Tips for riding in a group

Triathletes don’t always have the best reputation when it comes to riding in a group.  However, group riding isn’t hard – it just needs a bit of discipline and attention to keep it safe and enjoyable for all.  Here are some tips on the dos and don'ts of cycling in a group (thanks to the Dubai Roadsters for these tips). 

Drafting.  Riding in a group means that you benefit from the slipstream created by the riders in front of you. This is called drafting and means that you can ride at any given speed using 30 percent less energy than if you are riding by yourself.  This is even more noticeable when the group is riding into a strong headwind.  So the benefits are huge, but you must remain even more attentive to the road conditions and to other riders in front of you and behind you.  Do not switch off whilst you are having a chat with your mate next to you.

Keep Pedalling.  To keep riding smoothly in formation at a steady speed/cadence it is important that you try to avoid free-wheeling (not pedalling) at any time when riding in the group.  Of course cycling up a hill naturally means a slower speed for most cyclists.  Change down gears smoothly in order to keep your cadence steady (cadence is the speed that your pedals rotate, and is normally measured in rpm). Resist the temptation to slog away in a big gear as you will likely become more tired and erratic and slow the group down.  Always keep rotating the pedals even if you are not using any force/power.  If you stop pedaling riders behind you will assume you are slowing down (almost like a brake light on a car) and it will result in a chain reaction through the group making the speed unsteady and the ride less relaxing. Similarly if you are at the front of the group, resist the urge to sprint away and do not break suddenly. Keep your speed/cadence steady and ride predictably.

Signals.  Ride predictably.  Keep a close watch far enough ahead so that you can see and point out obstacles early enough to allow yourself and those behind you to smoothly avoid them.  Particular hazards in the UAE include sand at the side of the road and speed bumps intended to slow cars. T he riders in the lead of the group must give signals to the riders behind.  You can use signals by hand or your voice to give or pass on signals (like “hole" for a hole in the road or “left turn” for a change of direction).  If the riders in front of you signal, pass on signals to other riders behind you.  Crashes are not common but can occur when you swerve quickly to one side to avoid a hole and you bump the rider beside you or the rider behind you.  If you swerve quickly to avoid an obstacle, the rider following you will not have time to avoid it.

Look first, move second.  Look to where you want to move to before you move. This goes hand-in-hand with riding smoothly and being predictable whenever you decide to change positions within the group.  Remember, if you make a quick, unexpected move, the rider behind you will be the one who crashes when your rear wheel hits his or her front wheel.  Be especially aware of faster riders approaching from the rear when you move laterally.  Look sideways and behind you.  Even if you’re riding a few inches to the left of the white line on the right side of the road, don’t assume someone won’t ride up on your right in the gravel on the shoulder. Be attentive, expect the unexpected and you’ll be ready for anything.

Keep a safe distance from the bike in front of you.  You get plenty of draft if your front wheel is a two feet behind the wheel in front of you.  This gives you time to react to whatever the person in front of you does.  This also means not overlapping your front wheel with the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, except when riding in an echelon in a strong crosswind.  Remember, if the rider in front of you moves into your front wheel, YOU are going to crash, not the rider in front of you.

Keep a safe distance from the bike beside you.  Just because you see the racers in a peloton riding with their handlebars a couple of inches from their neighbouring riders, doesn’t mean they ride that way all of the time.  Do not ride more than two abreast on the roads or cycle tracks. This gives plenty of room for cars to overtake (and allows riders to ride the opposite direction on the cycle tracks).  It also means that the group can ride in a more orderly way.  The rougher the roads and the less experienced the riders, the farther apart everyone should stay for safety’s sake and for peace of mind.  If you find yourself riding next to someone who rides too close for your comfort level, calmly and smoothly move away and back to another spot in the group.

Tri bars.  Tri bars are great for triathlons (and you need to practice riding in your aero position), but you should never use them when you are in a group, unless you are the very first rider in the group.  (Note that some cycling groups don’t even like you riding on your tri bars at the front of the group).  While you are steering with your elbows, you have less control over the direction (and possibly stability) of your bike.  More importantly, you are not able to use the brakes quickly.  This has the potential of being dangerous for everyone in front of you.

Stand-up pedalling.  When you stand up to pedal, push a bit harder on the pedals as you stand to keep from moving your bike backwards and into the front wheel of the person behind you.

Braking. Use your brakes lightly and sparingly.  Adjust your speed by small changes in your pedalling cadence rather than using your brakes.  Avoid strong braking.  If you need to stop (a puncture, dropped water bottle, etc.) yell "STOPPING" and SLOWLY move to the right side of the road, looking first, and applying your brakes very lightly.

Road Rage. What should you do when a vehicle driver does something that you find objectionable.  About 99.9 percent of the time, the best thing to do is NOTHING. Especially if someone in a vehicle zooms by you too closely for comfort from behind and yells at you. Gesturing at them is only going to make them more likely to turn around and do something even worse the second time.  If you show them no reaction at all, it’s not fun and they may not do it the next time they pass a bicyclist. Don’t think that you can teach them anything by yelling or gesturing. You can only make things worse. DO NOTHING except IGNORE THEM.

Drinking and Eating.  When cycling in the desert it is very important to keep the body hydrated by drinking frequently during the ride.  It’s reasonably safe to have a drink from your water bottle while maintaining your position in the group, provided you are able to hold your position without swerving or slowing.  Eating, especially when it involves opening the wrapper of your food bar, is best accomplished when the group stops at one of the scheduled stops.  If you can't wait, then move to the back of the pack where you can either ride with no hands more safely to open the wrapper or wrestle with biting the wrapper open.  Put the empty wrapper in your pocket – Don’t Litter.

Nose blowing and spitting. Everyone gets a runny nose or cough from time to time. When you need to blow your nose or spit, be considerate of those beside and behind you. Move to the leeward side of the pack or, better yet, to the back of the group before blowing your nose or spitting. Remember, when riding 30-40 km/h everything you eject goes backwards quickly enough and far enough to land on fellow riders a considerable distance behind you.

Support on the Ride – For Yourself and Others. Use your common sense when deciding what items you will need on any given ride. Because of the extreme temperature in the UAE, you should always carry sufficient water bottles, and refill them at all opportunities.

Spares and Repair kit.  Also ensure that you have the correct spares and tools to repair/replace a punctured tube, including; tube, patches, pump, tyre lever, and knowledge of how to do this.

Sun Protection. If you are susceptible to sunburn, then also bring enough sun cream to last the duration of the ride.

Don't forget your suncream!!

DON’T LEAVE RIDERS ALONE BEHIND THE GROUP. It is not safe to be alone out in the desert.  If someone encounters a problem, either mechanical or physical, which forces them to stop, someone should stop with them to ensure they have a companion to help them catch up to the group again, or to stay with them until further help arrives.

Final words of wisdom.  Riding in a group is like any other social event, only it is conducted at 30-40+ km/h on sometimes bumpy roads.  Your safe conduct, courteous behaviour and patience are always appreciated by everyone.  Try especially hard to stay focused and safe toward the end of the ride when everyone is tired and reactions are slower. Have fun - and help everyone else on the ride to have fun.