One of the best things in cycling is something we don’t practice enough
Riding a team time-trial
Riding in a small group of 10 to 15 riders, all with the same objective of going as fast as possible, is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a cyclist. We don’t practice it enough. The trick is to constantly change position so that no one rider is at the front taking the full force of the wind for more than a few seconds at a time. The whole group can thus sustain a much higher speed than any one rider on his own.
You form two lines, one constantly moving up and the other constantly slipping back. Whichever line you are in, you must stay as close as possible to the wheel in front, constantly adjusting the pressure on the pedals and changing gear or braking as necessary to keep the minimum distance and stay in the sweet spot.
In the line slipping back you ride 2-3 km/h slower, and as each rider in turn reaches the back he changes lane and accelerates quickly to join the line moving up. The trick is to time this just right so that as you move across your front wheel slips in just behind the back wheel of the rider in front. If you leave it late you have to make a sudden and violent sprint to get back into the protected space.
In the line moving up the effort is slightly greater, but you only really feel it when the rider in front moves across and it is your turn to face the full force of the wind. The pain in your legs increases suddenly as you put out 20% or 30% more power to drive forward, working hard to overtake the rider as he eases slightly and drops back, looking at his front wheel out of the corner of your eye and moving across as it falls out of sight, completing the lane change and then easing off in turn as smoothly as possible to join the line slipping back.
It is fairly easy on straight, wide roads with little or no wind. It is much more challenging on winding roads with gradient changes and strong cross-winds. Such conditions require a fierce concentration and are stressful.
But what satisfaction when it works well, each rider moving up, across, back and across again in a graceful, multi-coloured ballet, only the fixed grimaces and staring eyes betraying the effort needed!
Nobody speaks. The peloton is nevertheless surprisingly noisy, the constant wind roar and flapping of loose clothing combining with the whirring or clicking of different free-wheel hubs, the roar of deep-profile carbon wheels and the hiss from low-profile aluminium rims punctuated by the metallic clacks of frequent gear changes. The two lines almost touch and sometimes you can hear the laboured breathing of one of the other riders making an extra effort to close a gap.
You have the same sense of satisfying teamwork rowing in an eight: that same need for perfect synchronisation, each person making his contribution to the team effort in a dynamic, ever-changing search for the perfect balance; that momentary euphoric feeling of effortless power that made all the long periods of gut-wrenching effort seem worthwhile. In the groove, some call it, those moments which seemed to go on forever, your body washed with ecstatic feelings of all-powerful, all-conquering dominance, no pain yet, the glycogen diminishing, micro-tears in the muscle building with the lactic acid until suddenly the pain kicks in, things come back to reality and you hope to God the race is over because you can’t row another stroke.
In rowing the river never changes gradient and if there are any bends to worry about they are the cox’s problem, not yours. On a bike, however, although riding in a peloton brings a fantastic advantage, it also brings danger in the shape of the other riders. A moment of inattention or a clumsy effort to drink can easily lead to clashing wheels and bringing the whole bunch down.
High speed riding in a peloton is especially challenging – and exciting – when the road winds around bends and goes up and down short hills. The trick is to keep a constant effort, meaning that the speed will vary widely between climbing and descending and must be maintained through the corners, no matter how fast. Each rider has to be very alert to the road conditions, the placing of the other riders and his own sensations, staying constantly 30 cm behind the wheel in front and almost touching shoulders with the line alongside. Easy enough while climbing in a straight line at 17-18 km/h, this is a lot harder when descending around corners at 55-60 km/h!
Ride safe and enjoy!