A bunch of riders is a living organism, and learning to race within it is crucial to almost every form of competitive cycling.
Aside from the solo specialty of time-trialling, the biggest challenge of racing is being able to move at speed with lots of other people around you. In any other race situation, you will never be on your own for long. For those used to riding solo this can come as a shock because it quickly becomes apparent that the strongest individual riders are not necessarily the best in a bunch situation. This can leave you bewildered and demoralised by the task, when you know you are in good shape, but just can’t seem to stay with other riders who appear to be no fitter than you.
Learning to love the group is your first task. When you ride on your own you can push yourself to better performances by brute force and sheer determination. The bunch is a more subtle creature, a living, moving, breathing organism that you need to become a part of in order to understand what makes it tick. Try to master it with force and it will push back and spit you out. Subtlety and a slippery nature will help you develop your group skills, and so a change in your mental approach is an important first step.
Trust in the group dynamic
We all understand the basics of drafting and probably have experience of it at least in small groups on the road. Drafting in a racing bunch is never a linear experience and you will need to get comfortable with riders in close proximity all around you, with wheels overlapping left, right, and centre. Riding in a bunch is all about trust, and to a degree you have to let go of your individual control and instead become part of the whole, whose shared responsibility is that any individual mistakes can have repercussions for the group. When someone says ‘hold your line’, what they really mean is don’t make any sudden movements sideways, as sudden changes in direction by an individual rider will be dangerous for everyone.
Movement in and around the bunch is spontaneous rather than organised such that some areas of the group will begin to move forwards while others will tend to move back, and there will be ‘seams’ of movement running in different directions all the time. This is often in response to the conditions and the course, and will be influenced in particular by the wind direction and corners. From within the bunch one of the first things you can practice is observing these movements in a three dimensional way and trying to flow with them when they develop. Think of the bunch as a shoal of fish, constantly changing direction but staying together, and you will begin to get a sense of what is happening.
One thing you will quickly notice with this movement is that if you don’t actively get involved in moving forwards, you will find yourself moving backwards. Inexperienced riders migrate to the back of the group in this way and wonder how they got there. Here, you will be less sheltered and if the bunch has to slim down to go round a corner, the acceleration at the back will be the greatest, often leading to you getting dropped very quickly. The back is not a place you want to be for this reason, but if you wait until you get there before taking action, it may be too late.
Inexperienced riders who know they don’t want to be at the back will often force their way up the bunch along its sides. There is more room at the sides, but there is also more wind, and these sudden surges can be very costly in terms of effort, but can also disruptive the groups karma. Surging, braking and barging in, goes against the ‘all is one’ code of the bunch and can be dangerous too. While it is sometimes necessary to move up the sides, it is worth remembering and practising moving through the bunch as small gaps and seams of movement develop. This is of course less costly as you are sheltered on both sides, and the more energy you are able to save the more you will have to spend when the time is right to try to break out of the bunch or compete for the finish.
Impatience, frustration, and anxiety are your enemies when bunch riding which requires a special kind of Zen where you are alert and yet relaxed. Feeling this sense of mental relaxation and flow whilst physically working hard is the holy grail of race mastery you are looking for.