Sunday, May 13, 2007

How To - Group Riding Mentality

I wish I could race all the time, getting dropped notwithstanding.

But if I can't, at least I can work on racing while I'm training.

Sometimes that means I end up sprinting with the boys - Gert, Daniele, Eric, Grahame, and Robbie, with the big lead out from GMF. And it's a lot of fun, I have to say.

Other times my riding is truly on my own. Not even the imaginary racers to shelter me from the wind.

But, even on those rides, I keep my group riding mentality handy. This means riding as if there were people around me, even if there are none. It means cornering while holding my virtual lane, even if there are no other riders in the other virtual lanes.

It means pushing a bit when I want to ease because I know that, on certain sections of road, this is where the group would naturally accelerate. Coincidentally it's probably where I want to slow, so I push to stay with the imaginary field slowly streaming past me.

And it means holding my line on the straights. It means moving off my line ever so slightly to avoid a wheel chomping pothole. Or not to move at all - in a group, it's absolute recklessness to swerve around potholes. If I have to go over the pothole, I have to bunny hop it. If it's not bad, I just unweight the wheels.

I don't do this to torture my wheels, although sometimes I've been accused of just that.

I do it because I want to better myself as a racer.

When I'm actually racing, it feels the same as when I train. I don't have to adjust how I ride because I always ride like I do in the group. I disagree with the philosophy that when you're riding on your own you follow different rules than when you're riding in a group. At some point somewhere, something unexpected will happen in a group ride (or race) and you'll react instinctively. Since much of your riding is done solo (or in small groups), you'll probably react as if you're riding solo. And you'll end up taking out people. If you always ride as if there are people around you, your reactions will be a bit different.

And it might help keep you upright.

In one race I did a guy crashed pretty hard and wrecked a nice Zipp wheel as well as a host of other parts on his bike. Normally you'd feel a bit bad for someone who just racked up $1500 or $2000 in broken bike parts.

Not this time.

I felt no sympathy for him because he was totally immersed in a single rider mentality while in the field. He swerved around everything that might damage his precious wheels, causing others to swerve or brake needlessly and dangerously. He recklessly swerved to get onto wheels, disregarding the riders he almost took out each time he did it. Others yelled at him - and he ignored them. Repeatedly.

It's one thing to move over six inches to skim past a pothole or a manhole. It's another to move over three feet to go around someone without even a glance to check if it's clear. I personally watched this guy move from the right curb over about six feet - three "lanes" of riders" - without a glance. This in the middle of a reasonably packed field in a criterium.

I was simply astounded by the lack of concern displayed by this racer for others.

That racer's fairy godmother was a busy fairy during that race.

Her wand and the other racers' skill (probably not in that order) kept everyone upright. It helped that the field was a bit spread out as it seemed to be a less critical phase of the race. But it didn't keep mouths shut - I heard from more than a few guys to "watch out for that guy".

On the bell lap of the race, the field did get scrunched up as everyone sliced and diced to get good position. And finally, on that last lap, the racer's fairy godmother gave up on him and turned her head away. He crashed, crunching some nice carbon tidbits in the process.

Alone, I might add.

Which, after everything everyone went through, seems appropriate.

When you ride in a group (i.e. a race or a very fast group ride), it's your responsibility to be a part of that group. You can't expect everyone to accommodate your every whim. The group exists because of its individual components. And in a related idea, the group will do everything it can to eject a non-cooperative element.

There are certain rules you need to follow. I list three for your consumption.

1. You must yield to anyone violating your comfort space.

The corollary is that you should not violate, beyond a reasonable amount, another racer's comfort space.

The space may vary from 3 or 4 feet to actual contact, but whatever that space is, you will need to keep that space clear.

For most racers, any unusual pressure on the bars or front wheel will cause them to crash.

Therefore the space encompasses your handlebars and front wheel. Less experienced racers will include their elbows, arms, shoulders in this list. Some racers will feel it's acceptable to touch bars. Others the front wheel. But you should never assume this is the case.

For Cat 3's, I figure a foot is pretty roomy. For me the space is probably measured in 1-2 inches (bars), zero inches (wheel - I've hit things like cassettes and pedals and skewers without a problem), and contact for shoulders and arms.

So keep clear of the other racers' bar and front wheel. If you learn to reduce your comfort space to a foot or less, you'll increase exponentially the number of places you feel comfortable in the field.

2. Do not swerve off your line.

I say this authoritatively but you can move a little off your line without too much trouble - a foot is probably max in most field conditions. Under the right circumstances perhaps more, but that is only if you've checked and cleared your path first. You can do this by looking down momentarily - you'll see who's around your rear wheel. The rear wheel is usually what will take out other racers, so if it's clear, you can move.

I did a group ride where one of the leaders insisted on swerving out three or four feet each time he wanted to make a move. He never "checked his six" and everyone grumbled every time he did it. But he was a leader and therefore somewhat immune to criticism. I never did the ride again.

Swerving off your line, whether to avoid a pothole or to jump on a nice wheel, endangers the riders behind you. It's the signature of a self-centered racer, one you don't want to race with or ride behind. Don't do it.

3. Hold your line in curves.

There are all sorts of "How-To's" on cornering with nice diagrams of the best line, the fastest line, the shortest line, the whatever line, through a turn. Read them. Study them. Memorize them.

And throw them out.

Unless you're the first or second racer through a turn, you do not have the right to choose your line. The field determines the line. By slotting in behind others, you have yielded the line choice to them. If the guy in front of you is trying to commit suicide with his line choice, okay, correct it, but otherwise you really have to follow what they're doing. This especially applies to maneuvers that end other racer's lines - like cutting in so hard you cut off the guys inside. Or swinging so wide the racers to your outside end up tumbling over the curb.

I'm sure there are other rules but these will hit the main points. They'll help make you a better racer, a racer with whom others enjoy riding, and basically make life on the bike a lot more pleasant.

Wait, you ask. What about all the fun slicing and dicing?

It doesn't go away. You can still slice and dice. Just do it with a more comprehensive mindset, one that takes into account more than just, "Can I get that spot?" There's nothing about moving into a spot that doesn't violate anyone's comfort space, nothing about being one of the first to go through a turn, or anything about not jumping clear of a dormant field.

What about if you need to adjust your line in the middle of a turn?

If you're flying through a nice corner and you realize that the guys in front took the wrong line, adjust your line gradually. Usually it means turning in later since most racers turn in too early. This means you'll be giving more room to your inside and the guys on the outside will be fine if you did your line calculations right - in fact, they'll be sling-shotted ahead at the exit. Do not swerve out three feet to set up for what you think is the "better line".

The racers that do that? They probably don't even know the "better line".

Okay, what about when someone is squeezing up the outside and it's sort of critical you hold your position?

If you want to shut the door on someone, it doesn't mean you move in on them three feet (if you have that much room, you really don't have a choice in shutting the door - pick your position better next time). It means you move in just enough so there's about 20 cm of pavement left to use - just a little less than what a racer needs to sneak through a handlebar, but enough (this is critical) for the racer to stay upright long enough to back out of his now-useless position. If you move over the extra 20 cm to the curb, you've now cut off his wheel, tire, and potentially just ruined the guy's next eight weeks of racing, not just his attempt to move up a bike length. Giving him the 20 cm gives him time to reflect on his boxed-in status, ease up, and back off.

I think you get the idea. You can still race elbow to elbow, shut the door on someone, slice and dice, but you're doing it safely.

And you know what the best part is?

You can practice all of this while you ride on your own.

In fact, I recommend you do it every time you ride, the whole time you ride.

You should ride as if you're 50 riders back in a 200 rider field. Every time you move up 10 spots, 10 riders moved up elsewhere. So the whole time, every turn, every straightaway, there are riders all around you.

Think about what you do differently. Think about how far ahead you look for road hazards. For traffic lights. For corners. Think about where on the road you ride. You want to keep the right side shut down? Well, you better not stray more than a foot or so away from that curb. You want to practice making a move up the side? Learn to ride so close to the curb that you sometimes have to time your pedal strokes so the downstrokes coincide with a driveway cutout.

It's a whole different ballgame. And if you get into, and stay in, this group riding mindset, you can only be a better rider.

There is nothing about a group riding approach which will slow down a solo rider. In fact, the added buffers, the increased attention, they'll all make you a better rider.

And a better racer.

We all race for fun. Well I do anyway. And although I'll fight really, really hard to keep my position, I'll never endanger someone doing so.

That's not what racing is about.


jay robbins said...

nice writeup

Anonymous said...

This type of info - from an experienced racer - is absolutely priceless for us newer racers. We want to get better and be better doing it, but all too often these types of rules remain unwritten. If you don't have a good mentor, you're in the dark. And run the risk of ticking off people unknowingly and you try to learn all the etiquette. Thanks for another great, and especially informative, post.