By now, most of you have ridden in a group ride, or a mass start tour ride. Your skills have improved, you’ve got thousands of miles under your belt, and your speed is starting to really climb. So, you want to jump into a race. But what is it like within that peloton? How does it differ from a group or tour ride? What should you look out for?
The more you know going into that peloton, the safer you – and everyone else – will be.
Into The Fire
Pressure. That’s the easiest way to describe the race peloton. It might flow fast, and from the outside it might seem smooth, but it’s all about pressure. People want to take your spot. People want to pass you. People want you to move over or to speed up or to slow down. People want you to block the wind, or pull them up a hill. Here’s the big thing to understand: every racer out there wants you to race for them. Even your own teammates, whether consciously or not, want you to make their race easier and put them into a position to win.
Think of it like when you’re driving down the freeway. A car is driving in front of you say, right at the speed limit. You’d like it to go a little faster, but you don’t want to tailgate either. But behind you comes a car that’s right on your ass. You can feel their impatience, their presence. You know they want you to go faster, to make a move so that their drive isn’t impeded. That’s a racing peloton, but multiplied by every rider out there, with only inches of space between bumpers, and your only safety feature is a hardened foam hat.
So how do you combat this? You have to stand your ground. Just like with that tailgater, you can’t let others affect your actions. If you have the line, hold it. If you are in position, don’t give it away. If someone starts to try and nudge in, don’t move. During my first race, I was only too willing to give up my position because I thought it’d be safer. They wanted in? I let them in. They wanted me to move over? I moved.
That’s something you learn from tour riding – stay safe by compensating for what others do (or don’t do). To some degree, that applies to racing: if someone is being stupid, get away; let them be stupid. It isn’t worth the crash. But at the same time, one of the best ways to prevent others from being stupid is to not allow them to do what they’re trying to do. Don’t let them cut into a line. Don’t let them squeeze into a gap. Hold your ground.
Main thing is to keep calm, centered. You’re going for a relaxed intensity. This will not only help keep you safe, but will also help you save energy. The more tense you are, the higher your heart rate will be, and the slower your reaction time. And for your first race – and pretty much every other race after that – you’re going to be tense, excited, nervous, all of that.
To be honest, there’s no telling you to calm and center yourself before the race. Seriously, I’ve had years of meditation practice -and maybe I just suck at meditating – but when you sense all that energy and excitement and fear around you, it’s hard to block it all out and control your own at the same time. So instead, wait to calm yourself until after you get rolling.
Once you start riding, you’re in it. No turning back. It’s like cooking a souffle. It’ll either rise or it won’t. There ain’t a damn thing you can do about it once it’s in the oven. Same thing for racing: you’re either ready or you’re not, and all the worries and stress of 30 seconds ago won’t change the outcome. So, start the race, get into your rhythm, and then take a deep breath. Now you’re rolling. Now’s the time you need to be relaxed, alert. Breath.
Don’t Get Burned
There’s a lot going on in the race peloton, and you can’t watch it all. There’s only so much your eyes can take in. You have to use more: listen for other riders around you, their position, their breathing. Hear their shifting. Feel the wind direction. Peripheral vision is key. Get used to judging what people are doing without having to look right at them.
Glance quickly to the sides to help keep aware of your surroundings, and DEFINITELY if you plan to make a move. Yes, it indicates to others that you’re going to do something, but in this case that’s a good thing. Might lose a bit of surprise, but you also might just save a massive pile-up.
As aware as you need to stay of what’s happening around you, never look back. You can glance left and right, but not back. At the speeds you’ll be traveling it’ll only take a fraction of a second and a slight braking of the racer in front of you to end your day badly.
Another thing you’ll hear people say is “Hold your line.” First thing to note: most people don’t really know what that means, and usually the people yelling it at the top of their lungs while in a race are the worst offenders. You could be holding your line just fine, but if you are moving in a way that inconveniences them, they’ll think you’re not “holding your line.”
What holding your line really means is, “Don’t be erratic.” The line you’re in will naturally drift side to side. It’ll veer as you go around turns and up/down hills. And it’ll change forms constantly. I don’t want to say “be predictable,” since you want to make moves when you can to get into better position, to stay out of the wind, etc. And you don’t necessarily want others covering or following. But, you can’t do it at a whim.
Every move will have a risk. The more you race, the more you’ll understand the risks associated to each move, and the less erratic you’ll be (while not necessarily being predictable). What it comes down to is trust: even with riders you don’t know, you want to be able to trust that – though they’re trying to win the race – they’re not trying to get anyone injured, least of all themselves. And so you put a little trust in your opponents, and the less erratic you are – the cleaner you race – the more trust they’ll put in you.
If You Can’t Take The Heat…
Get out of the kitchen. Seriously, it’s just one race. You’re not being paid. This isn’t a full-time job. And you don’t want to risk all the rides ahead just for this one race. If something doesn’t feel right? Let it go. If it doesn’t look good? Back it down. Tail gun for a while, reposition yourself, or see who else is hanging out at the back and form up with them.
I know, I know. I’m supposed to say things like, “Leave it all on the road!” and, “Give 110%!” Yada, yada, yada. All those motivational speeches and aphorisms don’t mean jack if you’re in traction. So yeah, push yourself. You’re already taking a risk just stepping up to this field, so a little more – fine. But my second mantra has probably saved me and served me better than all those little peppy ones combined. Want to know it? Here it is: don’t be stupid.
Stay calm. Stay safe. Push yourself. Have fun. And I’ll see you on the line.