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Tips to make your group bike rides fun and challenging

Published Feb. 19, 2015

Group riding is fun for me and, I suspect, many people because of the feeling of cohesiveness, whether in rotating pacelines or more casual groups where riders take turns at the front. Everyone has responsibilities and contributes to making the experience enjoyable. (As for working hard on the uphill stretches — many of us find suffering enjoyable.)

Carl Flanagan and the Wanna Bees group hold informal group riding sessions for the St. Pete Bike Club. Mike Ward, general manager of the Chainwheel Drive bike shops in Clearwater and Palm Harbor, is a member of Suncoast Cycling Club, which has similar sessions. Here's a summary of key elements they all teach:

1. Hold your line. Don't drift sideways.

2. Give yourself room to learn. You needn't be 6 inches away from the wheel in front of you. Stay at least half a bike length behind until you're comfortable getting closer. You'll still benefit from the draft as you practice other skills.

3. Look at the rider two or three ahead of you, not the wheel immediately in front of you. When riders up ahead slow down you'll have time to anticipate what the rider in front of you will do and react accordingly.

4. Stay a few inches to the left or right of the wheel in front of you. That will give you more room to react if that rider brakes suddenly.

5. Learn to "soft pedal," meaning lighten the pressure on the pedals when you sense the need to slow down. The goal is to maintain a constant speed and cadence and not brake. If need be, lift your body a bit to catch more wind. Pedaling and coasting cause a "Slinky effect" in the group, which is tough on the riders in the rear.

6. If a small gap forms in front of you, slightly increase pressure on the pedals or your cadence to close it.

7. Don't surge when you find yourself in the lead. New riders tend to worry about maintaining the pace so they overcompensate by pedaling too hard and consequently speed up. Glance at your speedometer, if you have one, when you're second or third in line. Then at the front, maintain that speed. It will feel harder because no one is breaking the wind for you.

8. Don't overstay at the front. If you pull until you're exhausted, you may never catch on the back of the group after your pull. Ten seconds is plenty at first. (In rotating pacelines you're at the front for only a few seconds.)

9. Use a flick of your elbow or a fist bump on your hip to indicate that you're pulling off the front and to which side you want the person behind you to move up. Groups often want the lead rider to pull off to the left, but experienced riders tell you that it's best to pull off into a side wind, if it's significant, shielding the rider replacing you at the front from it. Of course, that only works if you can tell which direction it's blowing. I'm somewhat challenged in that simple skill.

10. Learn hand signals. Turns are pretty obvious. "Slowing" is a hand down with palm facing backward; "stopping" is a hand behind your back. Some riders just call it out.

11. Point out objects in the road — gravel, debris, glass, standing water, etc. If you're not comfortable taking your hand off the handlebar, call it out, e.g., "Glass right." All group members are responsible for letting riders behind them know of hazards.

12. It's a good idea to tell the retreating rider who just finished pulling when he reaches the back of the group. Simply say, "Last one" as you creep by him in the advancing line.

These techniques also apply to double lines of riders, but each rider peels off the front to the outside.

Anticipate situations, especially when in the lead. "Don't pull through a yellow light because, for those behind, it will be a red light," cautioned Ward. And when starting from a full stop, do so slowly so those in the back aren't pedaling frantically to keep up.

"And above all, don't overlap wheels," he said. Should the person in front of you unexpectedly move to the side to avoid something in the road, his back wheel will take out your front wheel. You will go down.

Oldsmar bike rider Bud Leist said it's important to understand how your actions affect the riders in the back. "Sprint 10 seconds, coast 10 seconds is not a recommended technique," he posted on Facebook. "And know when you're over your head."

But that doesn't mean forsaking the group ride. Stay about a bike length off the back if you're tired or feel uncertain.

Palm Harbor cyclist Jackie Allen gets wary. "But once I get the nervousness out and settle in, I love the camaraderie and social aspects [of group riding]. And it's definitely made me stronger."

Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He blogs at bobgriendling.com. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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