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No doubt about it – holding position in a pack is definitely one of the more advanced skills we can learn in bike racing. It’s difficult and takes quite a lot of concentration and … sometimes … effort.
But, the more you practice and incorporate a few easy tricks into your everyday riding and racing – the less energy you’ll end up using and the more it will become instinctive, 2nd nature, effective.
Where to be in the pack?
Personally, i live by the mantra – near the front, but not at the front.
Meaning ~ i love to ride in the top 1/3 of the pack so as to get the energy saving benefits of the tucked-in and protected draft, yet also free enough from the confines of the pack to be able to shoot out and cover attacks … or maybe make my own.
I don’t like riding at the back 1/3 of the pack … it is MUCH more physically difficult and that grates heavily against my naturally lazy demeanor. When in the rear of a pack, we have to accelerate harder out of corners and there is little ‘wiggle-room’ to slide back in the pack if there is a hard section of riding (climbing or crosswinds, for example). Once you’re out of the protection of the pack in those circumstances … it’s usually a gawdawful push to get back to the protection of the peloton, or it can mean a long, lonely solo effort to the finish.
So, my goal in a race is to always try and ride in the top 3rd of the pack and if i fade back a bit, not to stress about it … but instead to make the conscious decision that I MUST move up.
How to move up in the pack?
The big, meaty chunk of time you’ll have racing will be spent exercising the skill of moving forward using as little energy as possible to get the job done. Here are a couple of good ways to do so ~
- Speed differential ~
When you see a slowing in the pack, this will be a golden opportunity for you to NOT hit your brakes, but instead ~ safely slide up and around the growing mushroom of riders. The keys to this glide are 1) make your initial lateral movement out of the pack predictable and relatively slow so that if there is a rider behind you desiring to do the same thing, they have opportunity to recognize what you’re doing and adapt their action. And, 2) be absolutely relaxed and watchful of each rider you pass, trying to predict if any of them will scoot out in front of you. And lastly, 3) know EXACTLY what the terrain is ahead of you. If there is a sharp turn coming up, that may not be the best time to use this tactic to move up in the pack … because you might just lose all those places passed in the pack as you brake awkwardly to set up for the turn.
- Pedal through the top of a hill ~
Often, the few meters right after a small climb offer an excellent place to move up in the pack. Riders will often lay off the gas at the crest of a climb and the speed will drop as they recover and look around at the damage done. A handful of seconds of continuing the same effort you had up the climb as you top over it will often push you past many riders in the pack without using a huge amount of excess energy. There isn’t much downside to this tactic as it is often safe AND it can sometimes be a bit intimidating to competitors who see you spinning smoothly and quietly past them after a hard little kicker.
- Pedal the end of a descent ~
Many times the group will slow down at the end of a descent because someone at the front has to pedal hard to keep the speed up (instead of just coasting along). This is often the easiest way to move up in position because you can pedal at a moderate amount of effort to maintain a much faster speed than those continuing to coast. However, this calls for an increased awareness of what riders are doing around you. You’ll want to concentrate hard on predicting what riders will do … making yourself aware and in the moment – able to react in a relaxed manner to any sudden movements of riders as you move past them.
- Riding the wheel ~
Often this is the most efficient way of moving ahead in the pack while the speeds are still high. And it can also be the trickiest. When you’re in the pack and you see someone riding strongly through the wind … why not hop on their wheel and take the draft they provide? Let them tow you to the front!However, this is an advanced skill and one that must be practiced, over and over again. A rider passing you may have someone already in their draft and there is a very delicate art to negotiating with that rider to allow you “in the draft.” If you begin to move slowly towards taking the draft of the rider passing you, the rider right behind them may let you in, or may ‘fight’ you for the wheel. This is a decision for that rider to make … and the best negotiating point you can offer is to signal to that rider that you are a smart, smooth wheel, and he or she will lose nothing by giving it to you.
If you see daylight, don’t hesitate – go ahead and slowly take the wheel, all the while increasing your speed to get in the draft of the rider just after they completely pass. If the rider behind that wheel doesn’t let you in, KEEP PEDALING, and then try the same tactic behind that rider. Again, it’s a tricky business … however, this is a skill that, if practiced, becomes the bread and butter of keeping position in the pack. You’re always looking for wheels to slide on to to move you forward.
Now that you’re at the front, STAY THERE!
You’ve done it, you gotten to the front of the pack and happily see yourself riding 10th or 12th wheel with no problems. And then … dang it! … one of the riders at the front doesn’t continue a pull or there’s some other reason for a slow down … and before you know it, swooosh ~ 20 riders just swarmed past you and now you’re in the butt-end of the pack again.
All in a few seconds.
What to do?
Here is the thing to burn into your consciousness … swarms are predictable.
- Slowing at the front is visible. Anytime the string of riders becomes more dense, billows out, mushrooms – that is the time you must INSTANTLY look to move up. If it’s not safe to do so, so be it. But, the key is to make it 2nd nature that you are always looking for such opportunities. EVERY TIME.The key to holding position in the peloton is that your automatic response to a drop in speed must be to look for ways advance in position. You can use any of the above tips … sliding around the pack, riding a wheel … whatever, just keep moving forward (safely).
- Feel the swarm from behind. Anytime you feel riders moving up from behind … it should be a warning signal. When you feel riders swarming around the pack, it needs to be an automatic reaction to try and squirm your way into that line of riders, safely and quickly.The key is to pedal. You must match the speed of that swarm and move your way slowly into the path of their advance. Maybe the first few riders won’t let you in … but, if you don’t try, none of them will. And to move up in position .. you must try. This is most evident in sprint finishes and … really is one of the harder skills to develop.
Which leads me to my final point – moving up and keeping position in the pack takes EFFORT. The goal is to minimize that amount of effort. And, the more experience and practice you have, the less energy you will have to use to keep position near the front of the pack.
The keys are: recognizing that you must move forward, deciding you will move forward, and committing the energy required to move forward.
In a finish, it doesn’t mean anything if you’ve saved energy and yet aren’t near the front to use it. Being at the front of the race costs energy. Spend it. Spend it over and over again … because eventually, you’ll learn how to do it efficiently.
gotta go, bye!
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