Getting dropped on a road ride is never fun — watching the group ride into the horizon without looking back can be totally demoralizing — but there are ways to avoid it. If you find yourself getting dropped more often than not, then it is time to assess your skills and tactics to figure out where your weak link is. Implementing these tactics will help you make the split and enjoy completing the entire group ride.
EMBRACE THE CONTEXT OF THE RIDE
The most important elements of surviving a group ride are to be fully committed, stay positive and maintain perspective. You cannot doubt your effort or think about how other riders should be acting. The hard moments in a ride are very hard, and being ready to work hard until the pace drops will help you focus on relevant tasks like your positioning and effort. Knowing that the pace will drop and that you don’t have to go hard for the entire ride, also helps you embrace a very hard effort to stay in the group. If you don’t make that effort, your group ride is over. But while being mentally ready for the ride is a big help, it won’t be a complete fix if your tactics are lacking.
BE TACTICAL, LOSE YOUR EGO
Going faster with the efficiency of a group is what draws many cyclists to group rides. Before you try to attack or take long pulls, though, learn to sit in the group comfortably. A common mistake is to think you must take the same number or length of pulls as stronger riders. If you are not finishing the ride, you don’t need to spend time at the front. Take short pulls and minimize time on the front. No one will judge you for that — they’ll likely respect you more for knowing your limits and finishing with them.
To learn how to save energy, watch for the rider who gets through each ride with group but who is clearly not the fittest. These riders have a knack for saving energy and expending that energy maximally when it counts. Watch how they pull through the group by drafting the rider ahead until the last moment, then take a short pull at the front. These experienced riders will usually spend time in their drops to be more aerodynamic, and they will use a higher cadence to allow for quick accelerations and to decrease muscular fatigue.
FOLLOW CLOSELY BUT LOOK AHEAD
If you find it intimidating to get close enough to the rider directly in front of you, consider looking further ahead in the group or at least at the front hub of the bike ahead rather than directly at the rear wheel that’s only inches away. Staring at the rear wheel makes it almost impossible to react to potholes and changes in speed quickly, so you risk a crash or at the least, will find it unnerving and lose the wheel, then find yourself working too hard as you lose the draft.
Following directly behind a rider may not get you the most draft if there is a cross wind: You may have to sit off to one side. To improve your ability to find the drafting sweet spot in any condition, follow a friend on a windy day on a twisty course and see how the drafting sweet spot moves as you change direction. Add speed as you get more comfortable and confident with moving around and following closely.
READ MORE > 8 TIPS FOR BEGINNER ROAD CYCLISTS
IMPROVE YOUR FITNESS
An inevitable reality is that fitness will help you stay with a group. Many riders focus exclusively on this component of cycling, but I believe that layering any level of fitness on top of bad habits will limit your progression and enjoyment of the sport. Beginners can add a ride or two or lengthen their rides and see fitness improve quickly, while intermediate riders will generally benefit from one or two hard days focused on steady, tough efforts to increase their threshold. While increasing your fitness will help you stay in a group ride, there are also specific ways to apply the fitness you that will determine if you stay in the group.
PEDAL FAST TO GO FAST
Pedaling at a higher cadence is generally better for road cycling, as it lets you respond to changes in pace faster than with a low cadence. Including two rides a week where you do 5–7 30-second spin-ups will help you feel what it’s like to accelerate using cadence, rather than shifting too early resulting in a low and slow cadence. To do a spin-up, accelerate your cadence to “fast” for 10 seconds, then “faster” for 10 more seconds then “fastest” for 10 more seconds. This can be done with a cadence sensor using 100, 105 and 110 rpm to start, but I find “fast-faster-fastest” works well to get started. Take 3–5 easy minutes of recovery between these bursts.
Consider each of these methods as a component you need to practice your pack-riding skills. Many of these skills and tactics can be learned quickly if you focus on them. Be patient, ask for help and keep an eye out for that wise, experienced rider who will demonstrate these concepts for you, if you watch closely.