Friday, 20 May 2016

Group Riding Techniques


The purpose of this article is to address the issues I have encountered in respect of safe and effective group riding methods, especially on my local chaingang. The format of local clubs and mentoring by older riders which used to teach these methods has become diluted by a more general path of entry into the sport, for instance via triathlon, which although good for the future of the sport in terms of numbers, has often contributed to a 'free-for-all' in terms of group riding.

There are a number of group riding methods, whose use depends on the nature of the training in question - from 'club runs’ to 'chaingangs' - which vary according to wind conditions and the number of riders present in the group. I will split these into two categories:

TECHNIQUES: These are methods for intensive training for racing (e.g. on the 'chaingang') and racing itself
FORMATIONS: These are more static group riding methods for general training and 'café run' rides.

It has long been recognised that a cyclist moving along the road creates a void or 'pocket' of less dense air behind them by pushing the air in front of them out of the way so that it diverts either side. Another rider sitting in this 'pocket' therefore uses much less energy than the rider in front. This slipstreaming effect is increased if a greater amount of riders are together in a pack. The location of this 'pocket' will vary depending on the direction of the wind and the effect of the pocket (the relative energy saving for the following rider) will be more marked with an increase in speed. It is the slipstreaming effect which is used in cycle racing and training, to share both the workload of wind resistance and the shelter from the wind which the slipstream provides.


This method is the basic group technique adopted by a 'breakaway' group in a race situation where riders form a temporary alliance. This is the method which is most commonly practiced on the local 'chaingang'. Usually involving at least 5 individuals, it works by creating a constantly rotating 'chain' of riders, sharing the wind workload and the shelter provided by the other riders. It is fast moving and relatively intensive, but the speed is higher in return for a greater input of energy than other methods.

How it Works:
From a start, for instance a fixed point on the road recognised as the beginning of the training ride, or after a wait at traffic lights, the lead rider brings the group up to speed with all riders following. Once a 'race' speed has been reached, the lead rider gently pulls over and eases off the pedals, allowing the following rider to 'tap' through at the same speed, to begin the rotating of the chain. As the 2nd rider passes the first, he also peels over and eases off so that the third rider can come through and so on. This rotation creates 2 lines of riders, one moving towards the front, the other (relatively) towards the back. When a rider reaches the back of the rotating chain, they must make a small adjustment in speed while moving over to join the back of the forward moving paceline of riders. Speed should be consistent and changes smooth within the chain, and riders peeling off at the front should do so in a manner that will place their rear wheel just ahead of the front wheel of the rider who peeled off beforehand.

In the U.K., this method is generally practiced in an anti-clockwise direction - i.e. the forward moving line on the right, while the line of riders who have eased off or 'soft-tapped' is on the left (inside). This is because traffic drives on the left and overtakes on the right in the U.K. However in a race situation, the wind direction would be the deciding factor in the direction the chain rotates. If the wind was blowing from slightly to the front and left, the method would be anticlockwise as described above, but if from the front right, then the chain would rotate clockwise. This is so that the riders moving toward the front are protected from the wind, enabling them to pass the other line of riders at a slightly higher speed (for crosswinds, see TECHNIQUE: ECHELON below). If a straight headwind is encountered, then it doesn't actually matter which way the chain rotates, but it will generally be clockwise in European countries where the traffic drives on the right.

Common problems in Through and Off:
• Failing to 'Soft Tap' after peeling over, requiring the overtaking rider to accelerate to pass. This means the next rider has to go faster still and so on, causing an acceleration down the line until the chain 'breaks down'
• Accelerating when the 'wheel' you are on peels, thereby opening a gap and causing a chain-reaction of acceleration down the line. This can be dangerous as well as inefficient, since riders who sprint to close a gap which has opened may 'overcook' their effort and run into the rider in front of them
• Riders missing turns and no other rider filling the gap. This results in the chain 'breaking', whereupon the last rider is not passed by another and the rider preceding him must then pass again to try and restart the chain
• Riders generally riding too hard or erratically within the chain, disrupting consistent speed and smooth changes
• Failure to observe traffic lights and roundabouts and other road rules on chaingang rides

As all the above result in a breakdown of the chain and a disruption of the cohesion of the group, it is no surprise that riders will get discouraged and 'sit in' rather than taking part in the chain. It needs to be remembered that the chaingang is only a training ride and there are no prizes, so it should not be treated as an exercise in riding others 'off your wheel', but as a practice in riding in an organised pattern, so that it becomes second nature during a race, leaving a rider to give some attention to tactics to try and win. It should also be remembered that a training ride tends to attract a very wide range of riders in terms of experience and ability - which more capable riders should consider when deciding on the intensity of their efforts - whereas a race tends to create a natural selection in which riders of more equal ability will tend to be in a breakaway. In a race too, the same rules apply in terms of consistency of speed and smooth changes between riders in order to keep the chain cohesive and efficient.

This is the method used when the number of riders is small - usually 4 or less, where Through and Off would waste too much energy as the riders would be finding themselves on the front again before they had recovered from the previous effort.

How it Works:
The riders follow the leader in single file for a short period of time, determined by the lead rider who then will flick his elbow to signal the next rider, before peeling off and 'soft tapping' to the back of the line. The next rider will then 'tap' through at the same speed as his predecessor and stay in the lead for approximately the same amount of time before flicking his elbow and peeling over. This 'paceline' method can be observed in 'Team Time Trials' on major stage races, where teams race against the clock as a unit. The method allows a longer rest between turns on the front, thereby using the riders energy more effectively and reducing the wasted energy which would be incurred by the constant changes in position in Through and Off (from the backward moving line into the forward moving, and vice versa). Although this method tends not to generate as high a speed as Through and Off, it allows the riders to keep a high speed for a longer period. A group of four or even 3 might resort to Through and Off to raise the speed if near to the finish with chasers close behind. The Bit and Bit method can also be observed during for instance, a stage race when one or more teams are setting 'Tempo' on the front of the bunch in order to keep a breakaway from establishing too large a gap.


There are two basic variations on the above method.
1. The first can be observed during the period in a race where a number of riders are attempting to establish a breakaway, by making a brief but intensive effort to distance themselves from the main bunch of riders, wherein the lead rider will drive very hard, probably putting himself 'into the red' a little before peeling off and flicking his elbow to encourage the next rider to do the same and dropping to the back of the line of riders in order to recover for a few moments. Once a reasonable gap is established, the break will settle down to either steady Through and Off or Bit and Bit, depending on the number of riders, wind conditions and distance to the finish.

2. The second can be observed when teams with a sprinter are attempting to keep the pace very high in the final kilometres of a race, to prevent attackers jumping away before the 'gallop' begins in the last few hundred metres. Riders who have been given instructions to keep the pace at 'full gas' (or á bloc) will ride as hard as they can at the front of the paceline until they are about to 'blow', at which point they will peel off, usually dropping out of contention and riding in to the finish at an easy pace, job done.

Common problems in Bit and Bit:
• Accelerating past the leading rider instead of 'tapping' through at the same speed while the previous leader peels off and decelerates slightly. This usually creates a surge down the line, resulting in the former pacesetter struggling to 'jump' on the back of the line to pick up the pace again
• Overtaking before the leading rider has signalled and/or peeled off, resulting in the rest of the group having to 'ride around' the first rider to follow the new leader through. This often results in riders missing their turns
• Stronger riders driving too hard on the front resulting in the other riders struggling to maintain the pace when it is their turn and/or missing turns

This technique is related to wind direction and is a hybrid of both the Through and Off and Bit and Bit techniques. The technique is most commonly observed in Belgian Classics such as Gent Wevelgem or The Vuelta d'España, where strong crosswinds batter the Peloton on exposed flatlands. In the case of the wind coming from the left, the riders will fan out in a diagonal line from left to right, matching the direction of the wind. The line of riders will rotate towards the wind, with riders peeling off in the left hand gutter and dropping behind the line and moving diagonally along it to join back up on the right hand side. If the wind is coming from the right, then the Echelon will fan out in the other direction. When the road is full from gutter to gutter, other riders will struggle to maintain position in the gutter trailing behind in a 'tail', or preferably form another Echelon behind.

Echelon is difficult and less echelon-experienced riders who visit Belgium and other regions where strong crosswinds are common, can be caught out, as occurred in the 2009 Tour de France where most of the favourites were distanced by the Columbia Team, after finding themselves in the wrong half of a split that occurred when the road changed direction in strong winds during the latter half of the stage.


This is the most familiar and basic form of group riding, practiced by clubs and training groups worldwide. Riders new to group riding should become accustomed to this basic method before trying the advanced techniques detailed above, since even this method, which is second nature to any reasonably experienced road cyclist, is more difficult than it looks.

How it Works:
Riders simply form up into following pairs one alongside the other, which creates two static lines of riders moving at a steady speed. When the two leading riders have been at the front for some time, they peel off and drop to the back and the next pair take their turn. Pairs of riders should be parallel to each other and avoid braking suddenly or riding erratically. The group should stay in a tight formation for safety and ride in a relaxed but disciplined manner. It is important that traffic hazards ahead, such as potholes or parked cars are signalled or called out in the group, and also any cars overtaking on narrower roads. Any changes in road direction or delays at junctions should also be communicated clearly. On occasion it may be necessary for the group to ‘single out’ - that is move into single file on narrow busy roads with double white lines for instance. At all times the group needs to be aware of traffic and individual riders should consider the other riders in the group when making decisions at junctions and roundabouts.

Common problems in 2 Astride:
• Failing to ride parallel thereby causing the pairs behind to stagger awkwardly
• Not riding on the wheel in front correctly - either too close or not close enough
• Panic braking and causing a crash or ‘scattering’ of the group
• Failing to shout or point out hazards
• ‘Halfwheeling’ (one rider pushing harder than the other rider wants to or is capable of)
• Front riders setting a pace too fast for some riders in the group or the conditions

This is the same as 2 Astride except that at intervals decided by either the leading riders at the time, or more efficiently a timekeeper, the outside rider - that is the leading right hand rider moves in front of the leading left hand rider and is replaced in his former position by the next rider in the outside (right hand) line. The whole right hand line moves forward to fill the gap and the last rider in the left hand line moves over to join the right hand line. This method can be used on any training ride but is particularly useful for intensive early season training rides when riders are attempting to improve their fitness for racing or sportifs. If the group is ‘captained’ the time period between changes can be constant - e.g. 5 minutes, which would mean that each rider would spend 5 minutes on the right then 5 minutes on the left at the front of the group. The advantage of this method is that every rider should get several turns on the front during a training ride.

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