There have been numerous articles written on the topic of group cycling etiquette many of which are readily available on the internet. However, it's always good to revisit this topic to refresh ourselves and possibly pick up a few more pointers that we may not have been aware of.
This article has been written to assist middle order cyclists, who either ride alone or ride with the one group socially and who haven't had the benefit of riding with a range of experienced cyclists. It is not intended to be a catch all on the topic, or an authoritative statement. It's just a refresher on what many experienced cyclists consider to be good common sense and has been compiled from the author's own experience and the references listed at the end of this article.
Having been a reasonably serious group cyclist for in excess of 8 years now, I never cease to be amazed at the number of very experienced cyclists that 'hit the deck' for one reason or another, often doing major damage to themselves and others. More so than not, these falls are the result of losing concentration momentarily or forgetting the basics of group cycling etiquette.
Group cycling is often associated with road racing eg Tour de France. However, social group rides such as weekend rides with a group of friends or community charity rides such as the Bobbin Head Cycle Classic involve a significant amount of group riding. Cycling in these situations requires you to be just as aware of cycling etiquette as those who ride professional racing events.
One major benefit of cycling in a group is improved visibility. It is much easier for a motorist to see a group than a single cyclist. Another is the social aspect. Not only do you have someone to relate to while you are riding, you also have the benefit of someone to help if you puncture a tyre or have a mechanical problem.
To cycle in a group, ideally you need to do so with cyclists of similar standard to you. By not doing so, the group will tend to break up frequently. The faster riders will get frustrated having to wait for the slower riders and the slower riders will feel uncomfortable holding up the faster riders.
What Defines a Group
You have more than likely heard of the term 'Peloton'. This term is normally used in association with professional cycling events such as the Tour de France. However, it also applies loosely to any bunch, pack or group of cyclists, moving in unison and availing themselves of the reduction in energy required to propel themselves forward. This reduced energy is associated with wind shielding by other riders in the group.
In this article, rather than use the word Peloton, I'll simply refer to any bunch of cyclists riding together, at similar pace, as a group or bunch.
The Basics of Group Cycling
Be Predictable and Smooth
Always maintain a steady straight line, avoid sudden braking and changes of direction. Remember that there could be riders following closely behind or attempting to overtake. Watching through the rider in front of you will help you hold a steady straight line.
Do not become obsessed with the rear wheel directly in front of you. Look up and around and track the wheel in front of you with your peripheral vision. Try to focus four or five riders up the line so that any potential hazard will not suddenly affect you. Scan the road ahead and be ready.
When at the front of the group, avoid rushing forward (surging) unless you are trying to break away from the group. Surges cause gaps further back in the group, which affect the riders at the back, as they have to continually chase to stay with the bunch.
Remember when you are on the front of a group, you are not only responsible for yourself but everyone in the group. When you are leading, you need to monitor potential problems and give plenty of warning of impending stops, hazards or changes of pace. You also need to know where you are going.
Slowing and Stopping
Ride safely, consistently and try to stay off the brakes. If you are travelling at pace close behind another rider, and would like to slow down, rather than braking, gradually move out into the wind and slot back into position once you have slowed down. If you have a turned down handlebar bike, putting your hands on the hoods of your brakes allows you to sit more upright. This will cause your body to catch more of the wind and help to slow you down.
In Australia, normally our rear brake is on the left hand side of our handlebars and our front brake is on the right. In Europe they are generally the other way around. I tend to think of the back brake as the slowing brake and the front brake as the stopping brake. To slow down gradually, squeeze the back brake. To stop more quickly, supplement this by squeezing the front brake. A way to rationalise and remember which brake is on which side, is to think of what should happen when slowing or stopping in traffic. Because we drive on the left in Australia, we use our right hand to give a right turn and stop signal. This leaves our left hand free to brake slowly using our back brake.
Riding Two Abreast
It is perfectly legal to ride two abreast in Australia but in some situations it may not be sensible to do so. For example, if the road narrows to a single lane or there are motorists behind trying to pass, the outside (right hand) riders should slow and drop in behind an inside (kerb side) rider. Even on roads with multiple lanes, you should never ride more than two abreast.
Don't 'Half Wheel'
When at the front of a group, don't 'half wheel'. This means riding a fraction (eg half a wheel) in front of the rider beside you. This automatically makes the trailing adjacent rider feel the need to catch up. Often 'half wheelers' will also speed up too, so the pace of the group speeds up as the trailing rider tries to catch up. The lead rider needs to get a feel for his/her partner's natural pace and try to match it. Half wheeling is also a dangerous practice, especially for the rider trying to catch up. If the rider a 'half wheel' in front moves off line for one reason or another eg due to a gust of wind or to avoid a pot hole, and the trailing rider's wheel touches the rear wheel of the lead rider, this will invariably bring the trailing rider down.
Point out Hazards
Hazards such as parked cars, holes, loose gravel, broken glass, oil or debris on the road, can bring the cyclists behind you unstuck, especially if they are riding close to your wheel at pace and can't see the road directly in front. For example, calling out "hole" as well as pointing down simultaneously is very helpful to the riders following you. It is just as important for the trailing riders to pass the message on down the line.
Some typical verbal commands and hand signals include:
· Hole in the pavement: Call 'hole' while pointing down either to the left or right of your bike, depending on which side the hole is approaching on.
· Gravel or sand on the road: Call 'gravel' or 'sand' while indicating with your hand down, flat and parallel to the ground and moving it from side to side
· Car on the road coming towards you or parked and coming up: Call 'car up'
· Car behind intending to pass: Call 'car back'
· Slowing for one reason or another: Call 'slowing'
· Stopping for one reason or another: Call 'stopping' and ideally, hold your right arm out parallel to the ground, bent upwards at the elbow 90 degrees with your hand flat and pointing upwards.
· Slower cyclist or pedestrian on the road ahead: Call 'Rider Up' or 'Pedestrian Up'.
· Road narrows or the cycling lane you are in converges: Call 'Single up' and indicate with your left arm by sweeping it out and around behind your back
· Approaching a T intersection with riders behind you: Call 'car left' or 'car right' if cars are approaching the intersection from the left or right or, if the intersection is clear, call 'clear'
· Making a right turn: Put your right arm out, straight and parallel to the ground, with your hand flat at 90 degrees to the ground.
· Making a left turn: Put your left arm out, straight and parallel to the ground, with your hand flat at 90 degrees to the ground.
· Passing another rider: Call 'passing on your right' when you approach from behind and are within earshot.
Of course, if you don't feel confident taking one hand off the handlebars to indicate a hazard or make a hand signal, don't do so. Simply call out.
Traffic lights are a particular hazard for groups. Ideally, no cyclist should run a red light. If you are on the front of a group and the approaching lights turn amber, call 'Lights' then 'Stopping'. If you are on the front of a group and the lights turn amber just as you reach them, best to call 'Rolling' if you think the whole group will get through before the lights turn red. By doing this, the communication is clear that you will all proceed through the lights together. A dangerous situation arises when a rider further back in the group elects to stop quickly at the red light when others in the group understand they are rolling through. In this situation it's much safer for those further back in the group to run the red light by continuing to roll through. This avoids rear-ending another rider due to indecision.
Distance between Riders
Ideally allow at least a rider's width between you and an adjacent rider and, not less than a bike length gap to the rider in front. Touching handlebars while moving can play havoc with your balance, give you a start and will possibly bring you unstuck. If you brush shoulders, hands or bars with another rider try to stay relaxed through your upper body as this helps absorb any bumps. Brushing shoulders, hands or bars with another rider often happens in groups and is quite safe provided riders do not panic, brake or change direction.
Riding too close to the rider in front will invariably bring you unstuck if you touch his/ her wheel. A rider in front has most of his/her weight on the back wheel so, by touching his/her wheel, with your lightly loaded front steering wheel, you'll invariably be the one to lose control of your bike.
Ideally, never overtake another rider on the inside. Riders don't expect to have someone passing on their left and may move to the left to ride closer to the road shoulder or to let other riders pass on the right. A dangerous situation develops when a cyclist is slowing and moving to the left and another rider tries to pass on the inside. When approaching another rider from behind and intending to pass, call 'passing on your right' to make sure there is clear communication between you and the other rider. However, if the rider you intend to pass is out towards the center of the road and making no attempt to move to the left, call 'passing on your left'.
When at the front of a group and riding downhill you are pushing the wind whereas the cyclists behind you are being shielded (slip streaming) and will naturally tend to roll quicker. To maintain the natural pace of the group, the front riders should pedal otherwise the riders behind will have to brake continuously to stay behind the lead riders.
Riding up hill
Many riders, even the experienced ones, slow momentarily when they first get out of the saddle to negotiate a rise or a hill. Changing down the gears on a bike that is not properly adjusted can also cause a rider to drop a chain. In both these situations a bike decelerates and the loss of momentum may cause the rider behind to run into you. Ideally, maintain at least a couple of bike lengths between you and the rider in front when riding up hill to give yourself reasonable reaction time.
Don't leave gaps
When following another rider in a group, maximise your energy savings by staying close to the rider in front. Cyclists can save around 30 per cent of their energy at high speed by following a wheel (slip streaming or drafting). If you fall back for one reason or another you'll have to work a lot harder to catch the group. Even if you are strong enough to do so, you may find this beyond your capacity on the day. Best to hang in there in the first place if you can. Once a gap opens it's very hard to catch a group that has wind shielding on its side. Also, if you leave a gap, riders behind you will get frustrated and ride around you. When riding in a group and, there is no one beside the rider in front of you, move into that gap and stay with the bunch.
Cover your Brakes
If riding within 5 bike lengths of another rider in front – cover your brakes. It is more comfortable for many with turned down handlebars to rest their hands on the horizontal part of the bar and be more upright. This may not be condusive to a low wind profile. However, it is certainly easier on the back. If you don't cover your brakes, a dangerous situation can arise if there is an issue with the rider in front and you need to slow or stop quickly. The time it takes for you to react, get your hands into position and squeeze the brakes may not be sufficient to prevent you from running into the leading rider. Obviously, it depends on the speed of the group. However, as a general rule, always cover your brakes unless you are on the front.
Obey the Road Rules
Your behaviour when cycling is always on display, especially to motorists. Every time you do something illegal or dangerous, a motorist notices and this creates animosity towards cyclists in general. There's always going to be an angry motorist out there who hates cyclists for one reason or another and will hurl abuse at you or not leave an appropriate gap when passing you. Best just to hold your tongue and not aggravate the situation. Ideally, just take a note of the car type and number plate (or take a photo of the car with your smartphone) and report the incident to the police. Better to lose the battle and win the war.
There are a number or ways for cyclists to ride in formation. Formation riding is all about sharing the load by pushing the wind on the front and maintaining a consistent riding pace. A common technique to ride in formation is a 'rotating paceline'. This technique can involve taking turns at the front riding in pairs for a time and then rotating or rotating continuously.
Riding in Pairs then Rotating
After an agreed period of time or, number of kms, the right hand line front rider indicates he/she is ready to move across to the left, increases speed by a few kms an hour and moves to the left in front of the inside line front rider. As this rider moves across to the left, the inside line front rider ideally should call 'clear' when the new front rider to the inside line is sufficiently far enough in front of him/her to avoid a collision. Once the front outside line rider has moved across to the front of the inside line, this rider then slows to the pace of the inside line. During this manoeuvre, the outside line speeds up while the inside line continues to maintain a uniform pace. The outside line front rider, immediately behind the rider who has just moved to the left, now takes the lead at the front of the outside line and shares the lead with the rider who has just moved across to the inside line.
At the rear of the group, as the outside line moves forward a few kms an hour faster than the inside line, the rider at the end of the outside line should call 'last rider' to warn the last rider on the inside line to move to the right to take up the last rider position in the outside line. The group then continues along at the same pace in pairs until such time as the outside front rider has had enough and calls or indicates with a rotating arm above his /her head that he/she is ready to move to the left. The manoeuvre then repeats.
A variation to the above is a continuously rotating paceline where the outside line is continually moving faster than the inside line and there is no pairing of riders.
Cycling is all about enjoyment, fitness and maintaining social connections. It is not without risks. However, with common sense and by practicing the basics of group cycling etiquette, the risks are substantially reduced.
1. Australia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
2. How to Ride – Your Complete Guide to Bikes & Cyclng by Phil Latz – BA Press – 2012
3. Miscellaneous Notes by Paul Enzelides (a good friend)
About the Author
Bob Elsworth is Team Leader of the Mobile Support Riders for the Bobbo.
He is a regular group cyclist and cycles 3 to 4 days a week. He rides for pleasure and fitness.