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  • Writer's pictureMatt Fisher

Bunch riding tips for triathletes

Road cyclists take pleasure in criticising us triathletes for our poor bike handling and inability to ride in tightly-packed bunches. What makes it worse is that they’re often right. As triathletes we typically spend most of our time training alone and often aren’t accustomed to the skills and etiquette or riding in groups. Since I first wrote the original version of this article back in 2015, of course the triathlon world has changed a little too, with the introduction of draft-legal Age Group races for shorter distances.

So, to avoid you standing out like a sore thumb the next time you ride with a bunch of roadies – or indeed to improve your chances of staying rubber-side-down in a draft-legal race – here are some key tips to fitting in and being safe in a group.

1.Obey the rules of the road

I shouldn’t really have to point this out, but jumping red lights or ignoring other rules of the road are an even bigger no-no on a group ride than when you’re alone. Just because you think you can make a light or junction, can the rest of the group? Safer to stay together than become fragmented. Rather than looking clever, you can guarantee to have your wisdom and parentage called into question if you try anything silly on a bunch ride.

2.Learn the hand signals

They may look a bit strange to the uninitiated, but hand signals are a invaluable way of communicating on the bike. Most signals are universal, but rather like regional accents, there are variations, so learn what your local groups use!

3.Never stop pedalling

Unless you are stopping, spinning out or turning a tight corner, always keep the pedals turning over – even if you’re effectively freewheeling. Stopping pedalling can both unnerve the rider behind you and also make you slower to get going again when the cyclist in front speeds back up. Just turning over the pedals will help you react faster when you need to re-apply power and will help you ride more smoothly.

4.Drink without wobbling or coasting

Directly related to point #3, you should be able to reach down, grab your bottle, have a drink and replace it as if nothing ever happened! That means a) getting used to riding with one hand, b) achieving the muscle memory to grab and replace the bottle without looking down and c) keeping pedalling throughout. Best to just keep practicing this one but be conscious to do it without taking your eyes off the road or losing momentum. The same goes for eating gels and bars.

5.The pace line is exactly that!

Okay, so most road cyclists seem not to understand this, either. So let’s try to set an example. Let’s say you are second wheel and the lead cyclist is about to pull off (in the UK, this should mean he checks over his shoulder and then pulls right, into the middle of the road, and eases off, ready to re-join the back of the pace line). Check your speed (not power!) before this happens. When he does ease out of the first spot and you become lead cyclist, your aim is to MAINTAIN the same speed! You’ll have to work a little harder in the wind, but the idea is NOT to put your foot down as soon as he pulls off and feel that you need to overtake him. It’s HIS job to fall back and yours to maintain a constant speed so that the pace line stays neatly together.

6.Don’t spend too long on the front

Ideally you should have either agreed a time limit to be on the front or you should be mindful of your speed dropping off after a while. When this happens, it’s your turn to peel off and get some respite at the back of the pace line. There is no shame in this and most groups would rather you spent 60 seconds on the front at 20mph than struggle on for too long and take the whole group down to 15mph. Which is often when our next problem occurs…

7.Going ‘over the top’

This is when the pace line isn’t working (or someone in the pace line isn’t playing ball) and instead of waiting for the guy in #1 slot to peel off, someone comes around and assume the front spot. Not only is this bad etiquette, it’s also a great way to fragment the group. Invariably the person doing the overtake goes too aggressively, creates space on an already-fatigued front man and hey presto, the group fragments. If you must overtake (and are not deliberately trying to ‘attack’ or break the group), do so at a speed that means someone can grab your wheel and keep the group together.

8.Music is a no-no

Another one that shouldn’t even need saying, but earphones on a group ride are out. Full stop. ‘Nuff said.

9.Carry spares

Get yourself a puncture on your own with no spares and only you will hate yourself (and maybe your mum or partner that has to drive out to collect you!). Get a flat on a group ride and have to rely on others for spares and you can guarantee the whole group will hate you! Expect to be left behind if you flat. It’s not personal (except when it is), it just happens sometimes.

10. Fit mudguards in winter

No, they don’t look sexy. But if you’ve tried riding behind a bike without mudguards when the roads are wet and muddy you’ll know it’s no fun. Either fit mudguards in winter or be prepared to spend the whole ride at the back (getting coated with everyone else’s crap!).

11.Don’t even think about taking the TT bike

Unless you’re riding with others on TT bikes or have specifically agreed it with your group, turning up for a bunch ride on a TT won’t win you any friends at all. Unless you’ve got Di2, you can’t brake and change gears as effectively, and TT bikes just handle differently to all the road bikes around you. Leave the TT bike for solo rides or Team Time Trial practices.

12.Don’t ‘half wheel’

Another one that’s as much about etiquette as it is safety. No-one loves a half-wheeler (where your wheel is just ahead of the person you are riding besides, or over-lapping the rider in front), partly as it’s seen as being a bit ‘uber competitive’ and partly because if the group has to make a quick move to avoid a danger in the road, you’re more likely to be caught off-guard and cause an accident.

13.Keep your eyes on the road

There’s no harm in enjoying a little scenery or acknowledging fellow riders, but don’t just stare firmly at the wheel in front. Keep aware of what’s happening around you – you won’t always get a shout or hand signal to warn you of a pothole, obstruction or other danger.

No doubt there are many more tips that we could add to the list (feel free to suggest your own!), but if you’re new to bunch riding, learning and practicing some of the above will help you both enjoy the experience and avoid being singled-out as a triathlete (let the sleeveless jersey and calf guards do that for you, instead!).

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