Riding in a Pack, Part 3, Rotating
Come on, ride the train, hey, ride it Come on, ride the train, hey, ride it
-'C'mon 'n Ride It (the Train)' by Quad City Djs
In this installment, we will tackle moving through the group. Everyone can utilize signaling and drafting even when out with just one other rider. There are also times when the group will just form two lines that never change, and these two columns will just move up the road with the lead riders doing lots of work and everyone behind simply taking a friendly advantage of them. These are great rides, and I am not knocking them. For many, they are a gateway into riding faster and with better people. I cannot tell you how many times I have been able to go out with fast people and simply suck a wheel and do what work I can. Drafting (and signaling) allow me to ride in those situations with success.
But, there is going to be a time when the work needs to be shared. This happens with rotation. Riders will move and change their hierarchy in the pack so that the workload is more evenly distributed. There are many different styles and many different situations that call for different types of rotation, but more on that later. In the most basic sense, lead riders will fall back and float towards the rear. The riders in the back will eventually find themselves on the front because the lead riders are now drafting them! Uh oh, but don't worry yet. This does not mean that you cannot ride with better riders, it just means that you need to know how strong you are at the moment.
Time is on my side, yes it is.
The key to staying in the pack and being able to do your share is not staying on the front too long. No matter how the riders rotate, you need to know just how long you should be up there. Sometimes a group will agree to a certain time for the lead rider to be on the front, and sometimes it just happens according to how everyone is feeling. Sometimes, it's a little of both.
The key is that unless the terrain changes drastically, the lead rider should maintain the group's speed. When you get to the front you should remain steady, do not surge because you might just end up riding people right off your wheel. Do your work on the front for the amount of time that has been agreed upon or the time that currently suits you. If you are extremely tired, don't blow yourself up and be a hero. If you feel super strong, don't hammer it and make everyone else weaker for it. Stick with the regular or agreed group speed. If someone (or you!) falls off the back later because you hit the front too hard, you just ruined it.
Consider your current training cycle, fatigue, the type of day, and how long the group is going. If you are on an easy day, the wind is howling, and the group wants to do 40 miles, you had better not be a hero. It is my experience in races and fast group rides that by the time you think you should get off the front, it is probably too late. Short and sweet is the key. Use time to your advantage. This is the factor you control, and it is in your hands. If people complain about how little you are on the front, find new people to ride with.
Keys to the front:
Do your share
Do not surge
Maintain the group's speed
Get off the front
Come down off your throne and leave your body alone Somebody must change
-Blind Faith "Can't Find My Way Home"
Once you are done on the front, you need to get to the back safely and stay there. This is often where it goes wrong. I've just spent too long on the front and then I stop pedaling, move to the side and the group blows by me and I have to struggle to get back on a wheel. When you come off the front you need to do two things: first off, signal you are coming off the front by flicking the elbow that is on the side you want the rider behind to pull through on and secondly, fall back with caution. I flick my right elbow, drift a tiny bit left and the line behind me comes up on my right as I drift to the rear.
The direction of the pull off is determined by traffic, road width, and very importantly the wind. It is critically important to pay attention where the back of the group is when you drift back. Never ever stop pedaling. You are not quite ready to rest yet; you will do that when you are actually on the back. When you get even with the last rider, the last rider should let you know they are last in the line. This is when you should start pedalling a little harder and hop on. If you drift back aimlessly, you are going to fly off the back and get dropped if you cannot get back on.
To the left y'all, to the left y'all...
Rotating direction should be determined by the road and wind, as stated above. I always try to rotate off and into the wind so that with left to right winds the group cycles counter-clockwise and with right to left winds the group rotates clockwise. So those drifting back are blocking the wind while the group pulls through. Pull into the wind, basically.
With a head wind straight on or a tailwind, I prefer to have the rotation be what is safest. I think it is safer to have a steady line closest to traffic and have the lead rider fall off towards the shoulder if it makes sense to do this. I think as a driver it is easier to gauge a steady line then to have one rider hurtling back towards me completely knackered from his pull.
There will be times when rotating is just not safe to do, so you might just have to wait until the right time presents itself. If wind conditions shift, it may mean the paceline has to switch the direction that the riders come through on as well. It is up to the ride leader to dictate this.
You have just read the guidelines that describe a single paceline. The lead rider flicks his elbow and falls back while the group pulls through on that side. He gets towards the back, starts pedaling harder and gets tucked in behind the last rider. If you have 5 guys, you only have to do 20% of the hard work. The only minor concern is that a single paceline works best with smaller numbers.
A chain gang is a double line that is in constant rotation. Two lines form and one is constantly riding up and through as the other side falls back. Picture the treads on a tank or the chainlinks on your bike. The top tread or link comes over the top and becomes the first bottom tread or link. From the top, this is what a chain gang looks like with all the riders connected to those directly in front and those directly behind. For example, with a left to right wind, the lead line comes up the right, pulls in front of the rider on the left, and the lead riders falls off on the left side, and the constant line drifting back on the left shields the riders pulling through and over from the right. It is important to communicate to the rider pulling through that he is clear of your front wheel and important also that the last rider lets the drifting back line know they are clear to hop on. I think the video will best explain this below.
The Double Column...
When you have a big group, a double line works great. I would not recommend it on narrow city streets, but it works great once you get to the open road.
Riders form two lines. The riders on the front drive the group for as long as they see fit, they agree on when to pull off, and they both pull to their respective outside, as the double line continues through the middle. When the two displaced lead riders get towards the back. the last two riders let them know to hop on by calling out, "Last." This is a great basic rotation that works great with big groups and good wide roads to ride on.
Echelons are really left to the pros or to very remote places where riders might spread out across an entire lane of traffic. It is basically tucking in to the non-wind side of a rider to have the wind blocked for you. Very rarely will this happen in a group ride, but maybe in a race. Think of how a flock of geese fly, or watch the video below.
So there you have it: how to ride in a pack, signaling, drafting, and rotating. I hope this helps you on your next group ride. Tomorrow, I am going to try to compile some tips and advice that just randomly apply to riding in a pack.