Riding in groups can be great fun but if you're a new road cyclist, the thought of riding in a group can be quite intimidating. But with a little preparation, you can join in the fun and ride safely with other road bike riders. Here are some tips to get you started.
First, make sure you are prepared for riding in groups. This means you've got the right bike and gear to handle group riding. Firstly, and as face-palm-simple as this might sound, start with a road bike that fits you well. A properly fitting bike will be easy to pedal and comfortable to ride, especially when in the peloton (main pack). I know this might sound like it's coming fresh from the shelves of, "stating the bloody obvious,' but riding in groups is a lot about confidence. The more 'at one' you are with your bike, the more stable you'll be, which in turn will make you more confident and means you'll have fewer things to think about when riding in a large group.
If necessary, consider having your bike professionally fitted by an experienced bike fitter or mechanic. These can be quite costly but if you've got the cash then I highly recommend one. If you can't afford the whole enchilada then there are cheaper versions that can be done, which will be fine for many beginners, but they won't be as accurate as ones where you have sensors stuck to your body's joints and precisely measured.
Once your bike is set up to the point where riding it has become second nature there are things to know to help ensure you don't stack it or cause a major pile-up by wiping out everyone behind you whilst you're in the middle of a peloton.
The closer you can get to a rider in front, the greater the drafting benefits you'll receive from being in their slipstream will be I.e., your riding will require less effort (sometimes up to 30%) as the person in front becomes a battering ram to the wind /air resistance in front. However, when starting out with group riding, give yourself a good amount of distance between yourself and the person in front. "Hugging the wheel" by only an inch or two can wait for when: a) you know what you're doing, and; b) you know the person in front knows what they're doing too!
This is all well and good but it's not just the person in front of you you need to think about. If you're new to riding in groups it can be quite daunting to have someone riding too close to the back of you. 'Half-wheeling' is when the person behind has half their front wheel side-by-side to the back half of your rear wheel. If you feel nervous having another rider breathing down the back of your neck like this then simply ask them to stop 'half wheeling' you and drop back to a distance you're more comfortable with. At the end of the day, if a front wheel hits a back wheel then the chances are the person who owns the front wheel is going to come off much worse (front-wheel stops suddenly = rider of front wheel flying over handlebars. Back-wheel stops suddenly = rider of back-wheel having a more manageable rear-wheel skid to control) so you'll be doing them a favour if you think there's a risk of you unexpectedly moving in a way that could cause that type of contact.
Riding in groups requires a certain level of trust between all riders. If there are junctions, roundabouts, traffic lights or other potential hazards ahead of you whilst you're leading a pack make sure you communicate with the riders behind. A simple 'slow!' call over your shoulder will suffice but a hand signal is a lot more informative and a great way to acknowledge that hazards are coming up so people behind need to take care. A good idea for this is to practice signalling before getting to the group ride:
(images courtesy of Sigma Sports)
A flat palm held straight out behind you means 'slow down'. (You can also stick your arm out straight with a flat palm facing the ground and slowly move it up and down, a bit like you're patting a dog on the head, to signal the same).
A straight finger pointing to a specific part of the role means there's a pot hole to avoid.
Either a left or right finger pointing behind your back shows the need to move around a bigger obstacle e.g. a car or large patch of water on the road that's spread across the peloton's path.
When you're in a paceline, if you want to get past someone riding directly ahead of you, make sure it's clear that it is safe for them to move over before passing. If they can't move out of the way then ask them politely if they'd mind you towing their wheel, (closely following behind them). If they say 'yes' then quickly move into position and get ready for the speed difference. You can then pass them when it's safe to do so.
When somebody lets off of the speed in a paceline (single row of riders) it is the responsibility of the rider right behind them to slow down and follow in their wheel's slipstream. If you're more than a few bike lengths back then don't wait if you're stuck behi
nd someone not riding at the speed they should be, just go around them and re-join the group.
On very fast group rides, such as races and sportives you may find most riders will stick to the left side of the road. This is for several reasons: 1) so that cars can pass with ease (this doesn't apply if you're riding in a 'closed road' event [which are a-ma-zing as you don't have any cars to worry about]); 2) so that everyone can see each other; 3) it's easier to hold the distance.
Finally, if you find yourself in the middle of a pack and are feeling a little too boxed in for comfort you can always politely ask people to give you a bit more space. Alternatively, confidently hold your line in the road, stay steady, maintain your current pace, avoid making any unexpected movements and just enjoy the exhilaration of being dragged along for one hell of a ride.
With a bit of practice and a group of sensible, understanding cycling friends, you'll soon become a brilliant road cycling, peloton buddy!