I must admit that it’s been a while since I’ve really pushed a bike to its limits. As I do most of my riding on public roads the greasy damp tarmac and diesel spills have caught me out far too many times. The result of which has left my confidence in cornering traction, more often than not, on the cautious side. So I jumped at the chance to improve these now rusty skills by attending a British Cycling coached road racing skills session. I’d forgotten how good it feels to be more in tune with the bike, feeling the way the bike reacts as tyres grip firmly on the fresh clean tarmac.
The session I attended was held at Nottingham’s (UK) Harvey Hadden Sports Village, on their specially built 1.5km cycling circuit. The training day had been organised by a local cycling club, with the sessions being run by a British Cycling coach. The specialist track at the Harvey Hadden facility features a good surface and corners tight enough to be challenging at racing speeds. I’d like to initially state that the purpose of this post is not to advertise these existing sessions, but to plant the seed for other clubs to do something similar at their local criterium circuit; because, most importantly it’s great fun, but it’s also valuable experience.
The main objective for the coaching sessions is to create a safer racing environment by improving bike handling techniques and gaining group riding skills whilst riding at speed. The session was open to intermediate to experienced riders; some who already race, some who are considering racing, and some who just want to improve handing. If you’re relatively new to group riding then sessions like this help gain valuable experience in a controlled and traffic free environment. For wannabe racers I have heard many horror stories about Cat 4 races where enthusiasm overtakes ability, with the resultant crashes being all too frequent at the beginning of the season. Whilst group riding on the road develops good group communication skills, particularly of obstacles. Riding at full speed in a tight group with challenging corners is a very different experience. If all new racers had to go through some kind of basic group riding training the racing environment would perhaps be a little safer and competitors could have a little more confidence in their fellow riders.
Riding a chaingang at increasing speeds forces each corner to be taken with growing confidence. As speeds increase and trust in your fellow riders builds the pace can advance towards your limits. Staying tight as a group, accelerating out of the corners, taking turns on the front all fluid, efficient and confident. Speed building, legs burning, corners coming faster and faster. Follow the wheel, moving through the group, sprinting to stay in contact as the riders ahead pull out of the tight corner. It is quite simply amazing fun, the sensation of speed, pushing faster and faster as cornering confidence increases. Cornering hard and pedalling harder, pushing lap after lap until you can go no faster, each corner taken at the limit to keep the group together and as fast as possible. If you already race it’ll be a familiar feeling and one that all passionate cyclists should experience.
The session did not start anywhere near full speed though; some group riding exercises kicked things off to loosen up and warm up. Simple skills practice like moving though the group from front to back/back to front, or through the middle of a group demands good observation and reactions. Riding in contact with other riders and pinched between (in contact with both, elbows touching and a bit of leaning) two riders gave a unique experience not normally practiced but often experienced. Slowly the speeds rise as confidence grows with a lumps-and-bumps session (riding in a single line, weaving across the track holding the wheel in front), some cornering tuition to improve technique and finally an Italian pursuit race (team pursuit race where one rider peels off from the group per lap).
Here are some of the key points I took away from the coaching session:
- When riding in a tight group avoid braking to scrub off a little speed. Instead ease off your pedalling and/or sit up into the wind to ease back gently. Dabbing brakes will make things challenging for the riders behind you and could easily result in a crash. Instead aim for smooth and gradual speed adjustments to keep the group tightly together.
- Stay relaxed when things get tight, absorb any accidental contact with another rider by making first contact with bent and relaxed elbows. Using the wider spacing of the elbows avoids the handlebars from making contact, as well absorbing an impact that would have knocked you off course had arms been straight and tense.
- When cornering in a group the riders will concertina. As the last rider hits the apex of the corner at minimum cornering speed the first rider is sprinting away and gaining speed. This effect is magnified by tighter corners and larger groups. The last riders in the group will end up braking earlier than required to account for the number of riders braking ahead, and will have to accelerate harder to stay with the group.
- When riding in a race situation try to stay on the drops. Being on the drops lowers your shoulders and flattens your back, aiding aerodynamics; as well as placing weight over the front wheel (the front wheel often looses traction first) for essential high speed cornering grip.
Riding flat out in a group is fast, efficient and a thrilling experience go and try it for yourself. Talk to your local club about it, or just get some friends together in an out of use car-park.