Just like riding a bike… – Part 1

It is no secret that when it comes to the three triathlon disciplines, my biking lags behind in both technique and confidence.  On a bike, there are just so many factors to consider.  When to shift and how much, when to come up out of the saddle, when to drop into aero position, etc etc etc.  Throw in some pleasant D.C. traffic and I’m is basically overloaded with information.

So it’s no surprise that I’ve totally avoided group rides.  You want me to handle all of the above, while still riding wheel to wheel in a pack of other riders?  And not crash into someone/fall off my bike/have my brain melt right out of my ears?  Good luck.

Strictly speaking, group riding is not something that is in any way required for triathlon training.  I made it through my first few tris without ever riding in a group, and could certainly do it again, even for the longer distances required for my upcoming half iron training.  But biking gets pretty darn boring when you’re out there by yourself.  And I sincerely believe that training with other people in any discipline is a surefire way to learn from others, improve your own technique, and become more confident all around as an athlete.  The DC Tri Club has some great regular training groups that I’d really like to get in on, but I don’t want to go in without the base of knowledge required.  I don’t want to embarrass myself, or (heaven forbid) endanger anyone’s safety.

So imagine how happy I was to get an email last week advertising that The Bike Rack, a local bike shop that is a big supporter of DC Tri and cyclists and triathletes of all shapes and sizes, is hosting a Group Ride and Paceline Clinic this week.  A budget $35 price to be taught the rules of the road, bike handling, group riding, and get a whole morning of hands-on practice with instructors and fellow group ride novices alike?  PERFECTO!  Sign me up straight away!

The clinic is comprised of two sessions.  First, we had the in-store session and presentation last night.  We gathered at 8 pm at The Bike Rack shop where Chuck and associates had set out a nice little spread of wines, cheese, fruit and crackers.  I had just wandered in and sat down when a new tri club friend arrived.  We had met a few weeks before at the Half Iron program kick off happy hour, and chatted for a LT interval or two the night before at the Wednesday night track workout up in Tenleytown.  Yay, tri friends!

Chuck got started after a few minutes and had very helpful handouts for all of us going over the basics of both group riding and pacelining. First, he went over the difference between a pace line and a plain old vanilla group ride.  A group ride is pretty much what it sounds like – a group of folks who go out and ride together in a social, community atmosphere.  These are typically no drop, meaning that even if your slow, the group won’t abandon you (in contrast to a training ride, where you may be left far behind in the dust if you can’t keep up).

Pacelining is…well.  True life confession: before last night, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what a paceline was.  Clearly I needed this training.

Chuck explained the basic form and etiquette for single pacelines, double pacelines, and circular pacelines (an advanced formation that I’m pretty sure I’ll never need to use). Basically, a paceline is a line (duh) of bikers traveling tightly together. The idea is that each rider drafts off of the rider in front of them. The closer you are to the person in front of you, the stronger the draft you get off them. Riding like this can save up to 30% of your energy output, and thus you can end up travelling much faster than you might riding on your own.

Of course, the nature of the paceline means that the lucky soul at the front of the line doesn’t get to draft, and thus has to work hard to lead the line along. As such, each rider’s position in a paceline is constantly changing. The line leader will lead for some short amount of time, usually a few minutes at most, and then move over to the side of the line to drop back, allow the entire line to pass, and then fall in again at the end of the line. As you move up through the line again, you are recovering by riding in the draft. (Note, because of the turbulence coming off the draft, the last in line position is also pretty tough, so when leading a pace line you need to make sure to save enough energy so that when you move out and drop back, you can still keep up with the line).

A single paceline is exactly as described above, with the front rider usually moving to the left to fall back. A double paceline is, like it sounds, two pacelines side by side. In that configuration, the front riders on both lines move off and fall back at the same time – one to the left and one to the right. The circular paceline is constantly moving. Rather than having one line with one rider moving back at each time, there are riders constantly falling off and moving back up the line, so you essentially have two lines side by side by moving opposite each other. I’m sure I described that poorly. So, helpful diagram:

There is also that diagonal formation for when there’s a strong head or side wind, but I kind of tuned out by that point because I already had enough to think about, and chances are around here I’ll never be riding on a road wide enough to pull that off.

Obviously, pacelining has many benefits (primarily speed) and can really help a person take their riding to the next level.

Chuck also went over the basics of regular group riding, such as the importance of calling out and pointing to obstacles in the road, using proper hand signals to notify that you are turning or stopping, etc.  Basically, you need to be constantly communicating with your fellow riders.  The more communication the better.  Most of this was stuff I already knew, but it is nice to have a refresher.  And I hope to get my skills in practice at one of their weekly Group Rides in the near future.  The Bike Rack has a very comprehensive guide to the Rules of the Road for group rides on their website as well.

Chuck concluded by giving us an overview of Part 2 of the clinic, scheduled for tomorrow morning.  We’ll be meeting up at the shop and then heading up to a big parking lot over at Howard University, where the instructors will have set up nice little courses with all sorts of technical and other obstacles for us to practice on.  We’ll be split up into small groups and we’ll practice our newly acquired mad pacelining skillz.  Just like when I learned to drive a stick shift, I’ll be glad to have my first practice with this stuff in a parking lot.