From time to time I get asked for cycling advice. Being an expert at Radio Commercial Production, I am supremely qualified to offer opinions and guidance on all things cycling. What more do you need? Bike qualifications? Well, I once jumped 23 Tonka trucks in my front yard. What if I told you that the bunny hop was invented in my neighborhood? It was. In fact it was originally performed by this guy named Wambolt a few streets down from me in Menomonee Falls, WI. Within weeks, everyone in our neighborhood was doing the Wambolt Hop. I guess the name didn’t stick. If you must press for credentials, I’ve worked at a bike shop. However, don’t ask me to build a wheel or glue a tubular. I’ve been riding bikes since I was a kid, built my first BMX bike from an old Schwinn. As a 110 pound 8th or 9th grader, I circumnavigated Waukesha County WI on my first road bike, a Royce Union with a boombox blasting The Who strapped to the front rack. I later took it apart, down the frame, and gave it the most hideous multi-colored splash-paint job you’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure I left it locked up outside when I graduated from a University of Wisconsin college and drove away to wonderful career in radio. Later in the 90’s, when I first started racing I bought my first mountain bike, a yellow, made-in-Wisconsin splash-painted Trek 830. Realizing the marketing genius of my splash paint job was precisely the moment I knew I had missed my calling and in fact was a cycling savant.
As a savant, I get questions on road cycling etiquette and how-to all the time, most of them stemming from a humbling experience where the poor soul was left sniveling and crying for mama between bouts of the pukes as their riding companions rode away to the great place where the sides of the road meet the horizon. That said there are really only two reasons one gets dropped on a ride. 95.7% of the time you get dropped is because your either not strong enough, or did something stoopid…I mean, something that you shouldn’t have. 4.2% of the time, can actually be attributed to something else like someone crashing into you or making the smart choice to not chance darting out in front of a car to stick with the boneheads that did. .1% of the time, you’re actually a pro that sacrificed themselves for the benefit of the team.
My gym teacher once said, “your friends won’t tell you, but I will…you stink.” There’s two ways to stink at road cycling: either not being strong enough to ride with the bunch or just not being smart enough. As far as strength, other than healing up, getting well, taking your allergy medicine, continually getting beat until one day you hang, or getting a coach and training...you’re on your own to HTFU.
For the rest of you that felt as if you were strong enough to “hang” with the bunch, but got dropped, obviously you did something, uh, you shouldn’t have. If you don’t have the brawn, use your brain. Most of the time cyclists get dropped because they put themselves in a position that could’ve been avoided. The most common reasons I’ve seen people get dropped are as follows: Pulling The Ripcord, The Manwich, Shy Elbow Syndrome, and Cyclist Unawarus.
PULLING THE RIP CORD
You pulled off the front just before or midway up a short roller climb. Buh bye paratrooper. This is the #1 reason I see people get dropped. I’m talking about those little hills that are just tall enough to test your mettle holding the pace from the bottom to the top. The root of the issue is that you either don’t have the legs to hold the pace to discourage others from coming around on the climb, knew you didn’t have the legs and waited too long to get off the front, or you knew you didn’t have the legs but didn’t anticipate that you would be the one that would end up on the front on the roller. The main symptom is someone just as weak as you made it up the hill with the group.
The truth is bikes go faster up hills, except for yours. Know this. The pace will get slightly harder on a hill. It always does. If it doesn’t, well at least you’re prepared. You have two choices: either take a shorter pull and leave yourself room to latch onto the back BEFORE the group hits the hill. Or, commit to grunting it out to the top fast enough to discourage people from attacking or coming around. If you can't make that commitment, you should pull off and get to the back of the group before the climb. Live by this rule. The exception is the .1 percent of the time you're leading out a teammate for a KOM or a sprint, essentially sacrificing yourself.
Avoiding getting dropped on this short hill starts a mile or more from the hill. As a weaker rider in the bunch, you need to be smarter. Position yourself in the paceline so you don’t end up on the front going into the hill. You need to look ahead. We all ride the same routes on group rides. You know where the hills, stoplights and corners are. You ride with the same people. You know who’s strong. You definitely know who’s not. You know your bike is filled with lead. You have all this information at your disposal. So, make sure you’re safely tucked into the middle of the group when you get to the hill. With the hill approaching, take a shorter pull or sit on the back to rearrange your position in the group, so you hit the hill in the middle of the group. If you’re on the front approaching the hill, pull off leaving yourself enough time to get to the back and catch your breath before the hill.
2) THE MANWICH
Never, as a weaker rider, position yourself with the fastest rider in the bunch directly in front of you OR directly behind. Avoid being the meat in the Manwich. Instead, sandwich yourself between two riders that are only slightly stronger than you. There’s always a hammerhead or two on every ride. There’s always a bunch of mid-level riders in the bunch. When one of the weaker riders is in a Manwich, directly behind or in front of one of the stronger riders, eventually the weaker rider is going to get dropped. It takes the most energy to ride on the front, it takes the 2nd most energy to ride 2nd wheel. If Big Hoss Manwich is driving the front at 24mph with a heart rate of 80% and you, Skinny Legs, are behind going 24mph with a heart rate of 85%, what do you think will happen when Manwich has to dig a little deeper? His heart rate may come close to 90%, and you, Skinny Legs, are going to hit 95% and blow.
Now imagine if Big Hoss Manwich is behind Skinny Legs. Skinny Legs is taking a pull with their heart rate at 85%. Skinny Legs pulls off and Big Hoss takes over. Skinny Legs is now out in the wind by himself in the fall back lane. Big Hoss Manwich unwittingly takes the pace up 1 or 2mph. Skinny Legs is now left in the wind, trying to go even faster, and expending more energy than what it took just moments ago. Goodbye Skinny Legs.
To avoid the Manwich, position yourself between two riders that are only slightly stronger than you in the paceline. You can do this on a corner, at a stoplight, or by sitting on the back and pretending to blow your nose as you strategically wait for another wheel besides that of Big Hossman.
SHY ELBOW SYNDROME
You're staying on the front too long. Realize that your pull at the front isn’t over till you get behind someone else. Don't wait till you're tired, cross-eyed or drooling from all orifices to pull off the front. You still need to ride hard until you get your draft back. I usually say, the second you start to feel the lactic acid burn start in your legs, throw the elbow. Sometimes that'll be a minute or two, 30 seconds, 10 seconds, or when you're traveling at warp speed, not even 1 second. You need to save some guns (in a double paceline) to stay at the front in the fall back line till the rider behind you comes over in front of you or (if it's a single paceline) latch back onto the pack. Do this, and you'll find you'll stick with the group longer and have more left in the tank for when it matters, like the end of the ride or the last hill. Road riding is kind of about being selfish. It’s tough for nice people to throw the elbow.
You’re not thinking ahead, way ahead, and anticipating changes in the paceline and the route. While the Manwich refers to being more aware of who’s in front of and behind of you, and Pulling the Ripcord is about your position in the bunch going into a hill, Cyclist Unawarus has to do with being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Be aware of the route, the strengths of the riders around you, and where the optimal place in the bunch is for your survival. If you know the pace is going to be crazy fast at a certain point, think ahead and position yourself so that you’re safely in the group at that point. If you know the bunch is going to be strung out going through some tight corners, you don’t want to be dangling on the back through those corners. If you’re headed into a descent, you don’t want to be behind brake monkey the whole way down. If you’re headed into a long climb, be aware who’s in front of you. Weaker riders will likely create a gap and cause you to lose contact with the leaders. Keep an eye out for that gap. Prepare to go around and close it up before it becomes insurmountable.
Now, hopefully the only reason that you get dropped is that you just aren’t fast enough.