Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pace Line Etiquette with Richard Fries

With the Boston  b2vt  days away, I thought it was a perfect time to review (cycling) pace line etiquette.
Please join me with my guest blogger who knows the ins and outs of proper pace line tactics/etiquette and basically how not to be a douche out there. Listen up, cause Richard  (see his bio HERE ) knows what he's talkin' about and a review for even the veteran riders ain't a bad idea.

Richard- for many former b2b rides, plants himself up front of the riders and (tries) to explain to each group
of cyclists ready to start the 148 trek to VT, not only pace line etiquette, but riding safely and respectfully.
Unfortually he won't be there (sniff) this weekend to send us off and  keep the partay going once we reach
Okemo. We will miss you Richard!

Group Riding 201
What Your Ride Can Learn from the Pros

By Richard Fries

Most beginner cyclists get a lot of advice on getting ready for a big ride as individual riders.  Pages and pages are written about equipment, clothing, nutrition and training. But on the day of the big ride, we too often encounter riders who have no experience in a pack of six, 60, 600 or perhaps 6,000 cyclists.

Curiously, we'll often find riders with $5,000 worth of hardware, all the right gear, and no idea on how to ride in a group. And we find way too many folks are coming right from the spin gym on to the road with zero cycling skills.  

Perhaps this can help.

Cycling is a far more dynamic and thrilling experience in a group that rides well. And cycling is one of the few activities in which a stronger, experienced participant can actively help a weaker novice. Drafting is what separates cycling from nearly every other endurance sport. The closer one can ride with another rider, the faster, the more durable, and more efficient one can become. But getting closer means risking contact with another rider. Mastering that skill is key. 

The only way to master that skill is to ride in groups often. And better yet is to ride with smooth, experienced cyclists.

But typically beginners are spat out the back of a group ride on the first hill of their first training ride, never to return. Conversely, more experienced riders are often frustrated having to constantly soft pedal and wait for the beginner at every turn.

Group riding "101" is pretty basic. "Don't overlap wheels.....Ride single file...." And that's where it ends.

And the result is the same. Well, actually it's worse. Group rides typically break down with stronger riders going off the front, weaker riders going off the back, and in the melee far too many riders in the middle of the road, motorists getting angry, and pedestrians getting annoyed. Large group rides too often devolve into a wide variety of riders operating in a wider variety of lanes at an even wider variety of speeds.

Study the photo to the right. This is from RAGBRAI, a wonderful annual event with 10,000 novice riders. Note that the organizers officially discourage drafting and pace line riding. Note too, how riders have fanned all across the road. Figuring how to pass or be passed is difficult. Any sense of travel lane, fast lane, slow lane or passing lane has disintegrated. As a result WAY too many riders end up on the left side of the road going headlong towards oncoming vehicle traffic.

But there is a method to run a group ride that benefits everybody, keeps the group mostly together, and improves every riders' skills and fitness. After 35 years of cycling, including a stint at the European pro level, I thought I had it down. But recently I've learned from cyclo-cross superstar and veteran road pro Tim Johnson how to really run a group ride.

Let's call it "Group Riding 201".

In short, group rides could be conducted in the same manner used by pro teams in training camps.

That statement may seem daunting.


Most riders are surprised when they discover how safely and slowly pros ride during those training camps. Individual pros will work on their fitness and speed alone, in structured environments, or during races. Big group rides are not where they work on high-end fitness. When riding in team camps, they typically are seen rolling along at a talking pace for long distances...OK, really long distances. But for a few hours, any riders with decent road bikes, proper shoes, pedals and some basic experience can master this technique.

In this format, every rider gets the training they desire. And once the group gets going in a smooth fashion, every rider will be delighted by the speed they achieve and maintain. And this way of riding enables groups to ride safely for hours and hours at a comfortable pace without aggravating the community.

The three priorities on a group ride are:

1)    Safety. We want every rider to feel and be as safe as possible on the ride. Riders are safer in a tight group that moves consistently and predictably. When riders are all over the road at different speeds is when accidents happen. (And motorists get frustrated, and weaker riders get dropped.)
2)    Courtesy. We want every user of the road - motorists, runners, pedestrians, dog walkers, and other cyclists -  to have access to the road at all times and feel comfortable around our group. We need to follow the rules of the road. And no matter how aggravating, impatient, sloven, or vicious a motorist can become, we need to be the nice guys. Remember that If you cannot say anything nice, then don't say anything at all.
3)    Consideration. We want every rider to be considerate of each and every rider in the group, regardless of their fitness, strength or experience. There is no attacking or sprinting. All turning, stopping and starting should be done in a deliberate and calm fashion.  The front must always, always, always think about the riders in the back.

 So let's get started. Here are 10 methods that pros use to run a good group ride:

1)    Have a boss. A group ride needs to have somebody who is in charge, often known as the Patron. And everybody on the ride needs to buy into this. That boss needs to be one of the stronger riders, capable of going from the back to the front and back again at will. It helps if they are popular, positive, and respected. The boss needs to be willing to keep the group literally in line. Finding a good patron is the most important - and difficult - element of this plan.
2)    Ride 2x2. It is legal to ride two abreast in most states. The entire group should do so in rows of two. And this means side-by-side, without "half-wheeling" your partner to your side.  Riders should ride close enough to put one arm around the shoulder of the person next to them. This creates a larger draft for the weaker riders and makes it easier for automobiles to pass the group. When it is clear, the riders at the front can pull off to allow a new set of leaders to pull. During this year's Ride on Chicago, with about 30 riders in the group, a new tactic developed to do a slow-motion rotating pace line. This meant every rider took a two-minute pull, moved over a lane, took another two minutes, and then drifted back. This keeps the group consistently in a tight, two-column formation. But this requires a balance of ability and speed in the group. In a larger group everybody gets a share of the workload and a large share of rest.
3)    Stay 2x2. The group should remain in formation at all times on roads. This means when you're at a stop light, stay 2x2 and to the right edge of a single lane. Don't swarm all over the intersection. And when you make a left turn, the entire group goes to the left of the lane, remaining 2x2 all the way through the left turn. On bike lanes, bike paths and tight roadways where it's extremely narrow and congested the group should switch to single file. Either the boss or the riders on the front should determine when to do so with a verbal notice and raising a single finger.
4)    Keep Right and Tight. Too often big groups of riders take over the entire road. The leaders should set the line to the far right and leave it there. Riders with decades of experience racing (this writer included) can develop a bad habit of drifting left, an understandable impulse. We know that a good group rider learns to use the wind instead of the brakes when overlapping the rider ahead to avoid jerky braking in the group. But too often they drift to the left, pushing the entire group out. A key skill is to resist the urge to go out left and instead correct to the right, thereby keeping the group tight to the right.
5)    Pull longer, not harder. The riders at the front have a huge responsibility. They are the eyes of the group. The stronger riders looking to go hard should take pulls at the front that are longer, not faster. This provides the draft for the weaker riders who may never hit the wind the entire ride. Staying on the front at a steady pace enables the novice riders to get comfortable with the draft. And those on the front run their heart rates as much as 50 beats per minute higher than those riders behind. Note that while this is drafting, it is not a rotating pace line. People stay in their positions for upwards of 10 minutes or more.
6)    Go easy when it's hard; hard when it's easy. This is the secret sauce! To lessen the "accordion effect" of the group, which creates the most dangerous situations when the field compresses and the most frustrating situations when it spits riders off the back when the field stretches apart, the leaders need to respect the entire group.  For example, when the group is climbing, coming out of a turn, or starting from a standstill leaders should ride softly on the front. This allows weaker riders to stay with the group without frantically - and dangerously - riding to do so. Conversely, when rolling downhill, the leaders need to speed up to keep the group from bunching up. This seems easy, but it requires a lot of practice and patience. If done properly, one of the hardest things to do is to lead the group downhill as that requires enormous effort. The leaders need to listen: too hard and the group stops talking; too easy and the clicking of freewheeling gears will be heard.
7)    Off the road means off the road. When the group stops for any type of a break every rider needs to get entirely off the road. This is a basic courtesy to other users of the roadway and a major safety issue. Surprisingly, this is often the hardest thing to enforce with novices.
8)     Faster riders move back. The stronger riders - those key lieutenants to the boss - should finish their pulls at the front and then move to the back of the group to assist the weaker riders. This is also called riding "sweep." They may need to usher a gapped rider back to the group, push a rider up a hill, or advance to the front to inform the leaders of the need to change speed. This requires a lot of fitness and patience. Another term for these guys is "the welders". On a flat course, these guys may not need to go all the way back. But on a rolling, hilly route, there is a lot of work to do in the back.  These guys have to do intervals to properly and constantly "weld" the group back together. Trust me, the sweeps get some hard training in doing this. And as they do this they will filter back up to the front and take pulls.
9)    Slower riders move up.This is the hardest thing to teach. But the weaker riders have a responsibility to do their best to stay with the group. The smoothest ride is near the front, where the accordion effect is mitigated dramatically. Having those riders in the middle of the group also gives the leaders some indication of whether to increase or decrease speed. And those weaker riders can also drift back during tough climbs, a skill known as "sag climbing". But it also positions them in front of the sweep riders so they get the support needed to stay in the group. When a weaker rider receives help from the group they dedicate themselves to sticking with the group.  This really builds skills and confidence.
10)  Communicate everything. A novice rider may be intimidated by the tight formation, especially given the appearance of potholes, glass, grates, utility covers,  railroad tracks, curbs, speed bumps, rocks, gravel or other debris on the road. The key is to have the leaders point out each and every potential hazard with as much notice as possible and smoothly steering well clear of such items. Again, the guys on the front have a huge responsibility. And the warning should be telegraphed down the entire line by other riders in the formation. Likewise, information from the back can be sent to the front regarding the status of the group.

What will amaze people is how quickly novice cyclists - when paired with experienced group riders - dramatically improve their skills using this method. Within three rides, the impatient faster riders will be pedaling at close to the speeds they initially wished to ride; the nervous beginners will become comfortable around wheels and elbows and shoulders; everybody gets the training they desire; and the entire group will be compatible and safe.

What truly engages beginners is how enjoyable this style of riding can be. Riders are not continually under stress and in fear as riders strafe them from all sides. They ride side by side, chatting comfortably, and spinning away the miles.

Upon reading this, several so-called "experts" may scoff at such advice. I constantly hear,"That might work for experienced racers but not with beginners," is the common retort I hear from frustrated ride leaders.

Bad teachers blame their students.

Tim Johnson's Ride on Washington schooled all 20 of its riders on these techniques.

In 2012 the group rode 538 miles through the Northeast Corridor - we're talking crowded urban and suburban landscapes choked with all sorts of traffic - and NEVER heard a car horn blare in anger from behind.

On the fifth day of the ride, however, they were met by 130 riders ranging from novices to beginners.  The group included a number of grandmothers, an eight-year-old boy, a father with a two-year-old in a child seat, a fixed-gear rider, a 67-year-old man, a mountain bike or two, and even a unicyclist. Let me state that again, a UNICYCLIST.  The same rules were employed with the same efficiency. Within 30 minutes the group started to gel.

And was that entirely on a bucolic road with no interference from cars or traffic?  No. After a baptism on the photographed bike path (above), the group rode with those same rules right into downtown Washington DC during a busy Tuesday afternoon. 

And the result? See below.

That is 150 people, 2x2, on a downtown DC bike lane leaving more than enough room for oncoming cyclists and they are stopped at a red light. On the right is Tim Johnson. On the left is the navigator and Firefly Bicycles co-founder Kevin Wolfson.

Every rider is safe. 

Motorists are not angry.

Pedestrians are not confused.

Every rider is happy.

As beginners gain confidence riding with smooth riders, they will quickly improve their skills. As their skills improve their fitness improves. But more importantly, all of these riders will make an impact on every other group ride they join.

Teaching these skills to a small group of ride leaders can make massive group rides safer and more fun for everybody involved.

And then your group can ride for hours and hours .... 

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