7 Keys to Take Your Group Ride from Good to Great


We’re in the home stretch of the 2015 Amgen Tour of California Race Experience and I am incredibly proud of the athletes and staff we have at this event. The course this year has been difficult. The first five stages were each quite long (100-125 miles) and featured lots of wind, and on Stage 5 we also rode through a lot of rain. (Scroll down to see video highlights from Stages 1-5) CTS has been hosting the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience for 5 years and one of the reasons we continue to be successful and deliver an awesome experience for athletes is that we keep our groups together. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but here’s why it’s important and how you can keep your own group rides together.

Together is faster

In almost any group there is a pretty wide variety of fitness levels and it seems logical that slower riders in the group would slow the whole group down. But when you have a lot of miles to cover and you want to finish together you have to realize that dropping the slower riders and then waiting for them leads to a much longer day overall. Not only do the faster riders spend more time standing around, but also the slower riders spend more time fighting in the wind trying to catch up. That depletes their strength even further, which means they’ll get dropped more often as the ride goes on. The most efficient way to get a varied group through a long ride is to keep everyone together and moving at a steadier pace. Here’s how you do it:

Keep it steady on the front:
Have stronger riders take longer pulls at the front of the group and keep the pace steady. Accelerations hasten fatigue and cause gaps to open at the back of the group.

Pace the hills based on the group’s median strength:
The strongest riders who are taking long pulls shouldn’t climb at their fastest sustainable pace, but rather at the pace the folks in the middle of the group can sustain. It will still be a challenging pace for the weaker or more tired riders, but it will be a more manageable intensity level for everyone.

Marshal the back of the group:
Often a rider will get gapped off the back of the group on a climb or in a windy area and dangle just a few seconds behind the group for a few minutes before completely losing contact. Soft pedaling at the front for a few seconds is all it takes to get that person back into the draft, and then the whole group can proceed without losing much time at all. But first you have to be aware that someone is losing contact with the group! Either the rider who is coming off needs to speak up, or you need to have a stronger rider sweeping the back of the group to help those in need. A 5-second push toward the top of a hill can help a rider stay with the group for another 30 minutes, whereas letting that person drop off completely can cost the whole group 10 minutes of waiting around later.

There is always strength in numbers

This year at the Tour of California there were a lot of groups riding one or more stage of the event, but it was hard to tell that riders were together because their groups were shattered into twos and threes. When you ride that way every rider gets more tired than necessary, which makes it even harder to keep your group together later in the day or the following day. Splitting up into a bunch of twosomes and threesomes means each group contains fewer riders to share the work and individual riders get less of a break between pulls. In contrast, keeping the bigger group together allows strong riders to get more recovery between pulls and that means they can continue to take strong and steady pulls that help everyone. There’s still time to have great fun charging up KOM climbs, but in events like the Tour of California there are long stretches of flat valley roads between the climbs and regrouping to get through those areas together benefits everyone.

Be smart in the wind

The wind can tear your group apart or bring it closer together, and I saw a lot of groups this week that rode really poorly in the wind. If your goal is to keep a group together when it’s windy, here’s what you have to know:

Tailwinds are hard on everybody:
We all love a strong tailwind, but when you ramp up the speed at the front you have to realize that the riders in the middle and back of the group also have to ride at an increased power output. This is especially true on false flats and rolling hills with a tailwind. Yes, there’s a draft to ride in, but it doesn’t provide as much energy-saving recovery as you get drafting in a headwind or calm conditions. Tailwinds are also hot because you’re riding closer to the speed of the wind so it’s not cooling you off as quickly.

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Keep it tight in a headwind:
Headwinds make it easier for riders at the back to stay in contact with the group because the riders at the front have to work hard and yet are still going relatively slow, so it’s somewhat easier for the riders in the draft to produce the power necessary to stay on the wheel. But the group has to stay tight, meaning each rider has to be very conscious of staying in the draft and not catching excess wind.

Set up multiple echelons in crosswinds:
In a bike race you can use a crosswind to tear the peloton apart. You line up diagonally across the lane, with the leading rider on the side the wind is coming from. Only a certain number of riders will fit in this diagonal paceline, leaving everyone behind the echelon to fight for a nonexistent draft in the gutter or on the yellow line. When you want to keep your group together, however, the smartest thing to do is quickly set up multiple echelons so no one is stuck in the gutter. When you turn left or right everyone can coalesce into one big group again.

The trouble is, many cyclists are conditioned to think about echelons as a means of splitting a group, so everyone wants to be in the front echelon. Jockeying for position delays the establishment of a second and possibly third echelon, by which time gaps open up and the whole group is scattered. Three echelons riding one right after the other at a steady pace gets everyone through the crosswind section efficiently and then you can return to a two-by-two paceline and continue on without waiting once you turn into a headwind or tailwind.

Above all, the biggest benefit to sticking together as a group is the sense of accomplishment everyone experiences at the end. At the Tour of California it’s all hugs and high-fives at the finish because everyone knows it was a team effort to arrive together. Athletes helping each other and riding for each other is a big part of the bond cyclists develop with each other. Even CTS Athlete and Tour of California stage winner (he wore the yellow jersey for two days as well) Toms Skujins agrees. In this video from the night before the Stage 6 time trial he talks about forging bonds with his Hincapie Racing Team teammates and how important that is when you’re asking teammates to bury themselves for you as a team leader.



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