Keeping Group Rides Safe

by Martin Farnham

As new riders join up and fair-weather riders dust off their winter cobwebs it’s worth revisiting the things we can do to keep ourselves, and those riding near us, safe.  And yes, most experienced riders in the club should brush up on the following too!

1) Keep groups to a safe size.  There should be no more than 12 riders in a group leaving the parking lot together on a weekday morning ride.  Once a group grows to 16 (as riders join midride), it should be split into 2 groups.  Smaller groups communicate better and tend to ride more smoothly. Take the initiative to make sure your group is a safe size.

2) If you see something, say something (respectfully).  If there’s something unsafe happening in the group, point it out.  Do so politely, though in an emergency it’s OK to do so loudly.  If you’re not sure, ask a more experienced rider for their opinion. Also listen respectfully.  I’ve been yelled at for doing stupid things on rides and I’ve sometimes yelled back reflexively.  I shouldn’t have.  It’s natural to feel defensive, but it’s best to cool down and chat about it later, when the heat of the moment has passed.  Remember that the riders around you can see things you can’t.  That doesn’t mean they’re always right, but it means there’s usually a chance they’re right.

3) Communicate clearly.  Riders near the front should point out and/or call out hazards up the road in time for riders behind them to react.  Riders near the back should call out “car back” when a car is approaching.  All other riders are responsible to note any hazards they see and, especially, pass signals/calls up and down the line.  If you hear “Hole!” called in front of you and then don’t hear it called again behind you, that probably means people behind you didn’t hear it.  You heard it, so it’s up to you to pass the word down the line.

4) Keep your eyes scanning down the road.  If you stare at the wheel directly in front of you, you won’t react to hazards in time.  Knowing what’s going on down the road and what’s happening at the front of the group (Are they moving around something?  Slowing?  Accelerating?) will give you enough time to react smoothly.  Always be aware of how close you are to the wheel in front of you, but keep your eyes further down the road.

5) Drop back quickly after your pull.  If you’re riding two up (double paceline, non-rotating), then the group is 4 abreast while the front two riders drop back. This can be dangerous, so should be done as quickly as possible and only when it’s safe. Don’t drop back while a car is approaching from behind, and when you drop back, do it fast.  This is not the time to strike up a conversation with your buddy in the middle of the pack.  When you’re done with your pull, pull to the side, tap your brakes once you’re clear of the group, and stop pedalling!  Re-accelerate quickly as you get near the back of the group, so that you can reconnect smoothly to the back.  Failure to drop back quickly is a bad habit that many experienced riders have yet to shake.

6) RIDE SMOOTH.  This item could be a whole article.  Relax.  Hold your line, especially through turns and in sprints.  Don’t accelerate or brake suddenly (if you need to slow a bit, try putting more of your body into the wind by sitting up). Roll smoothly off stops and corners (don’t hammer!).  Pedal consistently (avoid constantly alternating between pedalling and coasting).  Resist the urge to surge when you get to the front of the line.  Leave enough gas in the tank so you don’t drop off the back after your pull up front.  If the rider in front of you suddenly accelerates (a no-no on a no-drop ride), react smoothly for the sake of riders behind you—let a gap open in front of you instead of standing up and hammering to keep up with the rider in front of you…then slowly accelerate to close the gap while bringing the riders behind you along with you.

For an advanced degree in riding smooth, consider how to approach hills (both up and down) when you’re in the front of a group.  Keep in mind that the group will naturally compress as it hits the base of the hill, it will naturally stretch as it moves over the top, and it will naturally compress again as it hits the flat on the other side.  Riders in front can fight the compression and stretching by pedalling harder at the compression points and softer at the stretch points.

7) Don’t overlap wheels.  “Quarterwheeling”—where you overlap wheels slightly with the rider in front—should generally be avoided.  It’s a sloppy habit and one that eventually will lead to touched wheels and a crash.  You, as the rider in back, are more likely to hit the pavement, so take responsibility to avoid overlapping wheels.

8) Stand up carefully.  Don’t throw your bike backwards or hard to the side when you stand up.  That could take out wheels behind you.  As you approach a hill, anticipate that the rider in front of you may stand up, and give their wheel a little extra space.  Remember, the group naturally compresses as it comes to the base of a hill.

9) Don’t push the pace beyond what the group can handle.  That means ride to the weakest rider.  This is especially important for A riders who take a rest day with a B group.  If someone yells “steady” the riders at the front should stop pedalling if any sort of gap has formed.  If you’re a strong rider relative to the group, make sure your pulls are long and steady (assuming you have a strong rider next to you).  Tow struggling riders back to the group and find someone with broad shoulders to give them a draft.  Use your extra matches to ride up to the front and slow the pace, if riders at the back are at risk of getting dropped.  A strong rider can have as tough a ride as a weak rider if they take on the extra responsibility (and calories burned) needed to assist a weak rider.  And they get hero points for it.

10) Be aware of who’s struggling and encourage them to rest (by skipping pulls, taking short pulls, and tucking in behind a broad-shouldered rider).  There’s usually a range of strength within a group ride.  Weaker riders (especially newbies) often want to prove themselves by taking long pulls at the front, but this can cause them to run out of gas before the end of the ride. A gassed rider will slow the whole group down and may become less smooth and therefore pose a safety risk. There’s no shame in resting and weaker riders will preserve the pace and safety of the ride by resting as needed.  As a point of etiquette, don’t contest the sprints if you’ve been resting heavily, especially in the lead-up to the sprint.

11) Rotating pacelines work best with riders of similar strength.  If you have very diverse strength in the group, consider a 2-up (or even 1-up) paceline, or consider having the weaker riders “sit in” at the back of the rotating paceline (i.e., stay out of the rotation).  See http://www.tripleshotcycling.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=8012&p=36932&hilit=rotating+paceline#p36932  for more on how to do this.

12) Come properly equipped.  Carry a toolkit with spare tube, levers, and pump at a minimum. Fenders with a crap flap that reaches to within an inch of the ground are required when the ground is wet.  Good lights are required on group rides in low light settings (white front, red back, nothing flashing).  Lights are a very good idea during the day too, as they will make you and the group more visible. Make sure your bike is in good working order to help the group proceed safely and on schedule.  Check tires before each ride for bits of broken glass that might break through and cause a flat in the middle of your group’s ride.

13) Respect other road users.  If you cut off or yell at a driver or pedestrian today, that’s someone mad at cyclists who could endanger you or one of your cycling pals tomorrow (either on the road or at the ballot box).  Be polite to other road users, even when they’re not polite to you.  Also, remember that other cyclists aren’t generally used to riding close. So give plenty of breathing room to cyclists you pass, and call out that you’re passing with time for them to pull right.  Commuter cyclists often wobble when they hear a holler behind them, so give them plenty of advanced notice.  Don’t pull in front of a rider you’ve passed until after the back of the line has passed them.  Otherwise you’ll inadvertently force the riders behind you to crowd the rider you’ve just respectfully passed.

14) Go to coffee.  Even if it’s just occasionally.  Not only does coffee provide the opportunity to discuss and ask questions about the ride and safety generally, it provides the social glue that allows us to keep up the conversations that keep us safe.

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