Group Riding Tips

Written by Patrick Stelte

Echelon - The simple definition of this French word is a line of riders seeking maximum drafting in a crosswind, resulting in a diagonal line across the road.  Wind is all important when out riding in the open countryside.  Riding into a good head-wind or cross-wind can be very taxing.  Cyclists typically look for wind-breaks in the form of trees, buildings or tall corn fields to cut the resistance.  Whatever the landscape, it is only temporary.  The best wind-break is riding with another cyclist.  
Riding behind or next to a cycle-buddy can cut your effort 20% to 30 %.  An echelon works this way with a cross-wind.  
A group of riders (peloton) determines the wind direction and then work together to shield each other from the wind.  The lead rider positions into the wind and allows the next riders room to ride next to each other.  Example:  the wind is from the left of the road, so the lead rider will ride close to the center-line.  Every other rider will take an angle position to the right of each other.  About 5 cyclists can fit across half the road in an echelon.  A second group will form an echelon just behind the first group to shield each other from the wind.  
The lead rider will pull into the cross-wind for a determined amount of time until tiring.  This rider will fall back slowly and diagonally across the echelon to the back of the group and take a position to the right of the last rider.  Each rider in the echelon will move up one position across the road.  This rotation will continually flow as the group works together to shield each other and save energy.  After the lead rider is finished and falls to the back, that rider will have enough time to recover in the group so when the turn to pull again happens, the energy will be there.  
Pulling or Riding in Front - Pulling or taking the lead in a peloton is part of every group ride.  Again as stated above, the cyclist riding in front is breaking the wind for everyone that follows.  The energy saved can add two or three miles per hour to the normal pace of one cyclist.  There are a number of subtle situations that happen with pulling.  Normally, each rider taking a pull will keep the pace the same as the last rider in front.  However, the person in front can increase the speed of the group by “pushing the pace” harder than the previous rider.  This tactic is meant to increase the speed of the group.  Sometimes this will cause the group to split and then a decision has to be made to re-group or continue the split.  
Another important subtle situation that occurs with pulling is when a rider over-exerts while taking a pull.  Every cyclist feels the need to “do his/her share” of the work to prove worthy of the group.  This is a mistake in thinking.  Not all cyclists have the same fitness in a group, but together, they can stay in a group if each rider understands their limitations.  The stronger cyclists naturally gravitate to the front and pull.  What is important is that the rider(s) who cannot pull the pace of the group - stay off the front and continue riding behind stronger riders in the group.  Taking a pull is not as important to the group as keeping the group together.  If someone drops off because of tiring from a pull, the group must slow down to re-gather that rider.  Pride can get the best of a rider, so understand your limitations and stay with the group.
Working together is all about energy efficiency and energy transfer.  As a whole, the group is stronger than any individual cyclist.  The energy of riding with others is palpable and is conveyed between each rider, non-verbally urging each on.