Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Joining the pack
Learning peloton skills is tricky enough without the initiation rites doled out by competitive riders of the feral kind. Deb Mayrhofer has some advice for newbies
As a woman who’s run with her share of wolves I understand that humans are instinctively pack animals, and that cycling in a group is a natural and safe way of getting around.
Leader of the pack
So I’d also expect the pack would protect its more vulnerable members, shepherding them until they develop their peloton skills. But alas, one whiff of testosterone and even the most mild-mannered pedalier can suddenly morph into a victory-at-any-cost road racer. A lot of female cyclists decide it simply isn’t worth it, and stick to solitary riding, but there are advantages in joining a pack. If you want to race, you need to know how to ride in a group. If you are training for a big ride, having company for the long miles and the post-ride coffee turns a workout into a great social experience. And last, but not least, there is safety in numbers because you are more visible and less vulnerable if you are not riding solo.
What’s a girl to do?
You can just grit your teeth and take it. Turn up to a group ride, ignore the supercilious stares as your outfit and bike are scanned for acceptable logos as you desperately look around for a friendly rider of a similar level. As the group rides off, you follow, and grimly try to keep up with the pack. From time to time, other riders give flicks of the wrist – are these hazard warnings or are they giving you the finger? Yes, sisters, it does seem that the main intention of many of these chaps is to drop newbies as soon as possible. If you commit the sin of overtaking one, no matter how much he may be tiring, he will garner every last ounce of strength to surge ahead, cut you off, and then drop back to a faltering speed right in front of your wheel.
Select a worthy mentor
If you decide to hang in with such a group, choose your ‘wheel’ carefully. He, or she, shouldn’t be the loudest, in equipment or voice, but will have a well maintained bike which they ride steadily. Watch what your guiding ‘wheel’ does, and learn. If you can’t confidently deal with speed changes without suddenly braking, or gesture without veering off course, then build up these skills before riding in a pack. The Catch 22 is that you need to be able to ride in a pack before you can ride in a pack.
Practice makes perfect
There are some great mixed groups which welcome newbies, but these can be hard to find. An alternative is to start your own group, perhaps with a couple of friends, in which to develop your basic techniques. Ride closely to one another so that you get used to bikes in front and to the side of you. Don’t brake or freewheel unless unavoidable, because sudden deceleration will be amplified back through the pack; instead, to slow down, try soft pedaling while gently feathering the brakes. Practise holding your line while turning your head and taking one hand off the bars to indicate hazards. Soon you’ll be confident enough to join a bigger group or expand your own. And when you do, remember to spread the joy; we need more non-ferals!
This article first appeared in Bicycle Network Victoria's Ride On magazine, August-September 2008