One of the great things about group riding is the camaraderie and support that the riders give one another. A good, supportive, group ride can be a great way to challenge yourself as a rider. Trying to finish a monster day, or jamming smoothly in an echelon, are the type of experiences that can be the highlight of a season.
When most of us think about a ride that challenges us we worry that we can’t go hard enough, that we lack the power to keep up with the group. But often, it isn’t a lack of power that is the limiter. The real limiter for many riders is efficiency on the bike, which in part is about your skill as a rider.
The great equalizer in road riding is the power of the draft. Get behind someone and you are saving significant effort. A good draft in the group can help you save as much as 40%. Proper drafting is what allows riders of varying abilities to ride together. If you are someone who thinks they may be weaker than the group, or perhaps struggle to cover the distance, then good drafting is your key to having a breakthrough ride.
Here are a few ideas to help with your drafting technique:
Find a rider to draft that you trust. A rider with some experience that you can trust will help your confidence tremendously.
While you have to manage the distance from the wheel in front of you don’t fixate on it. You also need to look up the group - see what they are doing 5 or 10 riders ahead, this will allow you to anticipate movement in the group and make your ride smoother.
All of the movements within a group should be small, predictable and smooth. Stay relaxed and don’t grab a handful of brake. This tends to scrub off too much speed, requiring you to accelerate again.
Use your brakes sparingly. There is no need to be jamming your brakes on and off as you ride in the group (other than in the obvious situation that there is a sudden stop). Most of the time all you want to be doing is feathering your brakes. Using the back brake is better to gently control your speed. The front brake has all the power and the back one simply helps things out. Using the back brake mainly will keep your from making any sudden stopping movements in the middle of the group.
You don’t always have to use your brakes to slow down. A simple option to help control your speed is to move out of the draft slightly. You will feel your body start to catch the wind more and give you that extra bit of drag that you need to not roll up on the rider in front of you. While overlapping wheels is frowned upon, it is okay to slide up and back slightly alongside the rider in front of you. This is better than suddenly slamming on your brakes.
Most importantly, understand where the wind is coming from. The leeward side is where you get your draft from the rider in front of you. To maximize your draft you have to pay attention and feel where the wind is coming from. The wind will not always be coming from the front. For instance, if it is coming from the right then you will want to ride slightly to the left of the rider in front of you. When your bike goes into the draft you will feel that it is easier, almost as if you are getting sucked along (which you are).
Anticipate what is going to happen in the group and change your gears or position accordingly. For instance, if you see a hill coming anticipate your shifts to keep your cadence constant, which in turn will help you stay in the draft more easily.
Remember that cycling is about more than just putting out a bunch of power all day. Your efficiency on the bike is just as important as the fitness you have. Practice your drafting so that on the day you want to have a breakthrough ride you can take advantage of the stronger riders and stick with them.