By Fred Matheny
Q:I’m pretty new to road cycling and love it, but I’m still a bit afraid of riding in a group. The other day a guy got too close and bumped into me. I swerved and nearly crashed. Is there a way to handle contact so I can enjoy group rides? — Bobby D.
A: Riding in close proximity to others can be intimidating, but if you learn several simple skills you will gain confidence and enjoy those group rides more. Here are 5 tips:
Anticipate. The best way to handle contact in a bunch is to avoid it in the first place. Look ahead, scan the group and anticipate riders encroaching into your space. Be especially vigilant for squirrelly bike handlers whose wavering lines and tentative body language mark danger. Move in the pack to avoid them.
Relax. If your elbows are locked and muscles are rigid, any bump to your arms or shoulders goes directly to the handlebar and front wheel, causing you to veer and possibly crash. But if your upper body is loose and relaxed, it can absorb sideways hits without affecting your steering. Think of the bike rolling steadily ahead while your arms act as shock absorbers.
Protect your front wheel and handlebar. Your rear wheel can take a pretty good knock before it endangers your control. Not so your front wheel or handlebar. Even slight contact can make you fall immediately. So consider the front of your bike sacred territory. Imagine a bubble surrounding it. You goal is to keep others from entering in a way that puts you at risk. Again, anticipation is key.
Use your shoulders and arms. How exactly do you protect your front wheel and handlebar? With your shoulders, elbows and upper arms relaxed, lean slightly into the other rider. Keep him or her away from contacting your bar. In extreme cases you may need to use your head (literally) to fend off a rider. Realize, though, that this could be viewed as an aggressive move, so save it for emergencies. (If you watch much pro racing, you’re bound to see these maneuvers put into practice!)
Practice! It’s impossible to learn these techniques by simply reading about them. Go to a smooth, grassy field and practice with a riding companion. Ride side-by-side at a walking pace. Start by reaching out and touching each other’s shoulders and arms. When you’re comfortable, progress to keeping hands on the bar and bumping shoulders and elbows. Soon you’ll be leaning on each other and head butting. Practice at slow speeds to develop the right instincts. You’ll be much more comfortable when you get bumped in a fast group.
During more than 30 years in cycling journalism, Fred Matheny has written hundreds of fitness & training articles for top bike magazines and websites. Many of his best eBooks and eArticles are on sale in the RBR eBookstore. As a rider, he has raced to medals in state and national championships, plus a senior world record in the Team Race Across America. As a coach, he has worked with hundreds of riders at PAC Tour Training Camps, Carpenter/Phinney Bike Camps, and Dirt Camp.