Riding in a group can be a daunting prospect to the uninitiated. It can also be dangerous if some basic rules of the road aren’t adhered to. So, with grateful acknowledgement to Swindon Road Club, here’s some advice to help you get the most out of riding in a group safely and, of course, speedily.
First and foremost, remember the basic rules of the road (the Highway Code); these are super important while blasting along at high speed in a chain-gang as everything happens very quickly.
Your bike should be in a good state of repair and legally roadworthy. It is important to carry a small tool kit and a mobile phone in case of emergencies. Carry front and rear lights when appropriate and consider duplicating rear lights. In the UK it rains, quite a lot, and sleets and snows but club runs continue regardless of the weather so dress appropriately. Although most club runs stop at cafes (coffee and cakes are two very important reasons for riding, the other one is beer) you should carry sufficient water and food with you.
If you are a new member on a Club ride and are not confident of finishing the ride or suffering from mechanical problems let the Ride Leader  or other riders know as soon as possible.
Successful and safe group riding is all about trust and responsibility. Each member of the group is individually responsible for the safety of the whole group.
Keep a safe distance from the rider in front and look over your shoulder before starting any manoeuvre.
Ride smoothly and predictably and don’t brake without warning if it can be avoided – your actions have impacts on the riders behind you. If you need to stop for any reason, shout “STOPPING” before you start to slow down. Always try to stop close to the verge or a place that is safe. Don’t make sudden swerves.
Keep hands on the handlebars unless signalling. Riding no-handed in the group is an unnecessary risk. If you just rest your hands on the hoods or tops they might slip off if you hit a pothole. At speed, it’s better to ride on the hoods or drops to cover your brakes. Tops are fine when climbing. The exception to this is when you’re on the front as you are less likely to need to brake quickly. Tri-bars have no place in a group ride as they reduce control.
Ride single file on busy roads and in circumstances where it would be dangerous for vehicles to pass, if in doubt always defer to the Ride Leader’s judgement. Change to single file riding when the call “single out” is heard – this maybe so a car can pass or an obstacle needs to be passed. This is normally done by each inside rider moving forward to allow the outside rider to slot into the gap made behind. Ride no more than two abreast unless overtaking and only if it’s safe to do so.
Take care on country lanes, looking over hedges and listening for approaching traffic. When riding in the outside position of the leading pair always hold back approaching blind corners – there maybe be a car approaching.
Pass Ride Leaders instructions and messages up or down the line of riders so everyone can follow suit. Shout warnings and signal to other riders if there is potential danger in the road e.g. moving motor vehicles (in front & behind the group), stationary or parked vehicles, pot holes, any other obstacles, walkers and horses.
Approaching or following junctions each rider should check that any riders following are still there; if not, wait before or just after the junction and inform the Ride Leader. The group should always wait for the last rider unless that rider clearly requests to be left to continue on their own. No rider should leave the group without first notifying the Ride Leader or other riders.
At a junction do not block the sight of motorists already waiting to pull out. Groups should allow appropriate gaps in traffic and slow to allow enough time for the entire group to negotiate obstacles safely.
Positioning and spacing
The kerbside rider should be riding around ½ to 1 metre out from the kerb – the wear mark in the tarmac left by traffic can be a good place. Your partner (adjacent rider) should leave about one handlebar’s width between you. Look ahead. If there’s a patch of broken road or other hazard ahead, move to the side a little, if you can, to give the other rider more room to avoid it.
Follow the Wheels
You should ride directly behind the cyclist in front, more-or-less, only a few cm to either side. You do not need to see the road ahead, the leading rider is doing that for you. If you, as the inside rider, sit out in the road, between the pair in front, you are pushing your partner out into the traffic and putting them in danger. All it takes is a couple of riders to stop following wheels and the group takes on that ‘all over the road’ appearance. This is not classy.
How closely should you follow a wheel? The answer depends on your experience and how much you trust the wheel in front. One bike length is a good place to start, reducing as you get more confident. It is easier to maintain this spacing if everyone rides smoothly. Make accelerations gentle and brake as little and as lightly as possible. Often you can slow down enough by not pedalling and sitting up to increase wind resistance.
Half-wheeling is riding with your bars significantly ahead of your partner’s, perhaps in an attempt to encourage them to speed up a bit. Don’t do it. It’s bad form. Persistent intentional half-wheeling is aggressive and antisocial. It is the responsibility of the leading
rider to slow down, not the other rider to speed up. Please note that you are expected to make an effort to keep up with the speed of the group. This applies more on training rides than on social ones.
Group rides don’t have gaps in them. If one does open up, accelerate slowly to close it. Don’t speed up suddenly as if you have to race across. You certainly shouldn’t have to brake to match the group’s speed once you have closed the gap.
Taking Your Turn
When you and your partner find yourselves on the front, just keep riding. Don’t speed up. When you’ve done your bit, agree with your partner when you will finish then simply pull slowly and smoothly to one side and slow down a little. The riders behind just keep going at the same pace and you drift backwards, rejoining at the rear of the group. The length of your turn depends on your fitness. It’s bad form to get almost to the front of the group and then not do a turn at all, so if you are struggling with the speed of the group, tell your partner that you’ll just do a short turn, even a few seconds, then peel off together. Equally, if you’re one of the stronger riders, don’t sit on the front all day. Do a couple of minutes, say, then let someone else have a go.
If you really don’t want to take a turn, perhaps because you’re ill, bonked or just hanging on for dear life, sit near the back of the group and let riders who have peeled off the front rejoin ahead of you.
Hazards and Hand Signals
Leading riders have a duty to protect following riders from approaching hazards. Broken road surfaces should be dealt with by steering to avoid them, well in advance. At the same time, indicate with a wave of the hand or a downward point which side the hazard is on. Yelling ‘hole’ doesn’t help very much unless it is impossible to avoid, e.g. a damaged surface that extends across the carriageway. You must never swerve around an obstacle at the last minute as this gives following riders no chance.
If you need to move the whole group to the side, to avoid a parked car for example, then point behind your back towards the direction you need to move. Left hand to point to the right, right hand to point to the left.
To keep the noise and waving to a minimum and so as not to confuse people, only point out obstacles that are worth pointing out. Drain covers, patches and small cracks aren’t worth the effort as they aren’t dangerous. Save your effort for potholes, sunken drain covers and so on; anything that could damage a bike or cyclist behind you.
Having mastered the basics of group riding in pairs it’s time to get a bit more adventurous and work on techniques for raising the speed of the group above that which an individual rider can manage. The principle of these rides is the same one as interval training. Short periods of high effort are followed by periods of relative rest. Each rider pulls the group along for a short time at a pace higher than they could sustain by themselves, then shelters behind other wheels to recover until it’s their turn again. This type of riding can be excellent training if done properly. It’s known as a rotating paceline, chain-gang, bit-and-bit, through-and-off and so on. You won’t be riding along in pairs, chatting away to your partner. These riding techniques involve much more moving around in the group so you need to keep your mind on what’s going on around you. They’re also for fast training rides so you shouldn’t have enough puff to talk anyway. All of the skills from the previous ride guide still apply here. You must use hand signals and vocal warnings where appropriate, follow wheels and generally ride in a smooth and predictable manner. The difference is now you will easily be hitting 40-odd kph on the flat so you really do need to be alert.
The chaingang is a tried and tested method to get a group of riders to really shift. It works as follows:
- Riders form two parallel lines, side-by-side, one moving ever so slightly faster than the other
- When a rider from the faster, advancing line (usually the inside line) reaches the front of the group, they pull over into the other line, slowing to match its pace as they do so
- The next rider from the fast line repeats the process, providing shelter to the new rider on the front of the slower line
- When a rider reaches the back of the slower, retreating line, they move across to the back of the fast line, accelerating in the process
Repeat, repeat and repeat.
This is easy enough to describe but good execution of a chain-gang depends on everybody getting a whole load of little details right. So what are these details?
What do I do when I get to the front?
So, some experienced riders have started the group rotating, you find yourself in the fast line and you’re running out of riders ahead of you. What do you do? Actually, you do as little as possible. Keep riding at the same speed that was taking you up the group and when you’re a
length clear of the lead rider in the slow line, move smoothly over to take your place at the head of their line. Then ease up on the pedals a little to allow the next rider from the fast line to pass you and repeat the manoeuvre.
Don’t hang about at the front. As soon as you have clear space to the side, move over. If you’re in second place in the fast line, you should feel as if you’re coming up almost on the shoulder of the first rider. You really don’t need to slow down much at all. A difference of only 2 kph is enough to allow the lead to change every 5 seconds or so. If you slow down too quickly, you’ll have the rider behind grabbing for their brakes or ramming you in the back. You have to be particularly careful with this when there’s a strong headwind. If you slow down too much, the speed difference between the lines becomes too great. This makes it harder to jump onto the back of the fast line when you reach the back of the group. The speed of the whole group may drop and it can be hard to pick the pace up again without getting untidy. This is a training ride, remember, so slow is bad.
Be wary about changing gear to slow down. This can result is an abrupt change in pace, especially if you mis-shift and change down two or more gears by mistake.
For goodness’ sake don’t speed up. Don’t get carried away and push harder just because you’re on the front. If you need to, glance at your computer to make sure you keep the speed constant. If you think the group’s got slower, say so as you go around and try to get everyone to
pick it up a little. Pushing through hard doesn’t work. The next rider to come through now has to struggle to get past you, the slow line has to speed up to get in your shelter and the rhythm of the group is upset immediately. (In fact, if you want to disrupt a chase in a race situation, this is a good way to do it.)
If the rider ahead of you charges off, you must ignore them. Don’t try to follow attacks: this is a group ride, not a race. Just move over as if they hadn’t been there and carry on riding, letting them dangle off the front. There’s no need to allow the rhythm of the group to get disturbed. Either they’ll come back in a while, looking silly, or if they’re super-strong they’ll disappear into the distance. When that happens, you wonder why they bothered turning up to a group ride in the first place.
Stick close together. Now you’re moving at speed and really need shelter from the wind, it’s all the more important to keep it tight with small gaps front-to-back and side-to-side. You should feel as if you could bump elbows with the other line. As with all group riding situations,
ride with gaps you feel comfortable with but be aware of larger gaps opening up. If one does appear, accelerate smoothly to close it; don’t sprint across.
What do I do when I’m at the back?
When you have slid to the back of the slow line, that’s the end of your rest. On hitting the back, move out and press on the pedals a bit harder to bring you onto the back of the fast line. Keep it steady as you move up the line, no sudden accelerations and don’t let gaps open. You’ll be at the front again in a short while, then you’ll have done your bit and can drop back for another rest. It can be helpful to say ‘last man’ as you move onto the back of the fast line. This lets the rider know they’re now at the back of the slow line and that they have to move up in their turn.
Which way does the group rotate?
This depends on where the wind is coming from. If there’s a crosswind, the rule is that the slow line should be in the wind. This offers more shelter to the fast line so that riders aren’t already knackered when they reach the front. Therefore, rotate anticlockwise for a crosswind from the left and clockwise for a crosswind from the right. You may need to switch directions a few times during a ride, particularly at 90 degree junctions.
I’ve had enough, how do I get a rest?
If you have trouble coming through to do your turn, it’s time to take a break. It’s bad form to struggle at the front, taking ages to get there and move over, because, you guessed it, this messes up the rhythm. When you get to the back, drop well past the last rider in the slow line, making it obvious you aren’t participating any more. You may need to call out to the rider ahead of you. Something like ‘go on’ usually works and the lines can begin rotating with you hanging off the back. Note that this isn’t a good place to be. Your shelter gets interrupted every time someone swings over ahead of you and you don’t get the training benefits of intervals followed by rests.
If you find yourself regularly at the back of chain-gangs, you ought to join a slower group until your fitness picks up. Your training will be more effective if you’re not missing turns. If you recover enough to feel like you can begin to participate again, move out from behind the slow line to behind the fast line. This makes it obvious that you’re going to rejoin the chain-gang and you can accelerate into the fast line when you get a chance. Someone may well notice you and wave you in.
Look! There’s a gap
On a fast-paced ride, gaps can open up as people tire or take too long to move from the slow line to the back of the fast one. If that happens, stronger riders should be prepared to preserve the flow by filling these gaps, even if it means jumping across and moving back up the line early. The retreating line will sort itself out if it misses a rider, a gap in the advancing line disrupts the whole group.
How big should the group be?
With fewer than 5 or 6 people, it’s hardly worthwhile doing a chain-gang. Instead, it’s often better to have a single paceline where the rider at the front does a turn, then pulls off to one side, slowing slightly to rejoin the back of the line. All the same rules apply here. Come through
smoothly without sudden changes of pace and keep things tight. The difference is that you choose how long your turn is. Stronger riders can take longer turns but you must not tie up and slow the group down, neither must you work yourself so hard that you drop off the back. Keep
something in the tank at the end of each pull. To let the rider behind know that you’re pulling over at the end of your turn rather than moving out into the road to avoid an obstacle, wave them through with a little flick of the elbow.
As the group gets bigger, the ratio of rest periods to intervals becomes greater. This can be a good way to really get some speed up; once you get a group of a dozen or so riders working smoothly together you can really motor. However, chain-ganging in large groups has some drawbacks:
- More rests and less work means less training benefit.
- There’s likely to be a wider spread of abilities so the group will be too fast for some but too slow for others.
- Larger groups are more unwieldy on the roads and obstruct traffic more.
For a good training ride, 6 to 8 is about right.
How do I know if I’m in the right group?
If you always have to start missing turns early in the ride, you’re in the wrong group. Move down and get some proper training in. Your fitness and skills will improve more quickly than by hanging on to the back of a group that’s too strong for you. If you’re barely breaking
sweat, you’re in the wrong group.
How do I know if we’re doing it right?
A well-executed chaingang feels fast and smooth, like a well-oiled machine. It won’t feel easy because you’ll be working very hard. You may well go into the red during each trip to the front, barely recovering enough to be able to repeat the process for the duration of the ride. When you finish a chain-gang exhausted but exhilarated, you were doing it right. This is how you’d ride in a breakaway group and here’s an example.
More info from British Cycling can be found here
 On a VC Venta sanctioned ride i.e. those advertised on the website, the Ride Leader is the official representative of the Club and their instructions must be adhered to. Rider Leaders will make themselves known to all new cyclists and Club members.