Positioning Yourself in the Peloton
March 16, 2011 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Bicycle racing requires strategy and skill as well as strength and endurance to keep up pace with the peloton. This article from Cycling Tips breaks down basic techniques to gain and keep position in the pack.
posted by Slap*Happy (30 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I only let somebody in front of me if A. They are on my team, or B if they look crazier than me. Asking is usually a waste of breath.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:19 PM on March 16, 2011

In my experience the article is describing riding, or getting in on, a pace line, which is different, and less treacherous really, than staying upright and not being a wobbly nuisance in the peloton, or pack.

And yes, you better be quite a bit faster than me if you want to cut in. Most pace lines, as illustrated in the article, are not for jockeying for position. That's happens when someone presses, or breaks away from the front. Then the line falls apart and reforms later, after all the silliness has subsided.

I love riding with a bunch of guys who are committed to keeping a steady, fast pace, and who agree to cycle through the lead about every 30 seconds. Then, you, can, move! And you don't speed up when you get to the front (unless you're intending to break the line). You fall off, and work a bit to catch the back guy's wheel - then it's into a bigger gear and wait for the next pull.

It's finally melting up here. Oh I need to get on my road wheels!
posted by kneecapped at 8:28 PM on March 16, 2011

I'm definitely using these techniques on my commute tomorrow. It gets pretty competitive on the 9th street bike lane.
posted by Drab_Parts at 8:54 PM on March 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

The portion of my commute along a a shared bike/pedestrian path has its very own etiquette of hand signals when a group of commuters spontaneously forms - like - left hand behind back, finger pointing right: watch out, I'm about to overtake something (usually a pedestrian). Or - low wave of right hand back to front: please pass, I'm slowing down. (we ride on the left side of the road here). All very friendly. Never seen these signals before or since when commuting or in a group ride - only on that stretch of path. I somehow can't imagine that level of courtesy ever extending to a pace line...
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 9:19 PM on March 16, 2011

Ok, the illustrations were throwing me off I think. He needs more little guy-on-bike figurines to illustrate the techniques. Reading it without looking at the pictures, most of the advice is applicable when you have a decent sized pack riding at least, say, 3 abreast. That's when you might want to slip up closer to the front of the pack, and the easiest option would be to come up one side and try to integrate yourself into the slipstream one way or another.

If it were a true single rotating paceline as I read it at first, you just come up at the back and naturally rotate yourself in, no antics necessary. If somebody has the hammer down and has stretched the pack out single-file, then you might need to cut in if you got caught out or you want to skip someone who is leaving a gap (of course in the latter case, since they are already leaving a gap, you're in easy anyway and they'll probably appreciate you closing the gap for them...).

And if the finish is coming up, be prepared to get the cold shoulder (or elbow) on any move you make...
posted by inparticularity at 9:51 PM on March 16, 2011

Just a note: If any of you try this on me during our commute to work tomorrow morning, you'd best be prepared for U-lock justice.
posted by Panjandrum at 10:43 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

What's fun is watching these kinds of strategies play out in mass start speed skating races when people have 18" knives on their feet. 2011 Asian Games, 35 laps/14000m/almost 9 mile race: short version and long version if you want to see how the mental games played out earlier in the race.
posted by BlooPen at 11:01 PM on March 16, 2011

The Rider by Tim Krabbe is an great fictional account of a bike race - though Krabbe was a serious amateur racer so there's a pretty high degree of verisimilitude.
posted by johnny novak at 11:13 PM on March 16, 2011

This kind of thing has always turned me off bike racing. I like racing better when it's an athletic competition and less when it's about who is willing to take the most risks. Riding in a peloton has always and continues to seem like an incredibly bad idea to me - I guess the violent group crashes probably make it more fun to watch, but it doesn't inspire me to participate.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:55 AM on March 17, 2011

Replace bike with car and this describes exactly how to drive in Kuala Lumpur:
"The widest part of your bike is the handlebars car are the wing mirrors. As long as your handlebars wing mirrors are in front of someone else’s, you can create a gap and inch yourself into the line."
posted by niceness at 2:59 AM on March 17, 2011

Funny, I didn't see the step where you fill yourself with obscure hormones and inject your own blood back into yourself.

Interesting though, thanks for posting.
posted by nevercalm at 3:21 AM on March 17, 2011

Respect is important in cycling and it develops very quickly in a road race or criterium - though, in most cases, riders know each other well enough that a pecking order is already established. If one is strong, smooth and polite other teams will make space for you and if you are racing independently (as I often did), this could give you a chance to steal a win - certainly some primes. If you are having to read the linked blog post to figure out riding in a fast pack than you are in trouble.
posted by rotifer at 6:21 AM on March 17, 2011

The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Peloton.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 7:20 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

This kind of thing has always turned me off bike racing. I like racing better when it's an athletic competition and less when it's about who is willing to take the most risks.

The things described in the article really aren't risks. They're just ways of swimming in the sea, as it were.

Risks are dashing across lines in a sprint to grab a fresh wheel at 40mph, chopping rivals in corners in a criterium at 34mph, and pushing limits when you're descending at 55mph.
posted by entropone at 7:27 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

entropone: This kind of thing has always turned me off bike racing. I like racing better when it's an athletic competition and less when it's about who is willing to take the most risks.

What you're looking for is time trialling.
posted by afx237vi at 7:37 AM on March 17, 2011

^ Sorry, that should be directed to Mitrovarr.
posted by afx237vi at 7:39 AM on March 17, 2011

I bartend one of the hospitality suites at the daily finish line on the Tour of California, and what I've learned about bike racing is:

-Echelon (i.e. the group that has fallen back from the peloton) is archaic French for "lazy ass".

-Super Domestique means "I've got no chance of winning personally, so I'm gonna load up on snacks and drinks to hand out to my team-mates who could pull it off".

-How anyone gave a shit about this stuff before the invention of GPS tracking a motorcycle-mounted camera crews is beyond me. Because that 18 seconds worth of bikes speeding past your spot on the road is... about 18 seconds long.

-I am really, REALLY not the shoes-that-go-click or spandex-Easter-egg-outfit kind of rider. Us utility bikers are a completely other tribe. But whether racing or commuting, whether its club jerseys or grocery panniers, we stand roll united against the despised cagers.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:05 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pirate-etc, I have to pick some hairs. An echelon isn't a group that's fallen back. An echelon is a group arranged diagonally in order to shelter in a crosswind. And superdomestiques don't work hard during a race because they have no chance of winning - rather, they have no chance of winning because they work hard. They chase down attacking riders, they fall back to the car to get water bottles and foods, they set the pace at the front of the group, et cetera. These efforts add up in races that can be up to 7 hours long. A team of 9 people may only have 2 or at most 3 who plan to contend the finish; and if somebody plans to contend the finish, they must expend as little energy as possible until the right time.

[Side not: a book called "A Dog in a Hat," by Joe Parkin, is an excellent, nonfictional account of a working-class professional bike racer, a domestique in Europe in the late 80s and early 90s]

Good question about how people have a shit before televised racing. I think it had a lot to do with the regional pride of various groups of people in Europe, and the fact that it got popular because bike races were organized in order to generate interest so that people could sell newspapers. And because in Belgium, for example, races were and still are held in loops and in conjunction with local festivals, so you could go out, watch people whiz by for a hot minute, then go into the bar, grab a beer and some greasy-ass frites, and then go out and watch them whiz by again. Repeat ad nauseum (literally, considering the quantity of beer and the greasy frites).
posted by entropone at 8:15 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm an avid cyclist, but the thought of actually racing just takes the fun out of it for me.
posted by Doohickie at 8:25 AM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pirate-etc, I have to pick some hairs...

Fair enough. I did learn what I learned from the inside of a white tent, behind a bucket of iced beer and sodas, decorated with jelly beans in the corporate sponsor's heraldic colors. But try asking one of those racers the difference between a Gibson and a Dirty Martini. ;-)

Still ain't doin' the shoes-that-go-click.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:36 AM on March 17, 2011

"echelon" actually means a diagonal paceline that forms in a crosswind, kind of looks like a weather vane. This is where some of the really obscure bits of knowing how to position yourself are handy to learn. Otherwise you risk getting "guttered"; i.e. shut out on the edge of the road in the wind. In a strong crosswind, a gutter-to-gutter echelon is a really fragile thing; it only takes a couple strong riders (usually teammates) working together to attack the line (by accelerating past it then switching over to the leeward side of the road so that no one can draft behind them) to shred it into tiny bits. This is simply one of several hundreds of tactics I've encountered or enacted in my years of racing.

the term you are actually describing there is "autobus" or "laughing group". i.e. the group of domestiques / sprinters and off-form guys who've thrown in the towel and are riding just. fast. enough. to make the time cut.

also, knowing how to position yourself in the field makes you a safer rider to be around. It's not, as many rookies think, in any way involved with being an aggressive jackass. Trust me, this is the last thing you want to do, because it doesn't take much jackassery to start the entire field riding against you, and trust me, you do NOT want that.

Beginner / Cat 4 racing aside (that's where clueless aggression typically causes scenarios like the ones above; i.e. cutting the line, etc...) - if you're a solid, steady rider who knows how to take your place in line, you can pretty much move through the field at will and never put anyone at risk, and you will be a very well respected rider. If you're strong, skilled and tactical, you will often get tagged to ride in collusion with strong riders from other teams when breaks form, etcetera. It's kind of a gentlemen's agreement to cooperate for the bulk of the hard work, then at some point during the final 5-10K (or whatever) you shake hands and agree that all bets are off.

I am a coach, and have over 20 years' worth of racing experience. I am also a 125-pound woman. I can race with the senior men Cat 4/5 (beginner amateurs), take pretty much any slot I want, and can see crashes coming a mile away. All you have to do is move up on these guys; they're ususally so leery of contact they'll just yield, and they tend to telegraph their actions loudly if you are skilled at reading a field. Those who don't yield easily typically have bad enough handling skills that they leave giant gaps wide enough to drive a truck through during corners / accelerations, etc...

The higher you go in the experience ranks, the harder it is to just have your way in the field. I have, however, placed top 5 in a men's Cat 3 keirin simply from having the skills to maintain my hole spot on the derny, despite several laps of shoulder-bumping from a couple guys who wanted to push me off it.

If you really want the fast track (heh) to knowing how to handle a bike in a group, race on the velodrome.

A field of pro riders operates much like a school of fish or a flock of birds. They can generally anticipate situations occurring like bends, road furniture, and react fluidly to avoid them. There's always exceptions of course, but typically they happen because someone was distracted for a half a second. It takes a decent amount of focus and concentration to ride shoulder to shoulder in a pack at 30mph, but if you put the time in to really learn how to do it correctly, it's tremendously rewarding.

Summary: Unless you've raced Cat 2 or higher (US amateur designations) then you may not appreciate many of the subtleties of technique and skill in pack dynamics.

/decent criterium racer
posted by lonefrontranger at 8:39 AM on March 17, 2011 [14 favorites]

^and, apparently, damn decent keirin racer, too.
posted by entropone at 10:04 AM on March 17, 2011

heh, entropone, more like "wily old master's racer". They didn't have a women's event that day, and I know there's no way in hell I have either the speed or the power to out-gun a bunch of young dudes in a straight up drag race. That isn't the first time (or the dozenth, either) I had to use brains and skill to override the lack of a Y chromosome. Basically I used what speed I do have to get the hole shot off the line, then just would not let them push me off the derny (that's actually a bit easier than it sounds; you simply need to maintain control of the situation; it takes a LOT of focus but it's not impossible). And as long as I retained the catbird seat, I was doing probably 50w less work than anyone else on the line, so I could save my legs for the sprint. Also: psychology FTW. I knew some of the dudes in that field just would not take getting "chicked" on the derny kindly, and would waste a ton of effort hanging out in the wind, trying to bump me out.

that's what I mean about a lot of subtlety. And that's just barely scratching the surface, really.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:16 AM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I hear ya - I'm a track, road, and cxer myself. I have to compensate for being tiny and having very little power by hiding, hiding, hiding and riding smart: letting people waste energy when they think it's benefiting them.
posted by entropone at 10:50 AM on March 17, 2011

The essay makes good points but I think some people are thrown off by the fact that he had only a handful of model cyclists to set up to illustrate the point. At a glance it appears that he is describing a pace line because there are so few objects, but the concepts are applicable to riding in a group 6 abreast among 70 or people.

I used to race and it is an absolute rush. It is a world of pain different from club rides but it is addictive. Knowing how to move within the pack and assume position is part of safe racing.
posted by dgran at 12:43 PM on March 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh my god too much thinking. I could never race. I get freaked out being in the middle of informal pacelines with my weekend ride friends.
posted by everichon at 3:31 PM on March 17, 2011

everichon, I understand. And those of us who enjoy racing appreciate your honesty. There have been numerous days I fervently wished there were fewer nervous guys/gals in the field, quite frankly.

To quote some cheezy karate flick or self-help book or whatever: "the only way through is forward". Fear of contact, fear of group riding and fear of crashing is very normal, especially for inexperienced riders. Screwing up in a group typically has immediate and painful consequences; i.e. you crash. And crashing hurts; it sucks, and it's hard on skin and equipment. Occasionally you break bones, and occasionally (but vanishingly rarely, actually) you get seriously hurt.

Now this next bit may sound pretty damn cavalier and cold blooded to this audience, but I often find that one of the better things that can happen for a fearful student is to "get it over with"; in the sense that the idea of crashing is generally far worse than the actual reality of crashing. Because the grand majority of crashes that happen at bike races, even on pavement -- yes, you get skinned up, yes, you shred your expensive teamkit, and probably ding up your bike. And that's it. And after the dust settles and the scabs peel off, you realise that falling down, even on pavement, even at 25+ mph, isn't the end of the world.

Bike racing is absolutely a risky sport, and I'm not representing it any differently. However, understanding and managing risk is one of the skills that's becoming harder and harder to teach in modern society, because everyone is so overly fearful of what I call the "outlier" statistics. These days, everyone knows a guy who knows a guy who got really messed up or even died racing their bike. I personally have direct experience with 2 fatalities that occurred in amateur bike racing since I began racing in 1988. Yes 2, in the course of 23 years and 2 continents and 11 states, and averaging 50-60 events per year. And that includes alleycats (messenger races) where there are essentially no rules or safety considerations.

So I feel confident in making the claim that it is far more dangerous to get into your car and commute to work and back every day than it is to race a bicycle. But driving a car is familiar territory, and we manage that risk by simple act of daily familiarisation. Bike racing? Scary unfamiliar territory. Understanding of statistics and risk factors? We're basically terrible at it as a species, if you ask me.

And see, this revelation that crashing usually isn't the end of the world, is generally a giant step forward for the rider's progress towards relaxing and learning how to go with the flow. It's difficult, actually really next to impossible to explain, but racing road bikes in a close group is a very zen experience. There's no way to force the flow, you either get it or you don't. Being tense only makes you squirrelly and fearful, which is a negative feedback loop that will simply land you in more bad panic loops and more crashes.

It takes a certain personality to understand this, know the risk, and move forward all the same. It's not for everyone. But for those of us who do enjoy it, it's endlessly rewarding.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:17 AM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

the idea of crashing is generally far worse than the actual reality of crashing


I've crashed a dozen times, some of them in races and nearly all the time you just walk away from it sore. Over half the time I resumed the race. Crashing is a risk, but not nearly as big of one as people might think.
posted by dgran at 1:32 PM on March 18, 2011

"echelon" actually means a diagonal paceline that forms in a crosswind, kind of looks like a weather vane... the term you are actually describing there is "autobus" or "laughing group". i.e. the group of domestiques / sprinters and off-form guys who've thrown in the towel and are riding just. fast. enough. to make the time cut.

I'm guessing then that the Lantern Rouge is not the bicyclist at the very end of the pack traditionally in charge of wrangling up prostitutes for that night's stop over in the local finish line town, right?

You learn something new every day. Some days, you learn that what you learned on some of those earlier days is less than reliable.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:14 PM on March 22, 2011

lanterne rouge is the last-placed guy on GC in a stage race. the autobus / laughing group is different.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:36 PM on March 22, 2011

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