Riding in a peloton can be intimidating and, at times, dangerous, but there are tried-and-true strategies you can use to keep yourself safe and in good pack position. Great handling skills, heads up racing, and years of experience prevent most dangerous situations from escalating into calamities, and you can use the same techniques pros use to stay safe in the pack. Whether you’re racing in a large Masters field, participating in a Century or Gran Fondo, or just out on the local group ride, use these tips to stay safe.
#1: Keep Your Head Up!
I don’t care how tired you are or how hard you’re going, dropping your head while you’re in the middle of the pack is a recipe for disaster. A moment of inattention can destroy months of preparation and training, so you have to keep your head up and on a swivel. Use your peripheral vision to stay aware of movement to your sides and keep your vision focused around 10 riders ahead of you, at least. There’s very little time to react to problems, even less if you’re not paying attention.
#2: Have an Exit Strategy
In addition to looking for opportunities to move up in the group or put yourself in a better competitive position, you also have to have a loose plan for where you’re going to go if the riders ahead of you suddenly fall down. Is there a deep ditch on the right side of the road? Then that’s not your first choice. If you’re entering an area that looks like it’s a likely place for a crash, like a sudden narrowing of the road, can you leave a little room between you and the riders ahead of you to give yourself a bit of a buffer? Is there a space between the riders next to you that you could steer into if need be? No amount of planning will prevent all falls, but with experience, you’ll learn to evaluate escape routes without consciously thinking about it.
#3: Stay Off the Brakes
Seems counterintuitive, I know, but braking causes sudden slowdowns and makes it more likely that someone will run into your back wheel. Grabbing a handful of brakes can also cause the wheel to lock up, and once your wheel is sliding you have very little control of your bike. Using the wind and the draft to control your speed can be a lot smoother. You move out of the draft a little, catch some more air resistance to slow down gradually, and then tuck back into the draft.
#4: Get Comfortable With Contact
Competitive cycling is a contact sport, and even non-competitive cyclists benefit from getting comfortable with rubbing shoulders, elbows, and handlebars. Keep a light but firm grasp on the bars and a comfortable bend in your elbows so you can absorb contact from the sides without it affecting your steering.
Practice during group rides or even just when riding with one of your friends. Ride side by side and lean on each other, use your elbow to protect your space and move the rider away from you. Resist the urge to take your hands off the bars to move someone over. It’s tempting to do that, and we see pros do it all the time, but the risk factor is high. If you make contact with another rider when you have only one hand on the bars it’s harder to control your own steering, and if you hit a pothole you’re less likely to be able to maintain control of your bike.
#5: Don’t Overlap Wheels
Many crashes are the result of one rider’s front wheel overlapping the rear wheel of the rider ahead of them. If you’re drifting left (or the rider ahead of you is drifting right) and your wheels make contact, your momentum and weight are going left but you can’t follow because your wheel is hung up. This is a very difficult position to recover from. It’s possible, but difficult. To recover you can try steering into the rider’s wheel while you shift your weight the opposite direction, so that you can then pull off the wheel and stay upright. It rarely works, though, so the best option is not to get into that situation in the first place.
#6: Learn Who Is Safe and Who Is not
Even at the pro level, there are riders who are known for being safe wheels to follow and others who are known to be more accident prone. The same is true for your local group ride or local criterium. You won’t always know everyone you’re riding with, but observe how people are riding and the decisions they’re making and you’ll quickly recognize riders who continually put themselves and the riders around them at heightened risk.
In a race, avoid those people. In a group ride, try to help them develop their pack-riding skills rather than shunning them or discouraging them from riding with the group. Riding with a group is a learned skill and as a community it’s our responsibility to teach newcomers good habits.
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#7: Take the Inside Line
When you have a choice taking the inside line in a corner is generally less risky than cornering on the outside, at least in terms of the riders around you. If someone hits the deck in a corner they slide toward the outside and take out riders like bowling pins. If you’re on the inside you have more control over your own fate; you still have to be skilled enough to stay upright yourself, but with no one or fewer riders inside of you there’s less risk of someone taking you out.
Also, keep in mind that a crash in a corner almost always creates a space to the inside of the crash where following riders can make it through safely. So, going back to the idea of having an exit strategy, if you see a crash developing in front of you, look to the inside as your most probable escape route.
I wish I could say that the peloton is a safer place than it was 30 years ago, but I don’t think it is. There are more cars and motorbikes in the caravan, more obstructions in the roadway, and the average fitness level of the riders is greater. In my day, I believe there was a greater difference between the top riders and the domestiques, and that led to a kind of hierarchy. Now everyone is so incredibly strong that all riders have the ability to fight for position at the front, despite the fact that there’s no more room at the front than there was back then, and in some places there’s far less. The greater strength across the whole of the peloton means higher speeds as well, all day long. With more aggressive racing, higher speeds, more vehicles, and more “traffic furniture,” I don’t think it’s a surprise that there are so many crashes in modern pro cycling.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS