Are you a "good wheel’?
Every day of the week, in every town and city, we take to the streets. We meet on random corners and at ridiculous hours, to move from being a cyclist to become a peloton. How we connect with these new urban pelotons is just as random, just as much by accident as by design. This very phenomenon is at the core of cycling’s growth, what we gain from these random connections is unfathomable to those on the outside.
I, like everyone else, have found myself in these groups. New riders eager to learn the etiquette like sponges. Riders busy with hand signals and verbal communications that ease the group through the streets and strive for safe passage. The care and intent taken for the safety of the group is on show and real, but I cannot relax. Why? I have yet to build a level of trust in the wheel or wheels around me, that can enable me to be a good wheel for all those who are relying on me.
The art of being a good wheel.
Having an enjoyable social ride and being a good wheel are somewhat at odds with each other. Engaging in solid ride banter and focusing on where you are on the road, what’s ahead, where the wind is blowing from and being predictable to all around you, take two very different skills. Near misses and crashes are often moments of poor concentration or distraction, and in most cases it takes two to tango. One person’s mistake or inattention can lead to others downfall. It is often that an action ahead has created someone else’s problem behind.
A great wheel is a predictable wheel, no surprises for those behind. When I ride on the front I target a smooth pace, with steady increases and decreases in speed. If possible, I ride far enough from the edge of the road, so I reduce snaking in and out of obstacles and road furniture. When I get out of my seat I focus on maintaining my speed so not drop kicking the rider behind me with a sudden loss of speed. In some groups they signal with a hand behind their back to the rider following, they are about to get out of their seat. Regardless we should all practice getting out of our seat at the top of the power stroke, targeting zero loss in speed.
A good wheel can take a drink and eat, stretch without deviation or loss of speed. A good wheel is aware and warns of anything that riders behind need to know about, that with their limited vision could create a chain of 'surprises ' behind. A good wheel knows when their job within the group is to focus, staying alert and focused with predictable movements, even at the cost of a good chat or yarn.
And just important, a good wheel knows how to hold the wheel in front of them. Holding the wheel takes practice, focus and confidence, not to mention trust in those around you. Over the years I am sure there have been many riders who thought I wasn’t very social, my grunted one-word responses or no engagement. My gaze never moving to them as they talked, or I responded. Why? Simple. I was either suffering or factors such as wind, road conditions and fellow riders experience dictated full concentration on being a safe predictable rider in the group.
The unfortunate element of holding a wheel, is the closer you get to the one in front of you the more energy you save, but the greater margin of error and risk. Then to make matters worse, a good sit in the side winds means overlapping the wheel in front, which is called an echelon, where even for seasoned professionals, danger lurks.
Getting close to wheel takes your highest level of focus, spatial awareness and control of your bike. When I find myself struggling on a ride I tend to increase my focus on the wheel ahead. I move as close as I can, if need be creating an overlap to get the maximum cover from side winds. I have my hands in position that has my fingers on the brakes and I have my eyes firmly fixed on the wheel ahead and the riders movements it belongs to. In a side wind I am always checking the road ahead, because every time you overlap a wheel, you need to be sure of your escape path. If the road narrows, has cars or obstacles, or a broken edge, you need ample warning to be able to gently move back behind the wheel without having to take drastic braking or even worse, plough into what’s ahead. Most crashes in side winds are caused by the echelon moving and someone finding they have no escape path, they either hit the wheel or whatever is in the way.
Riding in a group of riders, wind, wet roads and with other road users is a challenge for any rider, regardless of experience. Anything that takes a level of skill needs practice, and execution takes focus. Here are some things to practice and be aware of:
- On your solo rides take the time to practice getting out of your seat whilst maintaining speed and power on the pedals. Practice eating and drinking whilst maintain speed and getting things in and out of your pockets.
- When riding on the front of a group be aware of wind and the impact on those behind. Adjust your position a little in or out on the road to give the riders a little extra shelter if feasible and safe. Knowing riders are echeloned, or stacked out, point out every obstacle as it may be relevant to those further back. Avoid snaking in and out of road furniture and cars if in larger groups if possible.
- Focus when you hold a wheel, hold the chats for when everyone has made it safely to the cafe. Where is the wind coming from, is wheel you are holding predictable, and how comfortable are you getting close to it? Are you checking up the road and around you and alert to calls and hand signals?
- Practice spatial awareness. If a rider ahead is eating and drinking, give them a little extra room, their reaction time is reduced with one hand on the bars. If in heavy traffic on poor quality roads, or challenging conditions rider’s movements can be sudden, so focus and leave the space that you are confident you can soak up with any changes in speed and direction. What is happening ahead of you in the group will ripple back to you so be on high alert!
- Leave riding no hands or speed tucks in the bunch to the pro’s
Practice the art of being a good wheel, be a predictable rider and enjoy your cycling. Ride safe.