Leader of the Pack
Written by Steve Souers
So you show up at a club ride and want to be the Leader of the Pack. Well first thing is to think about your priorities for the ride that day. First ought to be safety, then making sure you actually ride as a group and finally getting everyone home. If these are not your priorities maybe you are not the leader.
Safety means being sure that riders understand how to ride in a pack. Asking in the parking lot does no good, this is an observed skill where you have to actually spend a little time at the back of the pack watching those you are unfamiliar with riding their bike. Crashes with other riders hurt but cars kill! You must always be aware of cars that can endanger the group. The worst offense as a leader is crossing an intersection and shouting out clear when it is not safe for the entire group to pass through the intersection. NEVER announce “Clear” unless it is safely clear for the entire group from BOTH directions. Should the size of the group and volume of traffic require the group to split when crossing a highway then you put your foot down and wait on the other side until everyone is safely across. Finally no one in the group should cross the center line of the road. First of all this is the law and secondly it eliminates all need to call out Car Up and most instances of calling out Car Back. If everyone observes the center line rule cars can safely navigate around the group.
Shouting about every shadow in the road leads to the Boy Who Cried Wolf mentality in the pack. There is no need to announce every single ripple in the road surface. If there is a hole the leader of the paceline is responsible for smoothly guiding the group around the hole rather than shouting it out. There will be times when a road hazard needs to be announced but a properly led paceline can safely move along the road in silence. If you find yourself announcing more than two or three road hazards during the entire ride you are not leading the group you just happen to be in front. Finally, I checked the dictionary and the word “corner” is not spelled g-r-a-v-e-l. Riders in northeast Indiana need to assume most corners will have some gravel and plan appropriately to safely navigate through the corner. Silence is Golden and works well for a properly led paceline.
Keeping a group together requires a good deal of effort and much of that is not necessarily the hard work on the front of the pack. To keep the group together you need to control the pace of the group so that it is appropriate for the slower riders, not the faster riders. This means rolling out from the start at a reasonable pace to allow everyone to warm up and find their place in the pack. Once the pace has been determined then the leader needs to control the pace. This can be done by looking back or more subtlety by simply listening to those behind, you should be able to hear conversation and the occasional freewheel ratcheting. As you lead the paceline think about effort rather than speed. When you turn into the wind maintain the same effort rather than speed and shift to an easier gear. If the group is suddenly blessed with a tailwind then shift and gradually speed up but maintain the same effort. On a downhill the leader needs to pedal and on the uphill make sure they don’t kick back when standing. Should the group stop talking or riders start to drop the best thing the leader can do is shift to an easier cog in the back, unless you are skilled at high cadence this will automatically slow you down to a pace appropriate for the group. Smooth and steady with attention to detail makes a good leader.
If you are the leader of the pack once you are done at the front move back a few positions. From here you can still shelter those behind you and observe the riders on the front. If they pick up the speed/effort it is critical you do not try to keep up. Let them ride away off the front and stay in the paceline maintaining a pace appropriate for the group. In a double paceline have the rider next to you stay at the groups pace and don’t let him try to keep up with the speedsters. The riders off the front will eventually realize they have sped up too much and either ride away by themselves or come back and join the group. It is critical that the group does not chase rabbits, if someone is up the road and they want to ride with the group let them slow down and come back rather than speeding up to catch them. If you want to ride by yourself you should not show up at a group ride. If you want to ride fast and impress people you should enter a race and pin a number on your jersey. If you want to lead a group then you keep the group together.
Finally a little group ride etiquette. If someone flats the group stops and waits safely off the side of the road. If you flat you are expected to have the tools and knowledge to repair it in a reasonable period of time or ask for help if you need it. If you are a stronger rider in the group make it a point to be on the windy side of the paceline so you can protect the riders who may be struggling. In that double paceline recruit the other strong riders and get them all on the windy side too, tightly together, creating a wall to protect the other riders from the wind. Traditionally we have kept the whole group together until the first route split, there will still be plenty of miles for a hammerfest to win your pretend race. Everyone does not need to take a pull or pull for the same length of time (or at all), but those who are up front pulling need to be aware of the pace and work to keep the group together. Do not drag riders out into the countryside and then drop them leaving them to find their own way home. You got them out there; someone in the group should take responsibility for riding back with them. This may mean sacrificing your own ride once in a while and accompanying the exhausted rider back to the start. At the very least before you let someone drift off the back make sure they have a map and know where they are going. If you are drifting off the back you have a responsibility to ask for help if you need it.
If you simply want to ride for fitness then lock yourself in a dark, dank basement and pedal away the nowhere miles on a trainer. Think about this the next time you shell yet another rider out the back of a pack in the middle of nowhere because eventually your group rides will be all alone as folks begin to find group rides that ride as a group. If you are not the lead dog the view is the same but if you are not a good leader everyone views you the same.