Riding in a bunch can be the most enjoyable experience if done in the right way. However, bunch riding can also be a huge pain if people in the group don’t understand the rules. Everyone needs to know these rules for everyone’s safety.
These tips have circulated around a number of Brisbane bunches for many years now and with so many new riders out there getting their first taste of bunch riding, I thought it worth sharing them here.
Be predictable with all actions Avoid sudden braking and changes of direction. Try to maintain a steady straight line. Remember that there are riders following closely behind. To slow down, gradually move out into the wind and slot back into position in the bunch. By putting your hands on the hoods on your brakes you can “sit up” and put more of your body in the wind to slow down slightly without using your brakes.
Brake carefully Ride safely and try to stay off the brakes. If you are inexperienced and too nervous to ride close to the wheel in front of you, stay alone at the back and practice. When the pace eases, don’t brake suddenly, instead ride to the side of the wheel in front and ease the pedalling off, then drop back on the wheel. Practice on the back and soon you will be able to move up the line with a partner.
Rolling through - swapping off - taking a turn The most common way to take a turn on the front of the group is for each pair to stay together until they get to the front. After having a turn on the front (generally about the same amount of time as everyone else is taking), the pair separates and moves to each side, allowing the riders behind to come through to the front. To get to the back, stop pedalling for a while to slow down, keep an eye out for the end of the bunch and fall back into line there. It is safer for everyone if you get to the back as quickly as possible as the group is effectively riding four-abreast until you and your partner slot in at the back of the bunch.
NB: Some bunches use a method of changing the rider that known as the “rolling box”. In this version, the rider at the right hand side of the front pairing decides when a change should be made. After letting their partner know, the call is made, “Changing!”. The rider on the right accelerates ever so gently, the rider on the left soft-pedals for a short time. The rider on the right, when clearly ahead of his (former) partner, moves smoothly into the position as the front left rider, and the rider who was second in line on the right moves up to beside the new leader.
So the whole right hand file moves up, and the left hand file drops back. And there’s no need for any sudden accelerations in any of this. The last rider on the left file, who no longer has a partner beside him, moves to the right, and move up to ride beside the rider in front of him.
Be smooth with turns at the front of the group Avoid surges unless you are trying to break away from the group. Surges cause gaps further back in the bunch which in turn create a “rubber band” effect as riders at the back have to continually chase to stay with the bunch. This is particularly evident in larger bunches when cornering or taking off from standing starts at traffic lights where the front of the bunch can be almost at full speed before the back of the bunch is moving.
No half wheeling When you finally make it to the front, don’t ‘half wheel’. This means keeping half a wheel in front of your partner. This automatically makes your partner speed up slightly to pull back along side you. Often half wheelers will also speed up, so the pace of the bunch invariably speeds up as the riders behind try to catch up. This is the very annoying symptom usually of somebody who is a bit nervous and excited. Not wanting the rest of the group to end up not being next to each other in their pairs, (or not wanting the other guy to think that he’s better than you), you speed up to match his pace. But, he still needs to be that little bit in front so he speeds up - again, until everyone in the bunch has gone up two or three gears and 10km/hr and no one is particularly happy. REMEDY - when you are second wheel, make sure you know the general speed of the bunch, when you go to the front, keep your speed around the same, and keep your wheels and handlebars in line with the person next to you.
Choosing when to come off the front You and your partner need to do some planning when you get on the front so that when you roll through you come off at a place where the road is wide enough for the group to be four-wide for a short time. With some planning, it is often possible to come off the front a few hundred metres earlier or later to avoid a dangerous situation and avoid unnecessarily upsetting motorists.
Always retire to the back of the bunch If riders push in somewhere in the middle of the bunch rather than retiring to the back after taking a turn, cyclists at the back will not be able to move forward and take a turn of their own. This will make them very cranky and colourful language may ensue. No one wants to be stuck down the back of the bunch for the entire ride and subjected to the “rubber band” effect. Remember that riding in a bunch is about all riders sharing the workload.
NB: this doesn’t really apply to bunches who use the rolling box rather than dropping all the way to the back in one turn.
Pedal downhill Pedal downhill when at the front of the bunch. Cyclists dislike having to ride under brakes.
Point out obstacles Point out obstacles such as loose gravel, broken glass, holes, rocks or debris on the road, calling out “hole” etc as well as pointing is helpful in case someone is not looking at your hand when you point. It is just as important to pass the message on, not just letting those close to the front know. Another obstacle is a parked car, call out “car” and sweep your hand around your back to let people behind know. Point out runners or walkers on bike tracks and slower bikes if you are passing someone on the road.
Hold your wheel An appropriate gap between your front wheel and the person in front is around 50cm. Keep your hands close to the brakes in case of sudden slowing. Sometimes people who are not used to riding in a bunch will feel too nervous at this close range - riding on the right side is generally less nerve-racking for such people as they feel less hemmed in. Watching “through” the wheel in front of you to one or two riders ahead will help you hold a smooth, straight line.
Don’t leave gaps when following wheels Maximise your energy savings by staying close to the rider in front. Cyclists save about 30 per cent of their energy at high speed by following a wheel. Each time you leave a gap you are forcing yourself to ride alone to bridge it. Also, riders behind you will become annoyed and ride around you. If you are in the bunch and there is no one beside the person in front of you, you should move into that gap (otherwise you will be getting less windbreak than everyone else will). Conversely, if you are that person and no-one moves into that gap beside you, you should move to the back of the bunch, the next pair to roll off will come back and one of those riders will fall in beside you.
Don’t overlap wheels A slight direction change or gust of wind could easily cause you to touch wheels with the rider in front and fall.
Do not panic if you brush shoulders, hands or bars with another rider Try to stay relaxed in your upper body to absorb any bumps. This is a part of riding in close bunches and is quite safe provided riders do not panic, brake or change direction.
Don’t prop Many riders, even the experienced ones, freewheel momentarily when they first get out of the saddle to go over a rise or a hill. When doing this, the bike is forced backwards. This can cause chaos in a tightly bunched group of riders.
The sensation of the rider in front coming back at you is unpleasant and can cause crashes. Try to keep forward pressure on the pedals when you get out of the saddle to avoid this situation.
When climbing hills, avoid following a wheel too closely Many riders often lose their momentum when rising out of the saddle on a hill which can cause a sudden deceleration. This can often catch a rider who is following too closely, resulting in a fall from a wheel touch.
Look ahead Do not become obsessed with the rear wheel directly in front of you. Try to focus four or five riders up the line so that any ‘problem’ will not suddenly affect you. Scan the road ahead for potential problems, red lights etc, and be ready.
Obey the road rules Especially at traffic lights - if you are on the front, and the lights turn orange, they will definitely be red by the time the back of the bunch goes through the intersection. You will endanger the lives of others if you run it.
Lead in front Remember when you are on the front, you are not only responsible for yourself but everyone in the group. When you are leading the bunch, try to monitor potential problems and give plenty of warning of impending stops or changes of pace. Make sure you know where you are going.
Stay together When riding with a partner in a line of two’s, stay close. Don’t ride too far away from your partner because the wheel in front of you intimidates you. The gap you’ve left between you and your partner is a waste of space and to a motorist behind, it appears that you are three wide. This is a good way to antagonise motorists.
Use the entire lane If you are travelling on a multi-lane road, it is permitted and often best practice to actually take the left lane. This effectively means that traffic does not squeeze past, but actually changes lanes to pass us; giving everyone plenty of room.
Don’t use your aero bars in a bunch ride Never use your aero bars in a bunch ride - not even if you are at the front. Using aero bars means that your hands are away from the brakes. Aero bars are for time trial or non-draft triathlon use only.
Experienced riders should share their knowledge Experienced riders should point out any mistakes made by less experienced riders. This must be done diplomatically of course, but it is important to make people aware of unsafe riding and help them learn the right behaviour. Riding in a bunch is about everyone’s safety.
There’s a reason that the Tour de France doesn’t just race up L’Alpe d’Huez every day for 21 days. It’s the same reason that the Giro d’Italia doesn’t race up Monte Zoncolan for three weeks. Why? Because the professional peloton is made up of riders like Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara, Thomas Voekler and Cadel Evans. Riders with different physiological characteristics who are all suited to different disciplines - sprinters, time trialists, rouleurs and grimpeurs. There’s also another reason - the racing would become predictable, one note, and boring after a time.
I love the fact that I can watch Cav, perfectly led out by Mark Renshaw, win on the Champs Elysses; that I can see Cancellara race and win a TT around Monaco; watch Voeckler cut loose in the Massif Central in the third week of a tour when the legs of the sprinters are tiring; and sit up late to see the fireworks as the GC favourites battle it out in the climbs of the Alps and the Pyrenees. Yes, that’s right, I don’t want to see the same type of rider win every stage of the Tour. I want to see all different kinds of racing with all the different kinds of tactics required given a chance to play out - and see the best riders in the world all get a chance to claim a Tour stage win, the most famous of victories.
It’s not just the Grand Tours that recognise the need for races to have different characteristics, the one day classics also ensure there are plenty of high profile, highly sought prizes for different kinds of riders. Cav will never get over the lumps to win the Giro di Lombardia. Alberto Contador is unlikely to ever ride let alone win Milan-San Remo. We’ll never see a Schleck brother in Paris-Roubaix but they’ll always shine in Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Some riders will shine on different kinds of parcours but they’re a rare breed. Philipe Gilbert is one such rider. The recently crowned Australian National Champion Jack Bobridge may be another.
The need for variety is also recognised by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). Each year the World Championships rotate from city to city - and the route profile changes as well. Cadel Evans won in Medrisio in 2009; gave it a real crack in Geelong in 2010 but acknowledges that Copenhagen in 2011 does not suit him and the Australian team should be built around our best sprinters. This is exactly as it should be.
The other benefit to cycling more generally of this approach is that it helps grow the sport - something that is part of the UCI’s charter. Cycling fans (and potential fans) from around the world get a chance to see the best cyclists in the world race in and around the streets they ride on themselves. The huge success that was the Geelong World Championships was a massive shot-in-the-arm for cycling in Australia and it’s critical that the cycling hierarchy and promoters within Australia continue to build upon it - especially the high profile events like the Tour Down Under, the Herald Sun Tour and the National Championships.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the Australian National Championships, the organisers see it completely differently. Their continued belief that the National Championships is best served by racing over the same parcours year-after-year seems both short sighted and self-indulgent. They argue that if a sprinter wants to win the National Championship then they should train harder which is patently ridiculous.
I don’t care how hard Mark Cavendish trains, he is never going to win Liège–Bastogne–Liège or La Flèche Wallonne. And for the organisers of the National Championship to insult riders of the calibre of Robbie McEwen (one of Australian cycling’s great servants and one of its most winningest riders) and Mark Renshaw along these lines suggests they appear to have their own interests at heart rather than the interests of all Australian cyclists and the future of Australian cycling more generally.
An Australian National Championship that rotated across two or even three different parcours seems the most logical solution. Keep the current course at Buninyong as it is perfect for the rouleurs and the grimpeurs (though the real climbers might like it even tougher). And there needs to be another course more suited to the sprinters - a discipline that Australia has an abundance of riches in - as I for one think the likes of Matt Goss, Mark Renshaw, Brett Lancaster, Graeme Brown, Jono Cantwell or CJ Sutton would all be worthy champions.
I was finally silly enough to put my hand up to accompany some of my more slender cycling brothers on what has fast become known as the KHR Pain Train. A nasty 40+ kms with some 850m of climbing including quite a few pinches of 20%.
The ride was developed as training for Brisbane cyclists looking to head to France and tackle the Alps and the Pyrenees - though my riding buddies are using it as training for Grafton to Inverell (G2I). This version is the ‘Bronze’ or easy version. Yes, that’s right, there’s a ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’ version too. The object of the ride is to do as much climbing in as few kilometres as possible without ever doubling back on yourself i.e. taking the same route twice.
For a big guy like myself (193cm and 110kgs) this is completely the opposite of how I usually prefer to spend time on the bike. I’m a Redcliffe via Mango Hill guy. Give me a hundred flattish kilometres with a couple of hundred metres of climbing. Or if I’m heading upwards, I’ll take O’Reilly’s everytime - a steady 30kms of climbing at 5% with a whooshing 30kms downhill to accompany it.
So, how was it? Ghastly. A god awful, excruciating, giant bag full of hurt! Around every corner, another climb - much of it at 12 and 13%, some at 16 and 17% and several nasty pinches at 20% or more. Fark me. On and on it went with the occasional downhill only, it seems, in order to commence climbing once again. My gang looked after me though. Lot’s of encouragement. Waiting patiently as I ground my way to the top of each new nasty pinch. Warning me of what lay ahead, whilst keeping the nastiest of them a secret so as to not dent my resolve. Chapeau, South Bank Bunch. Chapeau.
Now it’s done, now there’s a tick in the box, I’ve been thinking am I silly enough to tackle it again? Probably. I don’t think I could do it every week. And I think my cycling buddies would pretty quickly get sick of waiting for me at the top of most of the sharper climbs. But I can see that the occasional ride on the KHR Pain Train might actually give back more in the long term than it takes out on the day.
It’s rare for the sprinters to be out of the spotlight for so long in the first week of the Tour, making the pancake flat 153.5km short Stage 4 from Cambrai to Reims the perfect stage for them to finally strut their stuff.
At the 2km mark five plucky riders put their hand up and dashed clear at the insistence of Dmitri Champion (AG2R). Iban Mayoz (Footon-Servetto), Nicolas Vogondy (Bbox-Bouygues Telecom), Francis De Greef (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi) joined Champion and set off on what was always going to be mission impossible.
Back in the bunch the GC contenders and their bruised and battered lieutenants clocked off and soft pedalled mid-bunch as the teams of the sprinters moved to the front, intent on keeping the breakaway on the tightest of leashes.
Cutaway to a stunning shot of a chateau in the beautiful French countryside
The trickiest part of todays’s stage would be the nine roundabouts to be negotiated in the closing kilometres. But with Columbia-HTC doing what they do best - barreling along the boulevards at top speed - the peloton was strung out into a long line making the run in safer than might have been expected.
Approaching the closing kilometre it was Lampre’s Hondo who sprang the big surprise, hitting out early and disrupting the Columbia train. All of a sudden Columbia seemed to a man short, Eisel was swamped and Renshaw found himself on the front a little early. The powerful Australian pulled hard, Cavendish on his wheel and the green jersey wearing Hushovd perfectly placed behind the Manx man. As Renshaw swung off, Petacchi blasted off down the left with McEwen (Katusha) and Julian Dean (Gamin) hot on his heels. A surprised Cavendish launched his sprint but within seconds realised that today was not his day, dropping his head before sitting up and coasting towards the line.
Up ahead Petacchi continued powering towards the line with Julian Dean, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), McEwen and Robbie Hunter (Garmin) scrapping for the minor placings. It was a commanding performance from the big Italian - clearly the fastest finisher in this year’s race.
The biggest surprise on the Day? Cavendish. The world’s most confident man, appears to have misplaced his. Suck it up, Cav. It’s time to win a sprint.