Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
A woman's perspective on the peloton
Lycra warrior Jo Chapman gives an insight into bunch riding
The peloton - do not be afraid!
To the average bike enthusiast, the masses of lycra-clad cyclists zooming down Beach Rd in alarming succession may seem more than a little daunting. However I assure you that the joy of the peloton is not beyond your capabilities. As long as you don't start out like I did...
I recall my first experience in a pack ride, or peloton, down to Mordialloc. I was on my brand new road bike (with cleat pedals) when we joined the group at Cafe Racer in St Kilda for an 'easy' ride...yeah, right! The group comprised mainly hardcore male triathletes sporting very expensive bikes whose idea of an 'easy ride' was far different from mine.
As we set off, I fell in behind and basically clung for dear life to the back of the pack as we hit warp speed. Phil, my beloved, was riding further up in the bunch, chatting and laughing, enjoying the morning sunshine. Oh, how I hated him at that moment.
I tried to relax and let the draught effect carry me along, but I simply lacked the fitness and the necessary skill to sit up close on the wheel in front without constantly braking and thinking I was about to die. All this, coupled with the fact that at every set of lights I was terrified I wouldn't get my shoe out of the cleat in time to stop. Of course my panic guaranteed that this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, so as well as being exhausted and dropping off the back of the pack, I was also bloody and bruised from about five stationary falls.
The next few pack rides were more of the same. Luckily from every ride I learned valuable lessons. We loosened off my cleats so I could unclip more easily. I practised keeping my arms and upper body still, to avoid wasting energy. And like Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid, Phil trained me in the ancient art of the correct pedal stroke - "Push down, pull up. Push down, pull up. Complete the circle. Spin up that hill with a higher cadence. You are a WINNER!"
Eventually I started to believe I was a winner. The ride to Mordi became easier, and soon I was riding to Frankston. I also began riding with my mate Belinda (who had also undergone the baptism by fire in the mostly male pelaton) and we found that without the pressure of keeping up with the group, we actually enjoyed our ride! These girl-only rides built up our fitness and endurance and allowed us to rejoin the hardcore group without feeling too "special ed".
Sign language and etiquette
After a dozen or so outings, Belinda and I became well-versed in pelaton sign language and group etiquette. This is crucial in a pack ride, and helps you to avoid common hazards and to communicate easily when it is difficult to hear each other.
Some of the more common signals and verbal calls are as follows:
- "Car up" indicating cars ahead.
- "Car back" indicating cars behind (on trails we also call "walker up" or "bike back" etc).
- "Lights" (pretty obvious, that one)
- And the all important "Stopping!"
- Broken glass: (my favourite) which is to shake your hand, palm facing down.
- Stopping: a stop sign with your hand
- Moving right: (usually around an obstacle like parked car, or when passing a slower pelaton) point right with your left hand behind your back.
- Pointing out hazards on the road, such as rough asphalt, potholes, debris etc. is another important signal.
These basic signals ensure you are kept informed at all times, and allow you to inform riders behind you. The other important thing is to watch the bike in front of you and to ride close to the rider's back wheel. This gives you the bonus of a draught in the pack and prevents the group from drifting apart.
- A new bike does not a cyclist make.
- Cycle within your limitations and enjoy each ride.
- Practice makes perfect: work on the things you don't do well, such as getting in and out of the cleats, braking suddenly, drinking a bidon of water while riding etc.
- Select a pelaton of cyclists with similar ability: There is nothing more futile than killing yourself in the pursuit of leisure.
Slowly build up
My baptism by fire was not the way to go. Other friends of mine started out with fun afternoon rides in a group, with no pressure, stopping for coffee afterwards and eventually building up to longer rides (still with coffee at the end).
No pressure, learning at your own pace, enjoying the company of friends and gradually building up. This is what cycling is all about, and it makes training for an event, as well as cycling for recreation and fitness all the more fun.
This method also guarantees that you'll be cycling for years, and improving all the time. So don't be afraid to don the lycra (the brighter the better) and join a like-minded pelaton. Just don't forget the coffee and a muffin at the end.
Jo Chapman enjoys participating in multi-sport events such as the Sri Chinmoy Triple Triathlon in Canberra, and the Canberra Half Ironman. She has also completed the Melbourne, Gold Coast and Sydney marathons and the gruelling 'Six Foot Track' 45 km run through the Blue Mountains.