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The Art of the Pack

School of fish.  Pack of wolves.  Flock of birds.  Surfer on a wave.  When you decide to race your bike, you are assigning yourself to this kind of obedience and lack of control.  Group think, primitive reflexive response to the flow and changes of the herd and conditions.  You know what I am talking about?  Then maybe you haven’t raced, cause when you decide to ride with a group of riders without the formality of pacelines or ride leaders, chaos ensues and the rules of how you thought you should ride your bike are out the window, and you need to become “subject to the herd”.  

The good news is that once you learn the subtle art of riding with the pack, you will enjoy it and find much satisfaction from being able to fly along at twice your normal speed for hours on end, rocketing over the hills and dales of the country until the next climb starts.  You will be able to take advantage of the turbo speeds, and launch yourself to the stratosphere of bike speed and performance, there is no other way to fly.  The bad news is that not everyone makes the jump to good pack riding, and some of you will give up long before you ever accumulate enough skills and experience to truly enjoy the experience.  There is always racing Time Trials,  Triathlon, Mountain bike and Cyclocross, so don’t worry.

OK, enough rambling, you now know what I am talking about.  Here is where the education part comes in.  There are rules, rules like physics in how to survive pack riding and use the full power and speed to propel and slingshot yourself to maximum averages speeds and fast finishes…without losing skin.  Stay on my wheel…

Rule #1:  Sit on your seat.  Pedal your bike in a straight line at all times.  You can move your head and upper body around to look, move and blend into the pack, but your bike must go straight and be predictable.  What would happen if one of the birds in the flock suddenly decided to move 2 feet to the right as the whole group was gliding into a corner at 32.5mph?  Bad stuff.  Practice being smooth and predictable, no sudden moves unless God and country dictate to avoid impending doom and broken bikes.

Rule #2:  Look ahead.  Not just the wheel you are glued to, but look beyond that, 2-3-4-12 riders ahead.  What is going on, are the riders in front in a line and headed to the horizon with hunched backs and aerodynamic body presentations?  Are others getting “in line” to survive  the pace that the lead rider is laying down?  Your next, so pay attention.  Assume the position, get aerodynamic, and start sucking wheel like you mean it. It is all fine and good as the chase ensues, order is evident, we are in flight and there is no choice but to stick to the wheel in front of you and feel for the gap of shelter while you pedal as hard as you can.  Keep looing ahead, if the rider in front of you is getting “gapped” you better move around and get on the line.

Rule #3:  Read the changes.  The trouble comes when the chase is over, or just beginning, and the group is going through a transition.  If you are riding close and tight to get a draft, and other riders are jockeying to get close, and others might be pulling off because they don’t want to work, give a tad more gap in these situations.  Anticipate what will happen next.  It is pretty straight forward when the group is off and running or starting to chase a move.  Find a wheel and if others ahead of you are getting too close give more room so you can move around any hangups.  When it is slower, there is more “twitch” in the group.  Stay loose, upper body dynamic and flexible, staying in the gap, waiting with the herd, vigilant but not running.  Ready to go but not the one to initiate.  

Sometimes the hardest part to teach someone getting into racing is how “NOT” to race.  There are times in a race where getting to the front or working hard to move up will finish you.  You are using energy you need to be saving, because it will get hard, very hard.  The first question I ask my riders when talking tactics:  “are you one of the stronger riders in the group, or one of the weaker?”  Be honest.  Weaker riders follow ALL THE TIME.  Stronger riders attack, chase and run the show, if you aren’t there yet, your goal is typically to be one of the stronger riders.  Until then, suck wheel and wait in line, going too hard will only shorten the time you can survive in the group, and your goal should be to ride as long as possible in the bubble of the pack drafting like your life depends on it. Next up in this racing series…middle of the pack considerations, followed by…welcome to leadership, you now run the show  or could dictate how this turns out – how to win.