Understanding the impact that you have on those around you in a fast moving group can be a steep learning curve if you want to step up to racing.
In becoming part of ‘the bunch’, you must swap some of your single-mindedness for a more considerate approach in many situations, making smooth transitions in and out of the saddle, and into and out of corners.
One of the most common criticisms aimed at novice racers is the unpredictability of their group behaviour and the danger this imposes on others. The collective understanding is that the safety of everyone is paramount, as it is aligned to everyone’s enjoyment, and developing the skills needed to keep everyone safe is a must if you want to go further than a ‘first try’ experience.
Changes of pace happen frequently in a race, but they need not feel sudden or shocking. In fact it is in yours and everyone else’s interest to smooth out the transitions in speed caused by corners and changes in incline.
Sudden braking is an absolute ‘No-No’ because if you over-react to a slowing group you will cause a knock-on panic effect in the riders behind, magnifying the change and making for more extreme and sudden accelerations that are often unsustainable for everyone.
When racing in a bunch, you should try to use your brakes minimally, using them to control your speed as smoothly as possible. In practice this means ‘covering’ them and ‘feathering’ them gently with a light, progressive touch rather than snatching at them.
Gear changes and cadence
Together with strategic use of your brakes you must become aware of how and when to change your gears. In fact using your gears appropriately can help you avoid over-using your brakes. It is important in a racing group to anticipate changes of pace where possible so that you are in a suitable gear to accelerate when the bunch has slowed.
If you fail to change down into a lighter gear as you approach a corner, hill, or as the group slows, when it speeds up again you will not be in good position to respond, and may well obstruct riders behind and around you because of your enforced lower cadence and slower acceleration.
At the very least this will make you unpopular, and at worst it could cause a split in the group leading to you and everyone behind you getting dropped. Cadences overall will be higher in a bunch, as this allows you to accelerate and respond more quickly to what is happening around you, so learning to use your gears more frequently to maintain a responsive cadence is something you must practice and get used to.
Changing position – in and out of the saddle
The smoothness of the transitions must also apply to changes in riding position. In particular when moving from a seated to a standing position there must be no ‘delay’ or pause in your momentum as this can cause the rider behind to run in the back of you. Most commonly this can happen on a hill at the point at which you move from a seated to a standing climb.
Inexperienced racers will often cause their bike to ‘stall’ for a moment as they stand up out of the saddle. The rider behind then has to make a sudden speed adjustment themselves (if they are able to) and so the escalation of the problem continues down the line. Practicing maintaining even pressure on the pedals as you move to a standing climb, whilst working with a full pedal circle (rather than a dominant down stroke) can help to overcome this.
Reacting to a race situation that is constantly changing is the critical difference for the Sportif rider turned racer. However, over-reaction is the racers enemy so becoming adept at anticipating what is about to happen and smoothing out the changes that take place will help you stay in the group, and importantly help you make friends in the group too. Where you can support and protect others you will get the same respect and support yourself, something that will undoubtedly enable you to move to the next level, and consider how and when to try to escape the bunch.