One year, cocooned within the mass of a tightly-packed competitive peloton at the Amashova Classic in KwaZulu-Natal, the magical, almost imperceptible tactics of cycle racing and especially the nebulous skill of bunch riding, became lucidly clear to me.
It was like a religious epiphany, I tell you.
The scales were figuratively falling off my eyes on the road to Damascus. Except there was no beast of burden and no shining light blinding me.
But wait, let me stop before I wax lyrical and make you feel queasy. I’m just getting all kumbaya about an innately physical activity without any deeper substance for anyone to delve into…
Or have I forgotten how real it felt, how immediate? Is it something much more, as I felt in those moments?
Bunch riding has a set of skills you only develop by pushing them to their limit and seeing where their – and your – boundaries lie.
I tried what I learned at the Tour de Eden, with even tougher competition. It worked there too! My results got better and better. I was amazed at how much easier it made cycle racing (not that it’s ever going to be easy).
These five strategies will work for you, if you practice and apply them whenever you can. Remember, you only know where your limit is when you get there and push it a little further.
(Another thing to remember is that chicks dig scars. You won’t always get it right first time… and you’ll get scars. But that’s a topic for another article). Let’s not think scars at this point.
Learning to relax while in the bunch is vital. When you relax, you think about proper placement in the bunch, and that alone saves you energy. Relaxing mentally also makes you less twitchy, and so everyone around you feels more relaxed too. Focus on the road up ahead. Don’t look behind you! It causes more accidents than anything else. Nothing behind you matters when you’re racing in a big bunch. All you should be concentrating on is sheltering from the wind, and keeping an eye on the front of the bunch to see reactions before they affect you.
The peloton is like a big school of fish. It is never static; it is liquid, and flows to the path of least resistance. You need to practise your skills at finding and quickly flowing into the gaps that the other fish present. In big bunches, there is a constant stream, to the front, of riders slipping around the sides. If you do not counteract this, you will soon find yourself at the back of the bunch, and in danger of being dropped. All your energy should be expended at staying well within the head of the bunch, as close to the front four lines as you can manage. This is a simplistic and general statement, but if you have the strength, there is no better place to be.
Once you have moved forward, you need to keep your little piece of real estate. Watch out for sneaky riders who inch towards you, expecting you to give way because you feel uncomfortable with the thought of bumping into them. This is the “push in” principle. Although you should resist it with the “push out” principle, by not giving way at all (unless it is a fellow rider you want to shelter), you should employ this yourself whenever you need a gap. If the rider doesn’t give way, don’t panic. Look ahead in the bunch. A gap will soon develop, and you can quickly accelerate, and coast into the gap and recover behind another rider. Remember, you want to move forward. Don’t drop back when you get the cold shoulder; look ahead for another wheel.
Also watch the gap between your wheel and the rider in front. No, the danger isn’t so much that you’ll touch (you’ll be fine as long as you don’t overlap), but that another rider will see a gap develop and take it. The strategy is simple: the rider with handlebars ahead gets priority. In effect, the rider in front is safe because his handlebars will not touch any part of you. He may bump your shoulder, your wheels may touch briefly, but there is no reason for him to fall.
On the flipside, when you are behind that rider, the chance is that his moving leg will bump your handlebars and destabilise your bike. If you think that you are about to be sandwiched by another rider, push gently against his hip. This will alert him that you are dangerously close, and if you push just a little harder, will actually move that rider away from you. Never push someone’s handlebars or arms. With experience, you’ll build up the confidence to ride really close to other riders and not be intimidated by their little tricks.
Just some of the principles we’ve found to be essential in bunch racing. Try them and see your riding improve!