Lead Outs, Part 2: The “Simple” Lead Out

So your team got together, assessed the day’s race, developed a strategy including a lead out for your sprinter, and have assigned specific roles (see Lead Outs, Part 1). It turns out that you only have 2 or 3 riders available (or capable) of working for the sprint. To keep it easy, we’ll call this the “simple” lead out. Of course lead outs are not simple—they require planning, practice, communication, fitness, commitment, and discipline—but with the “simple” lead out, at least you only have to coordinate the efforts of a few people.

In this scenario it is good to make sure that everyone knows the purpose and limitations of doing a lead out. A lead out is designed to control as much about the dynamics at the end of a race as possible, and to save energy for the designated sprinter. Despite your best efforts, cycling is like gambling—you can do your best to increase your odds by playing smart but in the end it is still up to chance.

In this scenario, there are only 2-3 teammates, so your ability to control the race is pretty limited. If you have an excellent time trial rider, you may be able to set a high tempo for the last lap and half. Either way, you probably won’t be able to respond to attacks if you remain committed to the lead out. It is important to define this clearly so a teammate does not abandon the lead out to chase an attack, unless the plan is to cover late attacks and leave the sprinter once they are in position. Focusing on using teammates to maintain good position and keep your sprinter out of the wind is often the best bet, though.

Whether you have a couple teammates and or a lot, coming together in the field and getting into position before 5 km to go is necessary. If it is a small field, this is easy, but if it is a field of 50, 75, or more, teammates should start moving into position with about 10 km to go. Once gathered together, the job of the riders providing the lead out is to get to and stay in the top 10, always moving up in a way that the sprinter can follow a wheel and is never out in the wind. Obviously, snaking up through the field doesn’t work very well for any team except the most experienced racers.

Usually the best way to get to and stay in the front is to go up the side. This means the lead out riders will need to sit in the wind, at least somewhat. That is their job: take the wind and get in the right spot so the sprinter doesn’t have to. If the race is fast, this is obviously a hard task, but less riders will be fighting to come by you. If the race is slower, it will be a constant battle of moving up and not getting boxed in so that you can maintain that top 5 positioning. Fast or not, some jockeying will go on all the way to the finish line.

Once in the top 5-10, the final role for the lead out riders is to get their sprinter into the desired position before reaching 500 meters to go, then making an all out effort to stay there. In most criteriums, the final places are determined from the last corner to the finish line, but your chances for placing well are determined by your place before you reach the final 200 meters, whether it’s a criterium or road race. This is why it is critical for the lead out riders to get and keep the sprinter in good position up to final 200 meters.

Getting and keeping this position and bringing your sprint to the right spot by 200 meters will likely be a full out effort. If the lead out riders can’t contest the sprint after that, no problem—job well done! Just stay out of the way of everyone sprinting by.

Around 200 meters to go it is the sprinter’s job to take over. Sometimes this is right about where the final corner is and you will need to guess if the final sprint needs to start before or after the corner. In a road race with a clear line to the finish, the distances are the same and you again have to estimate where the final sprint will start based on the speed, course, wind, riders’ abilities, etc.


It should be obvious by now that the “simple” lead out is anything but easy to do. It mainly involves a teammate or two helping the sprinter get and stay in position while sheltering them from the wind. This won’t be any easy ride for the sprinter, either, but the hope is that the positioning and wind break will leave just enough gas in your sprinter’s tank to finish strong all the way to the line.

After a cool down, make sure to gather together again and talk about the race: what worked well with your strategy and execution, and what can be improved next time. And if you’re working together to get one rider placed well, be ready to share prize money evenly. The rider who buries himself to put the sprinter in the right position with 1 lap to go, then finishes way out of the money should expect to get an even split with the sprinter who got the big check. If your team decides to do the prize money splits differently, fine, but this is something you should talk about before the race, not after.

Group Ride Etiquette

Last week I posed the question, “What is the purpose of a group ride?” and talked about what you can do to try to be ready for group rides. Sure, there are a lot of questions you can ask as a new rider at a group ride, and groups could do a better job of being organized, but every group ride adheres to some basics that you should know. With these largely unwritten rules in hand, you may find you have less questions on your next group ride.

Ride right
The first set of skills to getting along with your fellow cyclists at any group ride is to master the basics of riding in a group. Primarily, this is for safety and to demonstrate your competency as a cyclist. Mastering the skills of riding in a group is a long-term, ongoing effort, but the basics of riding a straight line, not overlapping wheels, pulling through smoothly, and not letting gaps open that others have to close are ones to start with. Check out Pacelines, Part 1 and more paceline posts to come for more details.

Communicate
One of the things that most helps other riders stay safe on a group ride is pointing out or announcing road hazards such as holes and cracks, road debris, and vehicles to avoid. “Car up!” “Left turn!” and similar announcements are important to make sure that everyone in the group knows about major changes in direction and key hazards. Especially as the rides get longer and faster, announcing things is important because tired riders tend not to pay as much attention and more accidents happen at these times.

Be nice to cars
This isn’t about baking cookies for the commuters at your local stop light. This about building goodwill with motorists and simply staying safe. Generally, motorists don’t know what to do or expect when they encounter a group of cyclists. Generally, it is a good idea to move as a unit, as if the pack was just a big semi that takes a little longer to cross intersections, a little more space to pass, but follows the same rules of the road and traffic patterns as all other vehicles. This makes the situation more comfortable for drivers as they can better anticipate your actions and what they should do.

As a group, stop at stop signs. Signal to motorists as you cross an intersection—wave to say “Thanks” or have them go ahead before the group goes. Avoid holding up traffic when an easy alternative is available that won’t hold up traffic, and minimize your traffic impact when it is not plausible to stay out of the way.

If cars yell or gesture rudely at you, simply wave and smile. Don’t antagonize motorists. Like Rock, Paper, Scissors, riding on the road goes something like Car, Bike, Pedestrian (except the Pedestrian never wins).

Getting aggressive
Treating the motorists nicely is an easy rule. But putting the hurt on other riders, that’s just a part of many group rides. When to ramp up the pace, attack, or sprint is often a question. Many group rides are open to people attacking, some even encourage it, but some group rides are intended to have a structured paceline throughout. If you are unsure, ask someone. The following cues will help you know when to drop the hammer—or keep an eye out for it.

Nearly every group ride starts with a warm up. This can sometimes be pretty quick but is, never the less, seen as a neutral part of the ride. Attacks are frowned upon. The warm up often consists of the group riding a double paceline with two riders sitting on the front for a little before dropping back together. If you don’t know what part of the ride is the warm up, feel free to ask.

After the warm up ends at the usual town sign, intersection, or other land mark, there is usually a bit of a roll up as the ride quickens and takes on a rotating paceline. My experience is that this part of the ride usually has the expectation that the pace is fast but no one attacks. This part of the ride usually ends with a sprint.

After the roll up and sprint, the group is usually open to people attacking. For some groups, the rest of the ride is a mock race and breaks try to stay away. Other groups will come back together at certain locations on the remainder of the ride, even if someone goes up the road. So if you want to attack—or simply be ready when others do—this is the time in the ride to keep your eye out.

Last, remember that group rides are just training. While they can get competitive, it is not the time to be aggressive in taking risks to move up in the group, slide through a gap, take a corner at high speed, or otherwise endanger yourself and others. Keep it safe.

General etiquette
Aside from the dynamics and skills for riding in a group, it is good to be aware of what qualifies as a faux pas. First, be sure that you are prepared for each ride. This includes carrying the basics with you for every ride; just because you are riding with other people doesn’t mean you can leave your supplies at home. Second, help out others when they have a mishap. They may have supplies to fix a flat, for example, but that doesn’t mean the group should leave that person behind. They might run into one of those annoying situations where the simple flat turns out to be a double flat, or come across something where they have the tool but not the know-how yet to fix it. Think of helping as good karma.

Third, you don’t get bonus points for attacking during the warm up, on the way through the turns and stops of that small town, by running stop signs, or other means of trickery. Keep the attacks for the open roads. Fourth, gapping a rider, taking someone into a curb, bumping someone out of line for a spot before the sprint, or otherwise being physically aggressive is not cool on a group ride. That just leads to having a bad reputation.

Last, say “Hi” to the new rider. You want him to come back next week.


Those are the basics. Is there anything left out here that you think every rider should know? Any lingering questions you have?

The dollar bill trick

Buying a fountain drink in the middle of a long, hot ride: $0.99.
Being able to fix a flat tire despite the huge slice in your tire: priceless.

If you read “What you should carry with you on every ride” then you may remember the reference to the magic of the dollar bill. If you ever find yourself in the middle of ride with a big hole, cut, or separation in your tire, this dollar bill will come through as a simple, short-term solution.

You probably don’t carry an extra tire with you when you’re out riding—and I’m not suggesting you should—but without some sort of solution, replacing or patching your tube when you your tire is damaged probably won’t get you home. The problem with big holes, cuts, or other separations in the casing and or rubber of your tire, is that the tube can bulge out through these gaps, easily leading to a puncture. A dollar bill is a good, quick fix because it can help prevent the tube from bulging out of the damaged part of the tire. The wrapper from an energy bar or gel can also be used, but the shape of dollar bill is part of its effectiveness.

To use the dollar bill, replace or patch the tube as you normally would, then before reinserting the tube into the tire, inflate the tire just enough so it’s no longer in a flattened shape (your mouth provides plenty of pressure if you’re quick enough closing the valve stem. Now with the tube taking on it’s normal shape, wrap the dollar bill around the point in the tube that matches with the damaged portion of the tire. Fully insert the tube into the tire, checking to ensure the dollar bill in lined up correctly with the damaged spot in the tire. Once the tire is fully mounted, inflate the tube and you’re ready to ride. The dollar bill will hold the tube from bulging out of the tire, and you should be able to make home.

Paper money does not resist puncture the way a healthy tire does, and given many miles your money will start to get brittle and crumble. Trust me on that one. So once at home, you need to replace the tire and remove the dollar bill.

Keep a Journal

You put in lots of hours on your bike, travel hours to races, spend tons of money on equipment, but you don't know how to get better. There are lots of things that you could try, but how do you know what you should do?

First, do you know what you have done with your training and racing? Can you recall your workouts from last week? What about last month...or even last year? What!? You have no clue what you did last month? Every cyclist should have a training log.

If you are serious at all about bicycle racing, a big part of improving is being able to measure what you have done, review your progress and efforts, and use that information to plan your future training. There is only one way to do this, and that is to use some sort of training log.

They go by lots of names—log, diary, journal—and they can contain a wide variety of information. Some are electronic and provide totals, averages, graphs, charts, and more. Others are simple paper templates and you just fill in the blanks. The format is really not important—filling it out consistently is and making sure you capture some of the day-to-day notes that will make it useful to you in the future. Even if you have a cycling computer that allows you to download your data to your computer, you need to make some notes on each session so it makes sense when you look back it in the future (race or training; feeling good or bad; hilly or flat; fatigued or fresh; hot or cold; etc.).

Pick the format you like: paper or electronic. Then be honest with yourself about how up-tight, detailed, and regimented you are: lots of detail or just the basics. Do you need to be able to share it easily with a coach? Using format, level of detail, and whether you need to share it easily, you will be able to easily evaluate the options.

Next find some various logs and check out their features. Here are a few to get you started:
At a minimum, a log should have space for daily entries including time/distance of exercise and some notes, plus an area to indicate your goals, results, or notes for long-term reference.

A comprehensive log (for those of you interested in lots of detail), may include space for
  • Hours of sleep
  • Resting/waking heart rate
  • Weight
  • Stress score (training and/or general)
  • Food/diet
  • Time
  • Distance
  • Average/max speed
  • Average/max watts
  • Average/max heart rate
  • Kilojoules/Calories
  • Weather conditions
  • Route
  • Clothing worn
  • Equipment used
  • Time in training zones
  • Perceived effort score
  • Sickness/injury score
  • Daily rating (feeling of how workout went)
  • Notes
  • Goals (season, monthly, weekly, race)
  • Race results
  • Fitness assessments
  • Equipment history
  • Bike & position measurements (including date)
Whether your log is simple or extensive, be consistent and descriptive with your entries. Make sure to note race results, how you felt on each day, any changes you made from your routine or new things you tried. These are all helpful details weeks, months, and years later when you go back in your log to identify a pattern, recall specific information, or to share with a coach.

In Case of Emergency (ICE) card

While we all work hard to avoid the many hazards involved with training and racing, it is good to be prepared in case something does happen. Many things you should bring with you on every ride are meant to help you out in case of a small mishap. But one of them is meant for those not so small emergencies when someone needs to take care of you: the “In Case of Emergency (ICE) Card”.

To make this easy, print out this ICE Card template (PDF—print and fill out, or editable MS Word version) fill it out, cut to size, and (ideally) laminate it. Finally, put it in your wallet, seat pack or tool bundle—somewhere so that you will have it with you on every ride. We hope you never need it, but in the event that you do, it will be a great asset to those people who need to help you.

Race numbers: Pinning and Placement

One of bike racers’ “administrative” tasks is pinning on race numbers. It is a relatively simple ordeal, but it is good to make sure that you do it right so you get proper credit for your place in the race and it doesn’t force the officials to complete a Sudoko puzzle in order to compile the results. While the European pros get simple stick-on numbers that are designed to fit neatly over the pockets on their jerseys, the rest of us have a little more work to do. Just follow a few of these tips, and you’ll find it’s easy to do it the right way.

(For a less instructive but more entertaining perspective on number pinning, check out Pinning Race Numbers: A Commentary.)

Placement is the key for proper pinning of your number. Race numbers need to be located so that officials can see them standing along side the race course and so that the camera (if there is one) can see it. Luckily the ideal position works for both the camera and the officials.

As you can see in these examples, numbers that are further down on the side are easier to see, and as the number goes further up onto the back of a rider, the harder it is to see. Sometimes an official or camera positioned on a raised platform can see numbers placed higher on the back but not necessarily.

A good guide to use is the middle of your jersey’s side panel—the bottom edge of your number should hit this mark. This will make sure the number is low enough to be seen from the side, but not so low that a camera positioned above couldn’t see it. Rider number 125 (top-right) in this photo is a good example of this.

Once you know the right position for the number, then it is a matter of pinning it to the jersey well. For larger numbers use 8 pins: one in each corner, and one in the middle of each side. This may seem like a lot of pins, but it will help the number lie flat and not catch the wind. Some riders try to position their numbers differently so it doesn’t catch the wind, but if they just used a few more pins, they could position their number correctly and have no problems with it becoming a sail. Learn to keep a stash of your own pins so you always have plenty at the race.

If you get smaller numbers for your shoulder, use your scapula (shoulder blade) as the guide. If the number is not centered over your scapula, it is probably too far to the center of your back, or over your shoulder too much. These smaller numbers should have 6 pins in them: one in each corner and one along each of the long sides.

The last key to knowing how to pin on numbers properly is how to use the safety pins to fasten your number to the jersey. The safety pins should be pushed through the number and jersey together, then back out through the jersey and number, as in this picture. Many numbers come with holes punched in the corners. Ignore these! If you simply stick a pin through this hole and then through a pinch of the jersey, the number is not fastened closely to the jersey, and it will result in the number flapping in the wind, can tear the number and/or your jersey, and often results in the pins tugging at your jersey.

Anyone who has pinned a number on a jersey knows that it is easier said than done. This is why you want to have good friends. Not just any ol' friend, but good, trusted friends—ideally, quick learners with pity for your plight as the person with pins plunging perilously close to your skin. It is much easier for you to put on your jersey and have your good friend pin on the number than to try to pin it yourself then put on the jersey to find that the jersey just stretched and every pin is tugging mercilessly at the fabric surrounding the number. The other benefit is that you can get your numbers pinned while continuing to warm up, if you have a trainer at the race.

Last note about your friends helping: before having someone pin on your jersey, I recommend removing any undershirt first, then put it back on once the pinning is done. If you don’t, you risk getting “pinned in” and will need help to remove pins before you can take off the jersey or (with skinsuits) even slip down your top to go to the bathroom.

Placement, number of pins, and having a friend to help—these are a few simple keys to pinning your race number properly. But what about folding, crumpling, or otherwise altering your number? Those are a no-no. (See “1K4(b). Racing numbers” in the USA Cycling Road, Track and Cyclocross Rulebook.) Some people want to fold or crumple their race number so it doesn’t act like a sail creating extra drag. If you use 8 pins to fasten your number, this should eliminate any issue you have with your number catching air. But you can always have your friend double-check that no section is poking out ready to catch air.


Hidden-in-plain-sight challenge: find a race number related error by one of the riders in the top image and leave it in the comments.

(Acknowledgements to Lowell Kellogg and his article on Numbers and Finishing on the WCA site for the image and corroboration on my experience with pinning numbers.)

Lead outs, part 1: Planning, Communication, and Assessment

Sooner or later, every racer who has more than one person from their club at a race wants to set up a lead out. Inevitably, racers have watched Le Tour on TV and think that they'll just say, "Let's do a lead out," and magically this train of riders will emerge at the front with a force that shreds the field and leads to certain success.

The sarcasm used and magic required in this scenario come from the inevitable collapse of the plan before more than three riders get within 20 feet of each other any time in the last 5 km of the race. So why the difficulties? Why not streaking trains of coordinated beauty?

Pure and simple, lead outs are hard. They require high levels of planning, practice, communication, fitness, commitment, and discipline. This is the first part of a series on lead outs that will cover the details needed to plan, communicate, and execute a lead out. But keep in mind, knowing how and doing it are two different things.

Planning, communication, and assessment are the first things to consider in setting up a lead out. These need to be done before, during, and after an event to implement and improve a team's lead out.

The first part of planning, communication, and assessment is developing a common understanding. To some, a lead out is one guy drilling it for 300 meters while a second guy waits to jump around in the last 150 meters. To others, it is 6 riders in one synchronized effort to ward off all attacks, minimize battling for position, and provide shelter to launch their star to the finish line. In reality, both of these are legitimate lead outs.

So which lead out is the team planning to do? That depends on a lot of factors: type of race, length, weather, likelihood of a pack sprint, riders' fitness, and more. Start with an assessment of your team's fitness. If you have two strong riders who can get to the front and finish well, but everyone else is pack fill just hoping to hang on, it is not realistic to think the team can orchestrate a team TT on the front for the last few kilometers. On the other hand, if you have a group of riders who are all strong enough to get to the front, then planning a train may make sense if you also have a sprinter to finish off the effort.

Next, what type of lead out makes the most sense for the team's overall race plan? If a few riders are targeted for a break, then the lead out is likely to be a 2-3 rider effort. Of course, having a plan B is good if the break doesn't work, but a lead out for the final sprint needs to be part of the whole-race plan.

After assessing your team's abilities and race strategy, the plan needs to be developed and communicated so everyone knows their role during the race. All too often a team says, "We're going to lead out Bob for the sprint," then has one of its own riders attack with 2 laps to go. That's not a well defined plan. Races are like the weather—the forecast is always subject to change, but to every degree possible, you need to create a specific plan so each rider knows when and where they are supposed to do something. As teams and riders gain more and more experience, this becomes more fluid to adapt to the immediate race conditions, but let's suffice it say, if you aren't a category 1 or pro, plan more and improvise less.

Future posts will go into detail about what the various roles may be, but as a team plans a lead out as part of their race strategy, each rider on the team should know their specific role and when they are supposed to act. Schedule a time before the race to meet, discuss the race, develop a plan, and define clear roles for each team member that fit their ability level.

Meeting at least 30 minutes before the start, if not an hour or more, is a good idea so everyone can focus on the team plan, not registration, getting dressed, their bike, or getting to the line. Make sure that when the team meeting is done, every person knows what their role is and understands the general team strategy: what he/she is supposed to do and when in the race. This helps make sure there aren't any last second surprises from your own teammates that could derail a lead out.

During the race, continue to communicate with each other. Make sure people are feeling good and remain capable of fulfilling their role. If someone's having a bad day, it's good to know that early so the plan can be altered rather than a critical link in your lead out being left out as you start the effort. If changes are made to the plan during the race, make sure your teammates know so one rider doesn't just do their own thing while the rest of the team is expecting something else.

After the race, it is important to meet again to assess what happened during the race and how the plan and execution worked. Any team strategy, including a lead out, is a gamble. Everyone could have executed their role perfectly and another ride could have still taken the win. I have enjoyed numerous other teams' lead outs that happened to be perfect for me. Just because you organize the perfect lead out does not mean your team will win. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it—it may be your team's best shot an ensuring a high placing. But that's why you need to meet after the race to assess what worked, what didn't, and why.

One last tip: meeting 20 or so minutes after the finish is a good idea. Little rational thought occurs in the first few minutes following the race. Grab some food, a brief cool down, then meet at a pre-determined location to talk about the race and how to change for next time.

What roles should riders play in a lead out? How long should a lead out be? What can throw a wrench in your train? These questions and more will come in the following parts of this series on lead outs.

Pacelines, Part 1: Knowing the Basics

You see cyclists riding in pacelines all the time and for good reason. Riding closely in a paceline can easily increase your efficiency by 15% or more. While experienced cyclists make this look easy, it is important to understand the fundamentals of riding in a paceline to do so safely. A big part of bicycle racing is trusting the riders around you. This is the first part of a series on pacelines, and these initial guidelines are designed to introduce you to how to draft effectively and safely so other cyclists can develop trust in your ability as a cyclist. Like many things, many nuances have to be learned before becoming proficient and comfortable riding in a paceline, but these basics are things all riders need to keep in mind.

Distance between riders
Riding closely allows for effective drafting, but too closely is dangerous. Generally, 6 inches is the minimum distance and—ideally—about 2 feet maximum. Staying within 2 feet can be difficult, but that's the goal. If you are not comfortable riding this closely, practice until you can become comfortable at 5 feet, then 4 feet, 3 feet, etc. As you develop your skills and confidence, 1-3 feet is a good distance to focus on. If you are a full bike length or more behind the rider in front of you, close the gap.

Also, don't follow more closely than 6 inches, even as you become experienced. This allows a little buffer in case the rider in front of you stands up—which usually results in their bike moving backward a few inches toward you—or if they make a quick move.

When learning to draft, the distance you follow behind a rider is most important, but as you learn to ride a paceline, keep in mind the space next to you. You don't want to leave 4 or 5 feet between you and the rider next to you, but 6 inches is uncomfortably close for most (and unsafe). About 2 feet is a good place to start.

Consistent speed, no hard braking
Drafting on a bicycle involves multiple riders moving as a unit. A big part of this is keeping a consistent speed. You should avoid hard accelerations and—more importantly—hard braking. Quick braking can easily cause crashes behind you as other riders brake or swerve to avoid a collision. So keep the braking to small, light adjustments in speed and—as noted below—call out hazards in case big changes in speed are needed.

Hold your line and look ahead
To ride smoothly as a group, the person at the front and everyone behind needs to follow one consistent path, referred to as a rider's "line." When riding in a small group, identifying a line is easy: follow the white line or some imaginary line that parallels the white line at a consistent distance. To stay along this same consistent path, you also need to look ahead and not stare at the wheel in front of you. By staring at the wheel directly in front of you, you can follow that person but are not aware of upcoming hazards or changes in pace, and it is harder to actually follow a straight path. If the rider in front of you moves sideways a little, you should remain on the same line you are currently riding, unless the whole group is changing lines to avoid hazards, make a turn, etc. By staying on the same line, the riders behind you can do the same, and you are able to help prevent the group from snaking around the road.

If you have a hard time following a straight line, find a road and ride on the white line for a while. Riding at a moderate pace (not slow) and always looking further ahead than you think necessary will make this easier. Looking ahead 15 meters (50 feet) is a minimum if you are by yourself but get used to looking ahead much further than that. With a group of people, it is may be hard to see past the lycra on the person in front of you, but focus on helmets, bikes, bodies, curbs, or whatever you can see—including your peripheral vision—to look ahead at least 10 meters (30 feet).

Never overlap wheels
If you are holding your line and maintaining the proper distance between you and the rider in front of you, overlapping wheels should not be a problem. But because overlapping wheels is probably the most dangerous thing you can do while riding in a group, everyone needs to remember to never overlap wheels. Sometimes called "half-wheeling," overlapping wheels is when your front tire is to the side and just in front of the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. Essentially, half of your front wheel is next to (overlaps) the rear wheel of the person you are following, thus "half-wheeling". This is dangerous because the person in front probably doesn't know your wheels are overlapping and if that person moves to the side and hits your front wheel, you crash.

So maintain the right distance, hold your line, and in the event you violate both of these basics, make sure you avoid overlapping wheels. You can ride next to people, and in certain situations a paceline will stagger sideways, but "half-wheeling" is never OK.

Communicate hazards and changes
All of this "hold your line and maintain distance" stuff sounds great and all until the group happens ventures off the pristinely paved byways and onto cracks, patchwork, and pothole infested roads. Holding your line takes on a new meaning as you have to follow the line the group sets around these road hazards. This is why it is important to keep your head up and look ahead. It is also important that lead riders signal hazards by pointing at them in advance so following riders can adjust in plenty of time. A simple point toward the ground in the general direction of the hazard works fine. Sometimes the whole group needs to move to one side and the lead rider needs to indicate that by motioning the group sideways. If other hazards arise, such as cars approaching closely, riders should also call out, "Car up!" or the like so that everyone is aware of the hazard and can ensure they are out of the way.

When it comes to hazards on the road, the lead rider in a paceline should always err on the side of signaling to trailing riders. Do it early, do it often.

Last items
Be aware that when you stand up on your bike, your back wheel usually goes backward about 4 inches. So keep this in mind and stand smoothly rather than popping up and slamming your bike backward which can scare or even hit the rider following you. This is just part of learning to ride smoothly, consistently, and predictably in a group.


Holding your line, looking ahead, riding a consistent speed, avoiding braking, calling out hazards in advance, never overlapping wheels, and maintaining a consistent distance to the rider in front of you, these are the characteristics that develop trust with the other riders around you and allow everyone to ride together quickly and safely.

These are just the basics to getting used to riding with other riders. Once you are comfortable doing all these things in a group, then you are ready to focus on learning how to ride smoothly in a variety of paceline formations and conditions. We'll cover how to ride in a rotating paceline, types of pacelines, adjusting for different wind directions, cornering in a group, and much more in future posts.

Rating climbs and defining percent grade

If you watch Le Tour at this time of the year (and who doesn't?), then you've heard about various categories of climbs, particularly on the mountain stages. But what does each category mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. Generally, the climb's category is determined by considering the length and steepness, plus its position on the route. Velonews' Tour de France 101 provides the general guidelines used at Le Tour for rating cycling climbs:
  • "The easiest is a Category 4, which is typically less than 2km long and about 5 percent grade, or up to 5km at a 2-3 percent grade.
  • A Category 3 can be as short as one mile with a very steep grade, perhaps 10 percent; or as long as six miles with a grade less than 5 percent.
  • A Category 2 can be as short as 5km at 8 percent, or as long as 15km at 4 percent
  • A Category 1, once the highest category, can be anything from 8km at 8 percent to 20km at 5 percent.
  • An hors cat├ęgorie (“above category”) rating is given to exceptionally tough climbs. This could either be a Category 1 whose summit is also the finish of the stage, or one that is more than 10km long with an average grade of at least 7.5 percent, or up to 25km miles long at 6 percent or steeper."
As you can see, these definitions are subjective. The origin of these categories is a bit of a mystery, but I heard a story that long ago (early part of last century) the categories arose from the gear required to get up the hill in a car. The early cars didn't have much power, so steep climbs required shifting down to 2nd or 1st gear, some even required going in reverse (the smallest gear ratio in cars). The climb's category then corresponded to the gear required to get the car up it. That's how the fable goes, anyway.

Regardless of lore, categorization of climbs does not adhere to a strict formula, so a category 1 in France does not necessarily equal a category 1 in the US. Roads in the US tend to be newer and try to maintain lower grades, so you rarely see the grade and length of climbs here that you can find in Europe.

Speaking of grades, ever wondered exactly how they calculate those 7% climbs in Le Tour? From VeloNews' live stage 10 coverage [link now bad] of the 2008 Tour de France comes a very simple definition of a climb's percentage:
"If a road rises 10 meters over a 100 meter length, it is a 10% slope. That means that a 100% slope would equal a 45 angle, rising exactly what it travels. Most interstate highways in the U.S. are built with the goal of not exceeding a 5-percent
slope. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but that was the original goal."
If you need more details about the measurement of climbs, stop by everybody's favorite reference, Wikipedia.


[Links in this post updated 7/12/11]

What's the purpose of group rides?

If you have ever been on a group ride, then you know the drill: roll out of the parking lot, ride along with the group for a while at a steady pace, at some mysterious point pandemonium ensues, and the only thought other than "Don't lose this wheel!" is "How am I going to find my way home?"

What happened!?

Most racer-oriented group rides seem to be a free-for-all, and sometimes it takes years to figure out what's going on. Routes, length of the warm up, sprint locations, drop policy, pacing, and more are largely a mystery. What's just part of the fun for one rider is a faux-paus to another. Even riders who come often don't know the plan.

So what is the purpose of a group ride?

That's the main question that rarely gets answered—out loud anyway. Everyone shows up with their idea of what they wish or expect the ride to be: hard workout, speed work, paceline practice, sprint training, race simulation, testing your (or your buddy's) fitness, cojones measurement, etc.

Bicycle touring/recreation clubs often pre-define multiple groups by pace and drop policy. Not a bad plan, but racing-oriented group rides aren't often that organized. Whether you are new to the group ride or have been coming for years and are still looking for answers to the mystery of your group ride, here are a few suggestions.

Be prepared.
That's the Boy Scout motto. Know the start time and location of the ride, and the length of the ride, if possible. Bring plenty of food and fluids, plus your own tools for roadside repairs. If you have a good, compact map of the area (or a phone with GPS/maps), bring it along if you are worried about getting dropped and being lost.

Arrive early.
Get to the meeting point before the scheduled ride time so you have time to get your bike ready, meet a few people, and inquire about the plan for the ride. As a new rider, you don't want to be rushing in last minute and chasing everyone out of the parking lot without having met anyone or asking any questions about the route or type of ride to expect.

Ask questions.
Ask about the planned route, warm up, structure of ride (organized, free-for-all, drop policy, etc.). Don't be discouraged if you don't get the answer right away—you may not be the only person who doesn't know the plan. Ask multiple people, if necessary.

Find the leader.
Usually there is one person who is the appointed or de facto ride leader. This person does not always have the answers either, but by asking this person about the pace, structure, warm up, sprints, and drop policy, you just made it more likely that the ride will have more of a plan.

Make a friend or two.
Every group has people who are naturally friendly and more than happy to help. Talk to a couple of people and find a person or two you are comfortable asking questions during the ride, like how far to the next sprint. If you are worried about getting dropped along an unknown route, having a friend to remember you is good, especially in the event you have a mishap.


People do group rides for a variety of reasons: comroderie, fitness, learning skills, and much more. But just like team racing requires communication, so do group rides. So talk about it. Ask questions. That goes for riders new to the group and riders who have been showing up for months or years but don't know the plan. If you happen to be the leader of the group ride, keep all of these questions in mind and even consider giving a quick pre-ride plan to everyone regarding the route and goals for the day.

A last note for all of the "usuals" on group rides, please say "Hi" to the new guy. Find out his name. Let him know what normally happens on the rides and ask if he knows the area (especially if no one waits for dropped riders). So many group rides are like an exclusive club where anyone can show up, but only the special people get in. Don't force new riders to finish with the front group before they even get a "Hi, how are you? What's your name?"

Eating before training and racing

The human body may be a furnace that burns whatever you put in it, but if you have experience tending the family's fire place, you know some things burn more cleanly or quickly than others. To maximize the heat you can get out of your furnace (aka, get the most from your body during training and racing), it is good to know what burns best in the time you have.

Velonews has an article, The right food for bike racing and training, that gives some tips for what types of food are often best depending on how much time you have before a workout or race. Some examples may or may not fit your tastes, but the general concepts shared should help give you good ideas of foods you like and be a reminder that you need some fuel in the furnace to make your engine go.

Bike maintenance before every ride

To keep your bike running smoothly and help ensure a safe ride, it's good to get in the habit of checking your front and rear wheels before you start any ride. It's quick and easy.

Make sure your quick release levers are closed and tight.
Few things are more terrifying while riding than having your front wheel, fork or handlebars fail—there is simply nothing you can do to prevent the inevitable header. The simplest way to avoid this is to make sure that your quick release levers are closed and tight. Do not just look, grab the lever and ensure it is firmly in the closed position.

Check the tire pressure—or simply inflate them fully.
Tires in good condition lose pressure slowly, so you want to make sure they are fully inflated for each ride, but you also want to check that there are not any slow leaks that have made them go flat in the last day or so.

Check your tires for damage.
Normal wear on your tires can lead to cuts, slices, and bare casing (the woven material normally covered by rubber). While little nicks are not often a concern for your training tires, it's good to keep an eye on them. Cuts or slices can allow your inner tube to bulge out, which is sure to lead to a flat in very little time. You need to replace your tire ASAP. Similarly, if you see casing coming through your rubber, it's time for new tires.

Make sure your brakes' release lever is closed.
If you have transported your bike recently, you may have attached your wheels but not flipped the brake's release lever back down (circled in image). Double-check this so you don't grab for your brakes and find (next to) nothing.

Check that your wheels are centered in the frame, are true, and brake pads do not rub.
Look at your wheels and make sure they are centered in the frame (see image of front wheel off-center in fork). If a wheel is not centered, loosen the quick release lever, center the wheel appropriately, and tighten the lever again. Then spin each wheel looking to see that the wheel is true (doesn't wobble from side to side) and that your brake pads do not rub at all. If necessary, adjust your brakes so the pads are properly centered. If you are not able to center them to avoid the rim rubbing at some point in its revolution, then your rim needs to be trued. If you know how to do this, great! Otherwise, find out how or take it to a local bike shop.

Most efficient positions in a pack

Your position in the field during a race is determined by a number of factors: speed, part of the race, team plan, individual role, goals, fitness, trust in others, location of key competitors, and much more. But it is important to also know the most efficient positions in the field, so you can find them when you want to save significant amounts of energy.

I remember seeing a graphic a number of years ago that illustrated the energy savings of various positions in a peloton. It may have been longer ago than I remembered because I couldn't find it or any related articles online (please post a comment if you can). But the illustration and the numbers on reduced aerodynamic drag confirmed what I had experienced all along: not all positions are created equal. Some positions provided over 50% savings in aerodynamic drag.

First, it is good to understand a little bit about aerodynamics (this is very simplified—my apologies to anyone who actually studied aerodynamics or flow). As air hits an object—a pack of riders in this case—the greatest area of pressure (wind resistance) is at the front. We all know this from pulling. But rather than a knife cutting into butter that creates a very narrow path, the path of air flowing around an object creates a rounded shape at the front that later tapers off. You probably know this "bubble and taper" shape of the air flow from the shape of aerodynamic helmets and the tubes of aerodynamic time trail bikes. These shapes are used in equipment to minimize aerodynamic drag.

This bubble and taper effect is important to understand when riding in a pack because it illustrates where and how to move up in the field, as well as why the tail end of the field is a bad place to be if you want to save energy. My crude illustration shows this bubble effect (dotted line) and how the most energy (think: hot zone) is required at the front (left side of image), while the sweet spot is found in the cooler regions.

While it's obvious that riding at the front of a pack requires the most energy, the bubble effect also explains why just a few riders behind the leader the peloton is 6+ riders wide. This bubble effect at the front of the pack creates a wide zone in which riders can gain a drafting advantage. When a race slows down a little, this bubble of reduced aerodynamic is pretty big, so moving up the sides of the group is a relatively easy and efficient maneuver. That's why people do it so often.

Conversely, it is important to note that the bubble is only at the front of the pack and tapers off. If you stay buried in the middle of the field, you always get a great draft. But as you get to the back of the pack, in the line of single-file riders trailing the peloton, you actually start to get less draft. Repeat: further back does not always mean an easier ride—you can sit too far back. Now you might start understanding why developing riders sitting at the back of pack often get dropped: in addition to less fitness, they are also getting less aerodynamic advantage from the draft.

This alternate picture is meant to roughly illustrate how different positions are more or less efficient. Don't go fighting for fifth row based on this example (you may find an equally efficient position further up or back—and you need a prize just for finding "fifth row" in an actual field), but do pay attention to the general pattern.

As with most things in cycling, you have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages in this case, too. The most efficient spot in the field may not be as safe and won't allow you to attack or chase the way a less efficient position will. But in a long road race, it sure can save you a lot of energy so you have more left for the finish.

Just eat "real" food

There is a lot of focus from "energy food" companies about what to eat to maximize your performance. Greg Lemond has shared his perspective of the body as a furnace—just put it in and let it burn up. And some people advocate certain timing of your eating.

A recent article NY Times' article Real Thought for Food for Long Workouts talks about eating "real" foods rather than special energy or recovery foods, and questions the value of timing your eating.

The article is worth a read. The key point seems to be that following common, every day habits of eating healthy foods consumed throughout the day (for me, 3 meals plus 2-3 snacks a day) will yield excellent results. If energy foods make it easier for you to consume healthy foods on a regular schedule, they may be an asset to your diet. You probably don't need any of them, however, if you get breakfast, lunch, dinner, and some foods before and/or after exercise (more fuel near the times you burn fuel).

Hygiene for cyclists

Cycling involves a lot of hard work and ensuring everything works smoothly. Getting sweaty and dirty is just part of the gig, and so to ensure all is running smoothly it's good to reduce friction as much as possible. While cleaning and lubing your bike may sound familiar, you must not forget to clean and lube your body.

Yes, I said, "clean and lube your body."

Aside from simply being sweaty and smelly, all of the sweat, bacteria, and friction caused while riding can lead to one of cycling's fiercest opponents: saddle sores. Also known as crotch rot, this condition is, at a minimum, uncomfortable. At their worst saddle sores are swollen, painful, interfere with riding, are infection risks, and can require a visit to the doctor for "draining". They result from a combination of rubbing on your skin; sweat, salt and dirt; and moisture. Basically, cycling results in conditions that mimic a boys' high school locker room at the end of football season ... in your pants.

With fair warning about the dangers, here are a few tips for avoiding saddle sores that also keep you mountain rain fresh and in good graces with those following you in the pack.

Wear your cycling shorts, jerseys, undershirts and socks only once, then wash.
I have heard of and smelled people who don't adhere to this principle. I guarantee that in addition to offending my sense of smell during a race, they are also well on their way to squirming uncomfortably as they attempt to avoid aggrevating saddle sores. Just because clothes are dry does not mean they are clean and bacteria free. Even if you have to wash out cycling clothes in the sink by hand with hand soap, it's better than riding in dirty shorts. But always plan ahead so you can ride in clean, dry clothes.

Chamois time does not equal training time.
No matter what my brother tried to tell me about spending time in cycling shorts leading to better fitness, it's just not true. Cycling shorts should go on just before you ride, and they should come off as soon as you are done. If you are traveling to and from an event, that means taking a change of clothes with you and changing at the event unless your trip is only a couple of minutes long.

Butter up your chamois.
Not literally with butter, but products like Chamois Butt'r, Assoss Chamois Cream, and Udder Balm all soften the material in the pad of your shorts, reducing the friction on your skin, and some even act as an antibacterial agent. Sure, after successfully completing potty training, putting goop in your shorts might seem a little backward, but once you try it you will find that some schmear in your shorts beats a dry chamois any day.

Trivia. The skin of the goat-like animal named chamois—used in cleaning because it does not leave streaks—used to be the material that formed the pad in cycling shorts. Think about having dried leather in your riding shorts and you know where chamois cream originated. It's just as useful today.

Shower or clean shortly after exercise.
Getting out of your riding shorts quickly will help, but you also then need to clean your crotch, too. If you're at home, take a shower. If you're at a race, though, bring clean clothes, a water bottle, wash cloth, small towel, some soap, and maybe rubbing alcohol. Use the wash cloth with soap and water (or rubbing alcohol to pack an extra punch and level of cleanliness) to wipe away the sweat, dirt, and nasty bacteria that leads to crotch rot. Then put on clean, dry clothes. And keep your privates out of public view during all of this—bike races should not double as exhibitionist conventions.

Boxers or briefs? Boxers!
This one is biased toward the guys, but the idea here is to keep your crotch area clean and dry. The tighty-whiteys don't do this as well as airy boxers, but like a good diaper, if what you wear keeps you clean and dry, it's all good.


These tips won't guarantee that you will avoid all saddle sores. Juniors, you may find you have less problems with saddle sores than senior riders, but start practicing good habits now rather than experience the crotch rot that may develop at any time. Some shorts and chamois just bind and cut into your skin in malicious ways (don't be afraid to stop wearing shorts that are chronic offenders), and the more you ride, the more likely saddle sores become, but at least you will have a fighting chance.

What you should carry with you on every ride

New riders sometimes set off from home with just their feet in the pedals and the wind in their hair. For anyone with a bit more experience, we have learned (the hard or easy way) that it pays to take a few things with you on every ride. The following items will help you
  • make enough repairs to your bike to get you home (or to a phone or place where you can find help),
  • be prepared in case of emergency (to you or someone else), and
  • follow the golden cycling rule of fix it yourself or have the supplies so someone else can do it for you with your supplies (mooching repair supplies is tolerated but always looked down upon).
In the olden days, riders used to have to be able to get home under their own power, no matter what happened. We didn't have phones or people to come pick us up. (Heck, I have a phone but no one to come get me now, so what's the difference?) While it is infinitely easier to find help than it used to be, it is still much easier, safer, and often faster to carry a few essentials with you on every ride.

You can cram a lot of stuff in a little saddle bag. The rest goes on your bike or on you.
  1. Card with ICE (In Case of Emergency) info: your identification (name, age, important medical info), names and telephone numbers (parent, spouse, sibling, friend, etc.), health insurance, and important medical info (alergies, conditions, etc.)
  2. Cash, including a $1 bill: money for emergency ($10-20 should be good), plus a $1 bill which is handy in the event of a big tire blow out
  3. Cell phone, phone card/code, or credit card number (so can call or use pay phone to contact someone)
  4. Inner tube (1 or 2)
  5. Tire levers
  6. Tube patches: in case you get multiple flats or damage a tire severely
  7. Tire pump or CO2 cartridge inflater (check cartridges and pump regularly to make sure they work)
  8. Simple repair tools (multi-tool or individual tools) including: spoke wrench—if you break a spoke this makes the ride home a lot easier; 4, 5, 6 mm hex wrenches; and chain tool to reassemble your chain if it breaks
  9. Saddle bag: just big enough to fit the items above
  10. Water bottle: the water's great, but it also doubles as a wound cleaner, hand washer, and storage compartment
  11. Helmet: don't leave home without one
Of course once you stock up on supplies, it will help to know how to change a flat tire, compensate for a broken spoke, reassemble a broken chain, and more. But at least you will have the tools so a riding partner can help you if something happens.

Glossary of cycling terms

Cycling has a lot of terms to describe the equipment, racing, tactics, and everything else, not to mention that a lot of the terms come from French or Italian. To make sense of what the heck people are talking about, below are some good online cycling glossaries. An online search for cycling glossary will give you lots of other results, but these links have good lists and avoid the annoying ads of some other sites.Venturing to the velodrome? View this verbiage to verify your velo vocabulary.
Still have questions? Ran into a definition that doesn't make sense? Not everyone uses all terms in the same way, so some informal terms will can end up having different definitions. Drop a note in the comments with any questions you have.

[Update 3-13-09] Bilko (a.k.a. Phil Stephens) shared an excellent list of cycling terms and slang—including road and track—that will soon be posted on the new Marymoor Velodrome website. Find a copy of it here....