very fast. If you try to lean turn your bike and you encounter rough pavement or a pothole or gravel in a turn you can easily crash and skid, or lose control and crash. Good turning is a combo of steering and leaning. Learn to understand each of the components and what they do and how they affect riding.
Practice steering by doing follow-the-leader at slow speed through a parking lot. The leader takes a “serpentine” route that everybody follows. Or you can set out pylon-cones and ride an S-pattern through them. Set the cones close enough together that nobody can “bank” their way through them.
There are two kinds of turns like there are two kinds of turning. With a flat, regular, street intersection, 90-degree turn that you can power through you will want to make half of the turn before the apex and half of it after. You can start riding into the corner as fast as you like as long as you get half of it done before the apex. If you don’t turn enough before the apex you will run wide on the exit and have to brake. "Turn before the turn."
An easy way to see how this works is by riding a sidewalk around a corner. To do it quickly you absolutely must make half of the turn before the apex, otherwise you run off the sidewalk into the grass as you exit the turn.
The other kind of turn involves a slope and includes the turns you’ll find on switchback descents. Here you'll be coasting into the turn and you’ll want to brake on the straightaway as much as needed to be able to both enter and exit the turn. The turn itself may be on a falling line so you might want to brake in the turn as well. The faster you go and the more you lean, the easier it is to lose traction. But the more you slow by braking the more spare traction you’ll have. The more you slow down the more you can brake, also the sharper you can turn. So this kind of turning is asymmetric. You can't make half the turn before the apex. So, you enter from the widest point that you safely can, and as the road drops and turns you brake and lean and turn harder as you lose speed, taking the turn as close to the apex that you can, but you still might end up using all available pavement when exiting. Be very careful about braking while leaning!
For braking, know that the front brake gives most stopping power by far, but it shouldn't be used much when leaning while using narrow, high pressure tires. (Wider, softer tires can tolerate more front brake.) On a dropping downhill turn the rear brake loses power because less weight is on the saddle then, yet small rear skids are easier to recover from.
On many group rides when the group makes a turn at an intersection everyone will holler gravel! This is strange because should always be looking for gravel but sometimes the warning is helpful when there is an excessive amount. In any event you don't have to slow down as much if you steer through the turn.
Turning for best performance involves the following logic: Turn before the turn. You ride to the corner and as you enter the corner you want to turn halfway through the corner by the time you reach its apex. After you leave apex you will still have half of the corner to turn. But if that's all you have left to turn you should be fine and won't run out of road. The problem people run into is that they come into a corner fast and only turn about a quarter of the way when they reach the apex and then they have a lot of corner still left to handle as they leave the turn and they can run wide and go off the road and crash.
In hilly country braking is more complex. Just remember to brake when your bike isn't leaning and when you're going straight and when you have to lean in to let go of the brakes. However the more you brake the slower you go and the more you can turn. So in descending turns can be asymmetric when you're going faster into the turn you don't turn as much since you're braking but as your speed slows you can brake and turn more. However you have to be careful about corners that might start dropping more steeply as you go through them since you might have to increase your lean to make the corner and at the same time reduce your braking even as the grade increases. That's why you always remember to brake enough before you enter any particular corner and you should know the kind of corner it is going to be and have steering power to spare. Look ahead to see the kind of corner that's coming your way. Don't only look at the road in front of you.
SKILL: RIDING UP A HILL
When you approach an uphill while doing a group ride, you should just pedal a bit harder. But sometimes you’ll want to get out of the saddle. If you do it wrong you can hurt people. So do it right. “Climb” out of the saddle while keeping the bike in the same place under you. Hold it “forward” under you. If you do it wrong you will shove your bike back behind you — and maybe into the front wheel of someone riding behind you. ...This kind of crash happens all the time!
A helmet doesn't keep you safe, your well-practiced skills do. If you haven't practiced skills then you're at risk.
Go ride slowly on a quiet road with a friend and practice riding with your hand on his/her shoulder, then leaning on each other and pushing each other around. Bump shoulders, forearms, hips and feel the different ways it changes things. None of this should cause concern or disrupt your handling much. You'll notice that when you bump core parts of your body that your riding is disrupted less. But when you bump forearms or hands this affects your security the most — so try not to let other people bump your handlebars. But if you have bent arms you'll be able to handle it all easily.
Now go to a grassy area or a parking lot with a friend and get into your first gear and have one of you ride in front and have the one behind rub his front wheel into the leader’s rear wheel from the non drivetrain side. Bounce and bump your front wheel into his rear wheel a few times and see what that does. Again, it shouldn't cause a panic. You don't jerk your handlebars to avoid such a contact as if it were an electric shock just keep riding steadily. If it happens at high speed, don’t try to steer away at all: just pedal a little harder and steer away at an angle.
If you ever tangle handlebars with someone while you're riding, again don't panic: just keep riding. The person whose bars are in front should ride a little harder and the person whose bars are in back should ease up slightly and the bikes will separate.
While you're on the grass, practice somersaults. Then go run down a bit of a hill and do a somersault on the fly. Throw a little judo-fall arm slap in there. Figure out how to fall without it hurting.
Ride more in the parking lot then hit the grass at speed. Go from fast into some sand. Ride onto the shoulder gravel from higher speed on the pavement. See what that's all like before you need to do it in an emergency.
Heck, be sure to do some cyclocross training and races.
SKILL: ON'n'OFF THE SHOULDER
Everyone ends up riding off the pavement and onto a soft gravel shoulder at high speed at some point. This causes panic and crashes. It causes even more crashes when riders try to get back onto the pavement. Let's fix this!
First, you experience strong resistance when you hit gravel or grass at speed. With bent arms you won't be thrown or lose control.
Shoulders are often sloped away. Brake carefully with the rear brake as needed -- avoid a front end wash-out. Do not lean the bike to turn it back to the pavement. Steer it.
Regain the pavement just like you'd cross a railroad track at a sharp angle: angle outward a bit then steer inward more sharply to increase your angle of approach. Avoid trying to regain the pavement at a shallow angle.
Be sure to unweight your front wheel. Lift up to ride back up onto the pavement.
SKILL: LOOKING BACK
If you're riding with bent elbows you should find it easy to look behind you. Practice looking to the left and right behind you without swerving. You may need to stretch out before riding to be able to do this. It can also help to let go of one hand. But it's always best to have two hands on the bars. When you're going really fast at maximum effort with your head down you may actually find that it becomes easy to look behind you by looking down and under your arm. You might end up doing it someday without even thinking about it.
SKILLS: PICKING UP STUFF
Ride around in a parking lot and pick up stuff. Start with a water bottle standing up. Then on its side. Then see who can pick up something truly low off of the ground. This will teach you about maneuvering and flexibility.
Riders talk to each other in group riding by way of saying things, but there are also many unspoken ways of communicating and getting along. Also there are quite a few hand signals: groups use different ones. Riders in front should let those behind them know of oncoming obstacles by pointing down at them and saying “roadkill," “hole." They should also say Stopping or Slowing or Turning Left or Right when doing those things as well using hand signals. Stopping is generally the right arm angled down. Slowing is a flat right hand held out and pushed down a couple times. Also call out "car back", "car passing", and "car up." Call out "clear" or any car presence before road crossing. A couple unusual signals are smacking yourself on your right butt or hip: this indicates that the group is coming up on somebody that they're going to have to pass on the left, like a walker or a slower biker. Two hands to fingers pointed behind the back and with the hand moving back-and-forth means the group is coming up on a railroad track.
Groups of riders behave like a bus. A single unit. ...Even in traffic crossings. Sure, never cross a road without verifying that it's safe. But don't stop at a stop after the leader has stopped, hollered clear, and is moving through. At a 4-way stop with cars present, roll through the stop as one compact group, as if you were all aboard a bus. Breaking up a group confuses car drivers and very often they will refuse to move.
On a busy street a group might get broken up when crossing. Do all you can to avoid confusing drivers. Then wait on the other side until everyone has crossed, then ride again as a group.
“Taking a pull” is what a rider does when they are at the front of the group and everyone else is drafting them. They are doing most of the work for that bit. When you ride at the front you typically take a pull of between 10 seconds or a minute. The short end is if you’re tired or the speed is high. Another signal is flicking your elbow when you want to stop pulling and move off to the side. It means that the riders behind you can come up and pass you in the direction of your moving elbow — your elbow is waving them forward. When you've done your piece you keep pedaling at the same pace but you flick your elbow and move to the side about a foot or so letting the rider behind you pass. You then slow your pace about 1 mph to let everyone behind you move past you. As you drift back toward the end of whatever size group you're riding with start increasing your speed just before the end comes to you, so that you can catch smoothly onto the back as it passes you. Speed changes in a group should be slow and controlled.
If you want the group to ride faster, first talk to the ride leaders and other riders about it, and do it in an orderly way. Otherwise, when you get to the front of the group keep the same pace going. Which means don’t change your gear or your footspeed. You don’t have to have a cyclometer or look at one to do this easily.
How you handle your bike communicates a lot as well, especially in terms of manners. Don't ever "half-wheel." That is, don't ride partially in front of someone who you are riding side-by-side with. Keep your handlebars level with theirs. If you ride ahead of them they will try to catch up. People who ride ahead of others do it unconsciously but it is an aggressive move anyway. Such a person will usually keep riding ahead of the other person even if the other person catches up — and so the pace of the group will increase. This pace can increase to the point where both riders are going all out (and everyone behind them, too). This is bad. For everyone. Nobody should ever "half-wheel." So if someone starts riding a half wheel ahead of you tell them to stop half-wheeling. You can actually just whack them if you want or grab them and pull them back and tell them to knock it off. Again, if anyone wants to increase the pace they need to ask the group first.
Going out on rides with your pals is really what being a roadie is all about. Then also racing with your peers. In fact, racing is set up so that you are always WITH your peers. This is done partly for safety: it is easiest for cars to pass a single coherent group. Cars dislike coming onto what looks like a group only to realize that a few riders are 50 feet behind the main group. This requires a longer passing time. Then when the car starts passing if they see more riders 100 feet in front of the main group passing becomes even more risky and extended.
A group of roadies needs to be compact to be safe. If the group is going to string out, it needs to happen on a lonely road. Otherwise, the ride mission should be revised to separated compact groups of different paces. Or it should be separated even more and run as a touring group with solo riders and ideally quiet roads.
Nobody wants anybody to stick out too much in roadie-type riding. Even after somebody wins a few races they are pushed up to another level of faster riders so that once again they are WITH a group rather than being in front of or behind anyone. The organization of global road racing is designed to keep everyone in their matching group. They don’t want people to get dropped or to get ahead. Solving the challenge of the pack, of the mix, to win doesn’t exactly mean getting ahead. If you get too far ahead you're simply in the wrong group. For all the temptation that roadies have toward pride the structure of the sport is designed to make them invisible.
(Even in a Time Trail race where nobody is allowed to group up at all, everyone still interacts as a group. Even changes in the weather during the TT can affect the results of the group. And when TT’ers pass each other they all do their best to key off of each other: everyone is interacting with their “minute man,” or whatever fraction of a gap they’re up or down on someone.)
There are several formats for riding in a group -- 2-up, rotating paceline, echelon, lead-outs and sprinting. These formats all involve drafting, passing, and dropping back. To mess up various groups riders will break away and then perhaps regroup, hopefully well ahead of those they wanted to drop. Being dropped means losing the draft of a group and not being able to keep their pace and so you fall further and further off the back. Being OTB is a quick way to becoming DFL.
In drafting, one rider rides a foot or two behind another rider and so is sheltered from the wind and uses only half the energy to ride. When you’re drafting you’re resting so that you can then lead again when it’s your turn. In a headwind, the best draft is right behind. In a quartering wind the best draft is behind and to the downwind side. In a sidewind the best draft is to the downwind side but more overlapping the lead rider. In a tailwind there isn’t much draft. In a tailwind it can seem like everyone gets a free ride but actually it’s a time when nobody can hide their lesser fitness.
Don't ever accidentally ride too close to the rider ahead. Or overlap their wheel. You'll know "too close" when you catch yourself doing it. A foot or two is good. People get too close when they're tired. They get sloppy and roll up a bit on someone. Or they try to get "even more" draft than is safe to do. Riding alongside the rear quarter of someone as part of the specific formation called an echelon is NOT the same as overlapping wheels. When you roll up on people or overlap, or get close to doing either, it means you're out of synch with your pals. Bad. That's dangerous and tiring. For everyone. Whatever one person does gets telegraphed through the group.
This involves a big tip: when drafting look ahead. Look up through the other riders. Do this all the time. Look for potholes, etc. Keep your head up! Do NOT look at the wheel in front of you! A tired rider starts looking down. No! Chin up, eyes up! (Chin up also provokes a relaxed upper body and encourages a bend in wrists and elbows, which is good.) Looking ahead lets you easily detect and match footspeed thanks to your peripheral vision. Look at the big picture of your group. This lets you avoid little speed-ups or brake-touching. Just ride along all the time steadily at the speed of the group. If a change is coming in the road ahead, adapt to it by changing your footspeed a little, using a little more or less pressure as you pedal. Don't coast, brake or sprint. Gradual changes that seamlessly fit into the flow of your group are what you want. (Unless you want to break away. To do that you make sure you can move to the side or off the front of everyone without getting in anyone's way.)
When drafting it’s also easy to chat. The more pro that riders are the closer they tend to ride to each other so they can communicate more easily. As I mentioned before, they’re able to easily ride close together because they ride in the same gears, gears which have their feeting moving at 80+ rpm. Such riders used to always have had velodrome experience. Track riders ride the closest together of all types. It's easiest and safest to do this on a track.
Drafting can happen when riding singlefile or while riding side by side or while in any size of a group. The most common way that roadies ride is called 2-up. Side by side. This makes an orderly group that is easy for car drivers to see and pass. It’s a fun, social way to ride. You can change who you ride with whenever you like, although sometimes it takes awhile to shuffle riders around.
After the lead two riders pull for a minute or two (depending on the pace) they’ll signal with a flick of their inside elbows for the following riders to pass them then they’ll each pull to their own side of the group and ease up their pedaling about 1-2mph. The group then slides up past them and they fall in again at the back of the group. Sometimes if the road is narrow, or the group just prefers it, both leaders will pull off to the center of the road before easing up and back.
An advanced group riding technique is the rotating paceline. The group is riding 2-up but the upwind side of the group is slowly passing the downwind side. As the lead ride comes to the front they keep riding at the same pace until they’re completely in front of the downwind rider then they flick with their inside elbow and the downwind rider might grunt a “clear” and the leader moves over into the downwind lane and eases off the pace about 1mph and begins dropping back. When the last downwind rider reaches the back of the group they increase their pace and move over into the faster upwind lane again. Riders in both the upwind and downwind lanes do not let gaps occur in front of them. The downwind riders are relatively resting and the upwind riders are working somewhat harder but are also drafting. Nobody should increase or decrease the overall speed noticeably unless everyone agrees and is made aware of this ahead of time.
The most advanced group formation is the echelon. It also rotates. It is a rotating paceline that is angled toward a crosswind. For the upwind lane of a paceline to ride into the wind in a crosswind situation it needs to move at an angle across the road. For a rider to draft another rider in a crosswind they have to ride off to their downwind side in addition to being behind them. In a strong sidewind when riding fast with an expert group the riders may well overlap each other. Overlapping means that riders cannot swerve or they will hit those behind them.
In an echelon the fast lane moves at an angle across the road into the wind. Once the lead rider gets to the edge of the road or to the centerline they drop back and begin moving downwind back across the road to the back of the group.
In a race there may well be a “gatekeeper” at the end of an echelon who stops other riders from joining the group. Or the echelon just naturally ends at the edge of the road where there is no more draft. If anyone else wants to benefit from the greatly improved draft of an echelon in a sidewind they then have to form a new echelon and hope that their group rides as well as the first one. Sometimes multiple echelons form near each other across the road. Breakaways can easily happen in these situations. And those who want to control who is in the breakaway can regulate how many riders can fit into their echelon by where they start dropping back in the road. If a rider doesn’t want anyone at all in their side draft they can pull at the downwind edge of the road. Indeed, this is a good way to stop anyone from drafting you in a sidewind. If you want only 3 or 4 riders in your group then ride only a few feet away from the downwind edge.
Pacelines of any kind can be beautiful things and enjoyable to ride in, and relaxing, too. …Or they can be scary and nerve-wracking. If a paceline is moving too fast for you, you can try sitting just off the back of it, taking no pulls, letting the others rotate. You can be helpful by letting each rotating rider know when they’ve dropped back far enough and can move back in. In a race situation this is called “sitting on,” and might or might not be tolerated. Generally one should earn their benefits from any group. Fitter riders can take longer or faster pulls. If you’re less fit, just pull less before you try to pull any slower. It’s easier for everyone to ride at the same speed while taking pulls of varying lengths. It would be much harder to keep a group happy with riders pulling at different speeds but of the same duration. (This is why group rides are usually publicly rated for certain average speeds. Typically it goes something like: A 20, B 16, C 14. It’s worth noting that ride averages are much lower than the speed most of a ride rolls at. To average 20mph a two-hour ride would be going mostly 24.)
After stops and turns a group will tend to go easy for a bit until everyone catches back up. The leaders holler and look back until they verify that everyone is together. A stop or turn is also a good time for those who’d been pulling to drop to the back.
At intersections the leaders check the traffic and holler any important info such as “car left, stopping” or “clear, rolling."
A fun part of group rides is going hard jams from time to time. Usually a ride will have an agreed-on section where the speed increases. After the fast spell has passed those ahead then wait up for everyone else and all riders regroup.
Jams don’t usually happen willy-nilly. But regulars don’t always let newcomers know much ahead of time. The group might just start going faster and weaker riders drift to the back and leaders string out in front. There’s no need to panic. Whether you’re faster or slower, just find someone to ride with and in a few minutes the spell should pass.
A big part of a fast ride might be the various sprints. Some are for hill-tops, others are for city limits signs or stop-ahead signs. Again, the regulars will know where these are. There tend to be two approaches to these…
A lead group may take off and start rotating toward a sprint with each contending rider in the rotation, taking short pulls. The finale would then happen to an extent based on the luck of the rotation. Each rider would then have to deal with their situation as it happens. A rider taking the final pull 50 yards before a sprint is at a disadvantage but is also in the lead. What can they do? Only their best! A sharp attack might shed everyone off their wheel before the sprint proper. The rider at the very back might have a great draft but they are furthest back: can they make up enough ground in time to win the sprint? What if the leader has forced the group to the downwind edge the road? The last person then has to come all the way around on the upwind side. Do they stand a chance? Who knows!
Then there is the Leadout. A strong rider or someone who doesn’t want to sprint voluntarily brings a group up to top speed toward the finish and then eases up safely to the upwind side if possible, letting those they sheltered do the sprint. A leadout rider can help any number of others. They might only plan to help one rider get the best sprint or they might lead the whole group like a freight train into the finale. There can be multiple leadout riders each helping a sprinter.
If you win a sprint, say thank you to everyone you raced with. If someone helped you in the sprint be sure to thank them, too. It is OK to tease and gloat for about 5 seconds. Then you must accept any taunts sent your way and agree with them. Then you should wait for the rest of the group to regroup and you should lead a bit, but you might be too tired to lead very much. Generally, don't overdo your effort in a sprint so that you can contribute to the rest of the ride. Nobody likes a sprint winner who has to be a nursed along between sprints.
Roadies have various styles. The best like to be good at each aspect of the game but most everyone has stronger hands they can play when the time is right. There are power riders, sprinters, breakaway artists, climbers, thinkers, organizers, moody riders, tinkerers who fuss with gadgets, combative passionate riders, those who play tricks, whiners, sufferers, and those who conceal all. It’s fun learning what your style is and what your limits are and to work on both increasing your strengths and reducing your weaknesses.
Roadies embrace periodized training. But often they get carried away. In periodized training there are easy, medium and hard days each week. Then there are easy, medium and hard weeks. There are also rides for speedwork (fast), intervals (hard lungs), power (hard muscles) and endurance (long). There are also fun rides and skills rides. Most other sports do this, too, today. But roadies are WAY into it. Nowadays they also use watt-meters and workout recorders. But the basics are the same.
Roadies tend to end up riding hard all the time and easily get into a rut of "medium hard" rides. They also tend to omit the fun rides. I encourage all roadies to do a ride every week that includes riders who they don't usually ride with. This usually means riders who are a lot slower than you are. Feel free to make this your recovery ride. Racers often do their big thing on weekends so Mondays are great for the fun ride. Make your Monday rides your recruiting ride, for newbies, for showing others the ropes, for including kids and juniors.
Also try rides that are above your fitness level. First, be sure that you can ride their pace at least for awhile without any discomfort. Deal with these rides by bailing out at your first sign of loss of ability. Do not ride over your head. Just cut short your participation. And let the group know that you're leaving. Say "Thanks! I'll find my own way back!" and peel off.
Do not do anything to attempt to change the pace of the group. Do not make the group wait for you. Don't try to rejoin the group at intersections. In most cases, the group won't change its habit or plan if a rider makes a mistake in joining in, or even if someone is intentionally trying to improve their skills or fitness. This is fine! They are not being rude.
If you are only slightly off the pace you might ask for help or you might rejoin the group a couple times at stops. Indeed the leader of a group may well make efforts to help someone rejoin, especially if there was a brief mechanical.
Do not ride with a group if you are making any group riding mistakes or getting fuzzy in your thinking from over-exertion. Instead, try again another time. Maybe try to hang with the faster group for longer and longer periods.
FLATS & MECHANICALS
In most cases a group will wait for anyone who gets a flat or has a simple mechanical. Sometimes exceptions will be mentioned before the ride. Make sure you're carrying a pump and tube and tool if you might need one. Make sure you know how to change a flat as fast as is possible -- with a group watching. Groups can have fun at such times. They might both encourage and tease. They will often help or ask if you need help. If your skill is proper you won't need help. If you know you're a bit rusty, ask for help rather than fumble. If you don't have what's needed, ask someone BEFORE the ride if you can mooch off of them in case. If you use someone's spare tube, bring one for them the next time that you can. A standard flat repair should only take 3 minutes, say. It shouldn't hardly interfere in the flow of a group ride. One flat won't make a group whine, but 3 flats even by separate riders will cause some moaning. Don't take it personally. A fast and tidy repair makes everyone happy. They will freely praise a rider who makes a quick fix.
If your bike has a mechanical due to something you should have known about beforehand, you might well get some flack. This is why you need to make sure your bike is ready for intense riding before joining a group ride.
...Being prepared applies also to your ability to use clipless pedals. In the heat of intense riding it can be easy to unclip when doing a sprint. This is terrible! It's also easy to flub a re-clip after a stop if one is a bit flustered or unfamiliar with your pedals in a pressure situation. A flub can cause a chain reaction as riders are trying to cross an intersection. Be practiced and ready!
Roadies are clean. They tend to be fussy but they also know that clean outfits look good and put their club in the best light. Clean jersies smell good and clean shorts keep you from getting saddle sores. (Wash your butt after every ride!) Clean bikes work the best and have parts that last the longest. If you touch a roadie's bike you shouldn't get grease on you. It should look great. If you clean your bike every week you’ll be aware of any maintenance issue. It’s terrible to ever be surprised by a malfunction while on a group ride. You owe it to your mates to hold up your end of the ride and to not hold up the ride due to a problem you could have prevented beforehand.
Don't use a worn-out pair of shorts! They become see-thru at the rear above the chamois. Check your shorts for wear.
Don't hurt your butt. Chafing isn't part of glory. Use butt-butter! Whatever kind of lube you like. As much as you need. Bring more with you for long outings that include rest stops.
There are many more nuances and details, but I think you now know enough to be a good roadie.
Ultimate roadies. Moser and LaSalle. Game on.