How to Group Cycle Like a Pro


You're more likely to push yourself toward improvement if you bike with a group.
You're more likely to push yourself toward improvement if you bike with a group.
©iStockphoto.com/P_Wei

It's the Holy Grail of endurance sports: Running 3,000 miles through forests, deserts and mountain ranges, the notorious Race Across America is a non-stop cycling race across the continental United States. Riders eat on the go, and they take catnaps of no more than a couple of hours. Per day, they'll burn an many as 18,000 calories -- as much as an 11-foot stack of Big Macs [source: Mirkin]. After several days without sleep, riders will begin to see vivid hallucinations. In the inaugural race in 1982, one cyclist hallucinated that roadside trees were attempting to kill him. The 2004 winner spent much of the race convinced that he was being pursued by horsemen [source: Cycling for Fitness]. Amazingly, despite these near-impossible obstacles, winning riders will typically make from it from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast in less than 9 days.

Fortunately, not all group cycling is as intense as the Race Across America. Tamer versions of group cycling exist almost anywhere with a good road system. You've probably seen them -- packs of cyclists, also know as pelotons, coursing down the highway shoulder. They're astonishingly close together, they're dressed in tight-fitting regalia, and they're usually accompanied by choruses of ringing bells.

It may look like a human-powered circus, but group cycling comes with a slew of advantages over solo cycling. Surrounding yourself with a crowd of other cyclists is a great way to stir your competitive side. When cycling alone, it's easy to slow down or take the occasional shortcut. In a group of sweaty, focused riders, however, you'll find yourself pedaling a bit harder. Group cycling is also a bit easier than solo cycling. In a peloton, you can also take advantage a technique known as "drafting," where riders cut down on their wind resistance by sheltering behind a lead rider. By drafting, group riders can use significantly less energy than solo riders. Not to mention the social benefits of group cycling -- there's something to be said for the simple camaraderie of a ride, and if you're strapped for conversation starters, you can always just "talk bikes."

If your town has a post office, chances are it has a cycle group. Most bike shops, gyms or community centers should be able to let you know what's available -- but make sure to choose wisely. Cycle groups come in all sizes. For the beginning cyclist, think about cutting your teeth in an "all ages" ride. This will be more relaxed and relatively slow-paced. Plus, you'll be forgiven for minor transgressions, like wearing jeans or flip flops. If you think you're ready for something a bit more professional, you might be able to track down some riders training for an upcoming triathlon.

Keep reading to find out if an outstretched left arm is an obscene gesture.

Group Cycling Signals

In baseball, a coach touching his cap can tell the pitcher to throw a fastball. In a sailing regatta, a blue and white checkered flag will tell racers to return to the starting line. In a NASCAR race, a yellow flag tells drivers that there's a hazard on the track. Almost every sport comes with its own set of built-in signals, and cycling is no different. In fact, the sport is known to be notoriously signal-heavy. Make sure you bone up on the some basic cycling signals before setting out on a group ride. If you can't speak the cycling language, it could end up slowing you down as much as a flat tire or an unhinged chain.

First, the basics. Any urban rider should be familiar with the signals for right turn, left turn and stop:

  • Left turn. Straighten your left arm and hold it out perpendicular from your body
  • Right turn. Do the same as the left turn signal, but with your right arm.
  • Alternate right turn. Hold your left arm perpendicular to your body, but bend your forearm at a 90-degree angle, holding your hand up toward the sky.
  • Stop. Extend your left arm as if signaling left, but bend your forearm at a 90-degree angle at the elbow. It's a mirror image of the alternate right turn.

The above signals allow you to communicate with other road users such as cars or pedestrians, but there are also several hand signals that allow you to communicate with riders within your cycling group:

  • Slowing down. Keeping your arm straight, hold it a 45-degree angle from your waist. You can use your left or right hand for this move.
  • Leaving the front of the peloton. If you've gotten tired of leading the pack and feel like taking up a position at the rear, signal your intent by holding your arm perpendicular from your body and angling your forearm toward your waist. Use either your left or right arm to indicate which direction you're going, and hold the signal for three seconds before moving.

In a peloton, cyclists can often see little more than the rider in front of them. That's why it's up to the lead riders to point out potential hazards. Use these hand signals to keep the peloton out of harm's way:

  • Railroad crossing. Hold out your arm perpendicular from your body and repeatedly swing your forearm toward and away from your body.
  • Cars, runners and other moving objects. Hold your arm up in the air at a slight angle from your body. Use your left or right arm depending on the location of the obstacle.
  • Pothole, roadkill or debris. Point to the obstacle, slightly rotating your arm for emphasis.

Hand signals may vary from region to region, so double-check them with a group member before setting out on your first ride. You should also make a point to use your voice as often as possible. If you're a little bit hoarse after a group ride, it's probably a good sign.

Turn the page to find out why smooth legs and spandex go hand in hand.

Group Cycling Etiquette

It was the final day of the 2010 Tour de France. Luxembourg's Andy Schleck was in the lead, and close behind him was Spain's Alberto Contador. Suddenly, Schleck's chain came off. Traditionally, Contador would be expected to slow down and wait until Schleck had reattached the chain. Instead, Contador powered past him to take the lead. Within hours, Contador's "breach of etiquette" may well have catapulted him to his third Tour de France victory. On the winner's podium later that day, he was greeted with a chorus of boos [source: Arthur]. "The race was on, and maybe I made a mistake. I'm sorry," said Contador later in a videotaped apology [source: Mariotti].

For all its competitiveness, cycling tries to remain as polite a sport as possible. Which means that before you hop aboard a set of two wheels, you're going to have to follow a few basic rules of decorum. To start, you'll want to follow a bit of a dress code. Basically, avoid bringing any clothes that might be a nuisance. If you've got to keep adjusting your pants during a race, you may end up slowing the rest of the group down. Spandex pants are usually a safe bet for cyclists. They may look ridiculous to some people, but they stay out of the way. It's not a must, but many male cyclists also choose to shave their legs to reduce drag and help with wound care.

In most rides, the first 15 or so minutes are a "warm-up" period. Cyclists start out slow and gradually work their way up to higher speeds. If you start pedaling wildly from the beginning, you may annoy your fellow riders. Remember drafting? By cutting through the wind, the two cyclists at the front of a peloton end up doing most of work. That's why the role of "front rider" should be routinely rotated to allow each cyclist a turn at the front of the pack.

How you ride is important. If you're in a group of road cyclists, you'll probably be expected to ride upright. If you're with more serious cyclists, however, they'll probably spend most of their time bent into a more aerodynamic pose. Most groups will switch between the two positions depending on the terrain: Make sure to follow along. Headphones and bicycles are usually a bad mix -- but they're a particularly bad idea on a group ride. Not only does it make you look antisocial, but because you can't hear clearly, you can become a safety risk to the rest of the peloton.

Keep reading to find out why bicycle bells aren't just for kids.

Group Cycling Safety

Dogs may be man's best friend, but they're a cyclist's worst enemy. They'll bark at you; they'll nip at your heels; they'll run under your front wheel and bring you crashing to the ground. Dogs are even an issue during the acclaimed Tour de France. Every year, the occasional stray might dart into the peloton, unwittingly prompting a storm of flailing limbs and airborne bicycles.

Dogs are just one of the many hazards facing group cyclists. Amid heavy traffic, rough weather, uneven terrain and even swooping birds, it's a wonder cyclists take to the road in anything less than a full suit of armor. Group cyclists face a particularly unique set of safety hazards. On the one hand, a peloton is less at risk for auto collisions, because it's more visible to motorists. On the other hand, you're also more at risk of getting caught in a massive, multi-cyclist collision. Still, by taking along the right equipment and keeping your wits about you, you should be able to get to the finish line in one piece.

A helmet is absolutely essential. Of any piece of safety equipment, a helmet is most likely to keep you out of the morgue. More than 9 in 10 U.S. cyclists killed in 2008 weren't wearing a helmet [source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]. Most cycling groups won't let you join a ride without one. A handlebar-mounted bell may seem like a childish accessory, but it's an essential tool to help you politely communicate with other pedestrians, cars and other cyclists. A ringing bell is always more pleasant to hear than "Get out of the way!"

If you're sharing a road with cars (which is most of the time) you should always be well-versed in the official rules of the road. Stop at stop signs, don't go the wrong way down a one-way street, and never ride on the sidewalk. The more predictable you make your movements on the road, the easier it will be for motorists to steer clear of your peloton.

You should never ride in groups wider than two riders, and even that can be risky. On busy roads, you should stay in a single file. To keep the peloton from sprawling out into traffic, riders should stay almost uncomfortably close. Your front wheel should be no less than six inches from the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, and your shoulders should be no less than 12 inches away from the rider next to you -- just be sure not to overlap wheels [source: Horowitz]. Because of these close quarters, you'll want your cycling to be as smooth as possible. Brake too fast or swerve your wheels, and you could find yourself under a pile of very unhappy riders.

Daylight is always the safest time to schedule a bike ride, but during the winter some night biking may be unavoidable. Whenever you take to the road after sunset, be sure to bedeck yourself with as many lights as possible. Reflectors don't count: If a car's headlights have come close enough to illuminate your reflectors, chances are that it's too late to avoid a collision [source: Goodridge]. Luckily, we live in the golden age of cheap, bright bike lights. You should be able to pick up two blindingly bright LED lights (one for the back, one for the front) for no more than $50. Avoid incandescent lights: They burn out, they're not as bright, and they'll eat through batteries much faster. Colors are also important, as they indicate the direction in which a bike is moving. Keep your front lights white, your back lights red and your side lights amber. Cars will obviously be your biggest night time hazard -- but don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians, animals and the occasional unlit cyclist.

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Group Cycling Around the World

If you ever get tired of your neighborhood peloton, you might consider taking your cycling skills on the road. Whether you want to climb the Himalayas, pedal your way through a wine tour or see Europe from the back of a touring bike, the world is your cycling oyster.

Triathletes get many opportunities to use their passports. Large, annual triathlons such as the Ironman can be found throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. Usually, if a city is hosting a triathlon, there's a good bet it's in a picturesque location. Before you enter one of those, however, you'll want to brush up on your marathon and open water swimming skills.

Of course, if a competitive sprint isn't your idea of a relaxing holiday, consider calling up a travel agent to sign up for one of many "cycle vacations." Cycle-friendly tours are available almost everywhere, but Europe, with its small size and bike-friendly cities, is a cycle tourist mecca. And considering the small size of most European cars, by riding a bike you'll also be giving yourself a lot more headroom. Cruise the streets of Amsterdam (where bicycles represent 40 per cent of all traffic), pedal the back roads of Switzerland, or, if you're looking to flavor your European cycling tour with a bit of recent history, you can also check out the Iron Curtain Trail -- a 4,225-mile (6,800-kilometer) cycling trail that traces the former dividing line between Western Europe and the Communist Bloc [source: Hammer]. On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, cyclists shelled out more than $10,000 for a commemorative Iron Curtain cycle tour.

To capture the charm of European villages without having to ship your bike overseas, you could also just spend your summer riding through the cycle-friendly Canadian province of Quebec. In Japan, the country's relatively small size allows you to take in a host of sites in just a few days of cycling -- you can also take bicycles on many of the country's bullet trains. Islands -- be it the San Juan Islands of Washington State or even New Zealand's south island -- are usually extremely cycling-friendly thanks to calmer traffic and more scenic roads.

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