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How to conserve your energy in a pack

How to maximize your efficiencies in a race or a group ride.

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Learn to pedal less

One of the things coaches noticed once we started more advanced analyses of power files was that some athletes spend less time pedaling than others, and often riders who pedal less end up performing better in races. Pedaling takes energy, and if you can save yours while those around you burn theirs, you can gain an advantage over riders who started out with greater endurance. Several of the following tips will help you reduce the time you spend pedaling while still ensuring that you stay with the group, but the basic key is not to pedal unless you have to, and to make each pedal stroke count.

Stay near the front of the pack

Repeated accelerations cause your power outputs to spike, and every time you rev your engine far above your threshold power, you’re forcing your glycolytic system to burn through a chunk of carbohydrate. That’s material you have to protect, because it’s the high-octane fuel that powers extreme efforts such as attacks, sprints, and bell-lap-all-or-nothing flyers. If you light the fuse and there’s nothing left in the tank, you’re going to sputter and flame out instead of rocketing to the win.

In any pack-riding situation, the pace is steadiest at the front and gets increasingly variable as you move toward the back. This is most noticeable in a criterium on a tight course, in which riders at the front barely use their brakes, whereas folks at the back of the pack are forced to brake hard before every corner and then accelerate like a dragster just to stay with the field. Fifteen laps of that is enough to spit most amateurs out the back, no matter how strong they are.

The best place to be is about 10 to 25 riders deep in the field, a position often called the “sweet spot.” You’re close enough to the front that the pace is very steady, and you’re able to see and anticipate accelerations and attacks. At the same time, you’re deep enough in the field that you’re safely tucked into the draft. Staying in this position is important, because maximizing your time in the draft and minimizing the hard accelerations you have to endure will help reduce the total amount of time you spend pedaling.

Take short pulls

I understand you want to be a conscientious member of the group and do your share of the pacemaking, but it’s also important that your contribution serve your interests as well as the group’s. The most important thing you have to do when you hit the front of a large pack or small group is keep the pace steady. If the group is rolling along a flat road at 21 mph, when the rider ahead of you pulls off, you have to pull through at 21 mph. But you don’t have to spend 5 or 10 minutes pushing through the wind at that pace just because the riders before you did. Stay up there for 30 seconds or a few minutes, and then pull off. If this hurts your ego, consider this: How’s your ego going to take it if you match the others pull for pull for an hour and then get dropped completely? Or to put it in a more positive light, riding strong on the way home and sprinting for the city limit sign will be a great reward for riding smarter rather than harder.

The idea of taking short pulls brings up the concept of etiquette in pack riding situations. When you’re in a race, I don’t care if the rider behind you resents the fact that you’re pulling for 30 seconds when he or she is sitting on the front for 2 minutes at a turn. You have every right to be selfish and ride to your strengths, and he has to make a tactical decision about how he wants to deal with it. On the other hand, when you’re out with half a dozen buddies on a Sunday morning, it’s time to play nice.

The truth is, your riding buddies want you to stay with the group and be an active participant in the ride, and if that means you’re going to take shorter pulls, so be it. For them, you taking shorter pulls is a lot better than having to wait for you later or having to ride home slower just so you can keep up.

Choose the right partner

A lot of group rides are conducted with a two-by-two pace line, meaning there are two lines of riders led by two pacesetters riding side by side at the front. When it’s time to pull off, the right-hand rider moves right and the left-hand rider moves left, and then they back off their pace so the entire group passes between them. Eventually they reunite at the back. Unlike in a rotating pace line, the amount of time you spend at the front isn’t entirely up to you. If you’re in a group of riders you know well, it shouldn’t be too hard to pair up with another rider who will be more than happy to take a relatively short pull with you. If you don’t know anyone in the group, you’re just going to have to do your best to size up your options as the group leaves the parking lot or coffee shop. If you guess wrong and end up next to a diesel engine of a rider who wants to take 30-minute pulls, remember that it’s in your best interest to do the ride that’s right for you. Tell him or her you’re going to pull off, and do it. The rider either will be fine with it or will find a new partner the next time the group shuffles a bit.

Cruise in a big gear

When you’re in the draft and cruising down the road, there are many times when a relatively low power output will be all that’s necessary to hold your current position. Rather than spin at 120 rpm to put out 100 watts, shift into a bigger gear and bring your cadence down to 60 to 70 rpm. You’re basically coasting and just turning your legs over with enough force to keep from decelerating. Your heart rate will come down, your breathing will slow, and you’ll burn fewer calories per minute.

When you employ this technique, it’s imperative to pay attention to what’s going on around you. One of the greatest benefits to pedaling fast is the ability to respond rapidly to changes in pace or power demand. When your cadence is low, it’s much more difficult to suddenly increase your speed in response to an acceleration. Similarly, if you hit a hill you didn’t see coming, you’ll find that you have to pedal very hard to keep from immediately losing momentum and decelerating into the rider behind you.

It’s always important, whether you’re cruising in a big gear or riding in any other situation, to look far ahead to anticipate stoplights, hills, and changes in pace or wind conditions. Some advance notice will give you the opportunity to shift gears and bring your cadence up so that you’re ready for the upcoming challenge.

Jim Rutberg used this technique to conserve energy whenever he was drafting behind Grant Davis during their rides in New Mexico. Instead of the 90 to 95 rpm cadence he maintained while he was pulling at 220 to 240 watts, he shifted into a bigger gear and brought his cadence down to 70 to 75 while maintaining 120 to 130 watts in Grant’s draft. Yes, the work (kilojoules) would be the same whether he was producing 120 watts at 90 rpm or 70 rpm, but the aerobic cost of producing that work went down.

Skip some pulls

There’s a difference between skipping some pulls and sitting at the back of the group all day (otherwise known as “sucking wheels”). Skipping the occasional pull will help you conserve energy but not draw the ire of the group. And if you only sit out every third, fourth, or fifth pull, your fellow riders may barely notice. Better yet, if you’re riding with a group you know well, just tell them that’s what you’re going to do. If they’re like most cyclists, they’d rather you contribute a little less frequently for 4 hours instead of taking pulls for 3 and then sitting on the back for the last hour.

To skip a pull, you simply rotate through the pace line until you reach the very back and then let a small gap open instead of moving over into the line that’s advancing toward the front. The rider ahead of you will see no one passing and will move over into the advancing line. You move over as that rider does and rejoin the advancing line on his or her wheel.

If you’re in a fast-moving group in which people are just staring at the rider in front of them, you may be able to make a skipped pull barely noticeable by dropping back and a little to the opposite side of the advancing line. In other words, if the retreating line is on the left and the advancing one is on the right, you’d move slightly to the left once you reach the back of the retreating line. The rider ahead of you is less likely to see you lingering back there because his focus is entirely on the right side. I’ve actually seen athletes ride in this position for miles, completely unnoticed, on the tail of a hard-charging group.

On the other hand, in a breakaway group during a race, sitting on or skipping any pulls will certainly be noticed, and you have to be careful not to take advantage of the group’s goodwill. If you decide to skip the occasional pull in a breakaway, your companions are more likely to tolerate that if the pulls you do take are good ones. If you’re both soft-pedaling your way through pulls and skipping them, it won’t be long before someone launches an acceleration to get rid of you. If that doesn’t work, someone will take you off the back of the group to open up a sizable gap. Then that rider either will make you accelerate to close the gap (while he or she sits on your wheel) or will jump really hard so he or she rejoins the group and leaves you behind.

You don’t want to be in any of these situations, because your efforts to conserve energy will inadvertently force you to burn every last match you have. In a breakaway, your best bet is to take short high-quality pulls to contribute to the group’s success, and only start skipping pulls if you think it’s the only way you’re going to get a chance to contend for the win.

Adapted from The Time-Crunched Cyclist by Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg with permission of VeloPress.