The push and pull of the pack | Group riding

Cycling group start

The pack, the bunch, the group, the bastards. Group riding is both a chore and a delight, your definition determined by the gap between the pace of the pack and your fitness.

pɛlətɒn noun

  1. The main field or group of cyclists in a race.
    French, literally ‘small ball’

Legs on

Your stomach tingles as cleats click clack into pedals and the group sets off, the pace gentle. You filter forwards to find your rightful place, just off the front, strong but not yet bold. Legs spin to a blur, the terrain inconsequential, swooping around tight corners, floating up hills. The gap behind you non-existent, the group as one, graceful, cadence synced, an arrow piercing the hot humid air, silent and swift.

The hum of rubber kissing the road is punctuated only by the occasional click of gears, a snippet of chit chat here and there, syllables lost to the wind as the pack gallops through mile after mile, legs light, mind free. Behind, the first signs of attrition, gaps, faces and shoulders tightening, the pace beginning to tell. Not for you though. You’re an ox, a machine, a local legend.

Cycling Eddy Merckx

You ease onto the front and take a turn, nudging the speed needle a notch east. Smooth and steady. In control. You glance over your shoulder to check if the rest remain. Of course they do, because a cyclist must never be dropped. Never.

The pattern repeats. Strong legs leading the line, single file now, strung out, not quite gaps between wheels but slithers. On you push, many gears remaining, sitting up behind the lead out man, no shelter needed, chest puffed out, the alpha gorilla showing others he’s strong enough for the fight ahead. There will be no surrender.

Elbows flicked, you follow the wheel ahead and thread your way to the tip of the needle. At peace with the pace, you are a tug boat towing the liner to port, steady and with purpose. Temptation overwhelms you. Time to test the legs and tease out a charge. The lifting of pace may be subtle but your intent has not gone unnoticed. The pace clicks up, stretching the elastic of the group, your legs itching for more as you tuck down low, chin to stem, legs spinning effortlessly.

The entente cordial cannot, shall not last.

A cannon booms, gears click. Beside you a blur, another rider recumbent, crouched lower than what should be possible. The pace quick, you dare not blink in case you lose them. Legs spinning, heart pumping, you begin the chase, an all out effort until you close the gap, little time to relax for there’s that noise again. Boom, another rider goes.

You chase and follow every move, the pace slowing occasionally, briefly, riders never quite recovering before the next shot is fired.

Boom, you hit the front, invincible, crushing the pedals, glancing back, always surprised to see others on your tail. On you push, harder and harder, digging in for the long haul, for your prize, the top of the hill and the finish line you’ve set yourself and everyone else.

Cycling sprint finish

Seconds become lifetimes when leading out the bunch. Never quite at sprint pace, you’re at threshold when another rider passes and pushes for the line. Got this you think, all those turbo efforts coming to life as your legs react and you latch onto the wheel in front. 

The remnants of the bunch surge and swarm, no longer a group, riders scattered across the road like confetti. The sprint begins. Bums leave saddles, a war of attrition, riders dropping when the elastic snaps, shelled out of the back like cigarette butts flicked from a car window.

Still on the front, you’ve not yet reached your limit because you’re in the process of redefining it. Must not think of the fire in your legs, in your belly, nothing exists but the circle of your pedal stroke and the invisible finish line that never seems to get any closer. Almost there, don’t fire yet, hold it, until… Now, go, go, go.

You launch forwards, a wheel inexplicably edging into your peripheral vision, spurring you on, technique and speed of no consequence now for all that matters is the margin between you and the wheel beside you. Every pedal stroke a photo finish, who will fade first?

The wheel beside inches slowly back yet you cannot relax despite every muscle in your body cramping, until there it is, the invisible finish line, the hill crested, no wheels ahead. A victory of sorts yet you’ve won nothing. Arms are not raised. Shoulders drop and chests heave. No medal hangs from your neck, only the grudging respect of those beside and behind. You are the leader of the pack, indestructible, unbeatable. Until Tuesday.

No legs

Cycling dropped bunch

Tuesday. A shadow at the back of the pack, you pray for leniency, for surely the group knows how tired you are. You look around but see so few faces from your ride just two nights earlier. You know the one, the one where you emptied yourself?

“You looked strong the other night,” somebody says, unaware of your debt to the energy bank as the group picks up pace. You move mid-pack to avoid the elastic concertina of the snake’s unforgiving tail, your legs too tired to give chase after every bend and lull.

Low on the bike, you attempt to eek out the draft, the protection. You are a chick beneath the wing, afraid to peek. You won’t be flying today. The ebb and flow of the group finds you at the head of the bunch, a cruel joke perhaps, the knowing group teasing you. You amble along until others realise you’re never going to warm up and the only person you’re playing mind games with is yourself. Already they know.

Slowly but surely other riders pass and you’re powerless to react. The world topsy-turvy, other riders blurring by as if you’ve stopped. The back of the pack awaits. Head down, your view for the next 30 miles will be the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, locked on, you must never let it go.

Laughter and chatter ahead, the peloton in a jovial mood as they sprightly fly up climbs and swoon around corners, lost to the pleasure of the ride, unaware of the blob at the back crunching through the gears just to stay on. The brief respites in pace are welcome yet fleeting, for you know gritted teeth are imminent. The pace picks up, riders ahead leading one another out, each outdoing the other, you the last domino in the pack, already fallen.

A gap. The wheel in front edges away despite your increased effort, as if a hundred men are pulling on a rope hooked to your seat post, hauling you away from the group. The distance between wheels lengthens, head down, a stubborn fight against the inevitable ensues.

You’d curse if you had the energy. Riders slow and you grovel your way back to the pack, others turning to talk to you, to torment you. Must not let them know I am suffering. Smile, nod, take a drink, stretch. You drop down a few gears and spin lightly, bravado moving you alongside the pack, where you slip in, no time to relax before you are spat out of the back, a prankster jumping on a treadmill at full speed, no chance to keep pace, whoosh, off you go.

Do not get dropped, do not show weakness. Nobody will ever know, you think, kidding only yourself. Gaps open, closed only by the mercy of traffic. You dread the run home, the sprint, the stronger riders ahead caring not as you die a thousand deaths, each stroke of the pedal another blow, the pain endless.

The sprint begins, the road ahead empty but for the wheels you were following which quickly become mere dots in the distance.

The group reforms without you, nobody notices your absence. In war the dead must quickly be forgotten.

Back with the group, your legs are still screaming and you hear not the bravado of the riders who contested the sprint nor the goodbyes as you turn for home, a tormented retreat to lick your wounds until you are whole once more.

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Cycling recovery and rest

6 thoughts on “The push and pull of the pack | Group riding

  1. Wow!!!! This is brilliant! Your writing is absolutely fantastic. You have captured such emotion, such raw feelings, that I am sure every road cyclist who has participated in a group ride can relate to. 🙂


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