If you are like the vast majority of cycling enthusiasts who live in the northern tier states, in late March you resume group rides that you haven’t done since late October. If you have done group rides over the past five months, the groups have likely been smaller, under a dozen rather than thirty or more that you ride with the other seven months of the year. Cyclists can maintain good levels of fitness during the five colder months, by cycling on a trainer, cycling outdoors when roads are dry, running, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, skating, spinning, and various other sorts of training. What you don’t practice, or only rarely, in the cold months is pack riding. When the end of March comes and you join back up with your group ride, everyone is eager to ride hard, in order to demonstrate their fitness level from winter training, or to begin to get in shape for some longer or harder summer rides. You go from mostly going alone, to being in a pack of folks who have been going alone for five months, taking corners at speed, sprinting for village limit signs, attacking and chasing, working pace lines. Those skills are a bit rusty. In the first several group rides of the spring, I ride my older bike, not because of dirty roads, but because if I am going to crash because riders ahead start going down, I don’t want to damage my good bike. Once riders have remembered and recovered sensible pack riding skills, then I ride my good bike.
Pack riding seems largely a matter of attention. When I ride alone, I don’t have to think about other riders at my elbow when I want to avoid a road killed opossum, pothole, or crack in the pavement; I just steer around them. I don’t have to think about the rider at my hip as I am entering or exiting a corner; I just pick my line and take the corner. In pack riding, part of the reason my heart rate is higher is not just the harder effort; it is also partly the mental energy and adrenaline from recognizing I am in a more dangerous situation, needing the alertness to maintain my safety. Still, it is not that complicated to ride in a fast pack. Consider the following:
“Some fish swim together in shoals because the group provides more protection against predators, better foraging opportunities and, finally, and ideal place to find a mate. As the shoal shimmies through the ocean, any individual can find itself in front and thus technically is the leader. Such shoals, however, stay together not through centralized leadership but through local leadership and followership. The movement of an individual is determined by what its immediate neighbour does (and the neighbour’s movement is determined by what its neighbour does). Thus, the simple rule ‘do what the fish next to you does, but don’t bang into him’ can produce local leadership, in the form of a highly cohesive group moving around in a beautifully synchronized manner. It is also clear that sticking to a simple rule like ‘do what your neighbour does’ does not require much brainpower.” (Mark van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja, Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership, New York: HarperCollins, 2011, p. 44).
Adapted to pack riding, do what the riders next to you and in front of you do, but don’t bang into them. It doesn’t require much brainpower, and that is a good thing when you want to ride at an intense level. Your brain constitutes about a fiftieth of your body weight but consumes close to a fifth of the calories you consume, so riding with less brainpower leaves more energy to be delivered to your heart, lungs, and legs. It does, however, require attention and alertness. If everyone followed that rule, it might be the only rule of pack riding. But you cannot expect everyone to follow it. So another rule: while alert to what is happening immediately next to and in front of you, pay attention to what is happening two to six riders ahead of you, in order to anticipate what is coming your way in a split second. Is there a sudden swerve, a sudden acceleration or deceleration?
If you have watched professional bicycle racing, especially on television, you will see overhead shots from a helicopter of a pack of up to two hundred riders spread eight to ten wide in twenty to twenty five rows riding along at twenty-five miles per hour. The flow and change in the pack is similar to fish swimming in a shoal. It is fluid. Riders moving up and back. The pack shifting left or right to avoid road hazards. The group floating around a bend in the road or turning a corner. There is considerable trust in those around you, in all in the pack, that they won’t do something stupid and send several riders asphalt surfing. Crashes occur, usually when there is some reason to take great risks in order to attempt to gain great rewards. But in your local group rides, the rewards are so small or even non-existent that there is no need to take those risks.
Next time you are in a group ride, think like a shoaling fish.