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Home / Training / Bike / Group Cycling: Part 1

Group Cycling: Part 1

Drafting is banned in age-group racing, but there are huge benefits to biking in a bunch, as Andy Bullock explains

There’s no greater sight than seeing a peloton of riders cruising past a field of sunflowers in France. Well, for France read the UK, and for sunflowers we’ll have to make do with daffodils! But why should triathletes bother with the long weekend club ride if it doesn’t reflect the type of riding we undertake in a race? We’re going to find out…

In Part 1 of this feature, we’ll see how you can transfer group riding skills to your individual bike leg, and examine the physiological benefits. In Part 2, we’ll focus on the nutritional needs, the skills of ascending, descending and cornering, and the options you have with regards to cadence.

Encouraged to draft

But before we move on, a question: how many times do you see motorists up and down the country hoot their horns at some ‘pelotons’ taking up more road than necessary due to less practised riding skills? It begs the further question: do triathletes neglect group riding skills in preference for individual outcomes?

And if they do, well, it’s hardly surprising. When racing, age-group triathletes will be given a time penalty for drafting if they enter an imaginary box 7m x 3m (for sprint- or standard-distance events) or 10m x 3m (for long-distance events) from the front wheel of the competitor in front. Not a great incentive! But like all things in triathlon, there’s more to it than that meets the eye…

To illustrate the many tri-specific benefits of group riding, we joined Bristol and District Triathletes on one of their club rides in mid-March. The club leave a regular meeting place near the Bristol docks at 9am every Saturday. Forty to 50 riders turn up to ride one of three routes, varying in distance from 15-50 miles. The routes are published on the club’s website the Wednesday before the ride to allow riders to learn routes in advance. The athletes are asked to form groups of not more than eight plus a group leader, as some of the roads are narrow and busy.

The group doing the long ride that we’re following consists of eight riders who have each filled out a pre-ride questionnaire, four of whom we’ll be following closely. Dave, Ali, Matt and David range from mid-20s to late-30s in age, have 2-4 years in triathlon apiece and train for anywhere from 9 hours (David) to 20 hours (Dave) per week. The weather is dry and bright but not so hot that it’ll affect the riders’ preparation.

However, despite all facing the same conditions, each rider undertakes a different pre-ride routine. Some riders get up early enough to have breakfast beforehand; some clean their bikes before every ride. Each rider has their drink of choice: some water, others carbohydrate drinks, and most are carrying two 1-litre bottles which, for a three-hour ride in these conditions, should be sufficient. But more on nutrition will be covered in Part 2…

Dave is still riding his winter bike. However, Ali, David and Matt have decided to use their race bikes. “The advantage of having two bikes means I can bring out a more expensive race bike when the weather is better so it doesn’t get so dirty,” comments Ali. “My older bike is used when it’s wet and, therefore, suffers more wear and tear.”

Each rider also carries essential kit such as a spare inner tube, a pump or tyre-inflation device, a mobile phone and some change. Finally, some of the group use training aids, which measure aspects of performance such as heart rate and cadence.

Matt comments: “My achievement in the Worlds last year – I came 14th in the 35-39 age group – was the result of working closely with my coach who encourages me to use heart rate and cadence to give me feedback during and after my ride. This allows me to learn from my training.”


Before setting off, the group makes sure everyone knows each other, simultaneously confirming the number of riders present. They set off and slowly increase the effort up to an agreed pace for the first part of the ride, which allows everyone to spend a good 15mins warming up.

Once out of Bristol and onto the A370, the road is wide enough to allow the group to settle into a good rhythm with four sets of two riders side by side. Each rider tries to ride with other riders no more than 30cm in front, behind to the side or a combination thereof. Riding close to each other means they need their hands on the top of the bars, or the brake hoods, to allow quick access to the brakes if necessary. The closer these riders are to the wheel in front, the greater the ability to draft and save energy, possibly up to 30% behind one rider and up to 40% when surrounded by bikes.

The riders at the front undertake the most work. Their role is to face the resistance caused by wind and forward motion, for the benefit of the riders behind. In our group the stronger riders sit up front for up to 15mins at a time; weaker riders take their turn but spend less time at the front.

When their turn at the front is over, the two riders move into single file on the inside of the road and wave the riders behind through. Each of the riders following then overtakes and moves a place forward in the group. Rotating the positions like this results in everyone sharing the harder work.

Time to file in

Once the group turns onto the quieter B3133, the road narrows frequently, causing cars to queue up for a short time behind the riders. The Highway Code states that cyclists should ride ‘no more than two abreast’ and ride ‘in single file on narrow or busy roads’. Although this part of the code is not law, the riders appreciate that it’s a sensible recommendation to follow.

The athletes at the back notice a small queue of cars forming and encourage the group to ‘file in’. To do this, a slight change of speed is necessary because the riders on the outside move forward of the rider to their immediate left and fit into the line in front of them. This momentarily stops the banter in the group, before the cars pass and the group can reform into its two-by-two formation.

Narrower roads can mean adverse road conditions: potholes, parked cars, restricted lines of sight and more. The lead riders take responsibility for more than just setting the pace: they should be on the look out for obstructions. The riders further back in the group have a restricted view of the road and are therefore partly relying on the cyclists in front to help them out with what they can see. Signals known to the whole group should be used to communicate down the line, such as pointing to obstructions and moving wide with plenty of time.

Shouting in a clear voice will also help get the message to the group. For example, “Pothole left” or “Car up”. Not taking this considerate approach, but instead, for example, ‘bunny hopping’ to jump over obstructions is likely to cause one of the riders behind to hit the obstacle, leaving them unhappy, possibly with a puncture or worse. To find out the signs used in your group, watch other riders or ask the coaches.

Safety at speed

A long, winding descent towards Cheddar allows the riders to get up some speed. The group splits as those more confident in their downhill skills carry more velocity through the corners. All assembled know how important it is to make sure they stay on their own side of the white line, though. It may be obvious but cutting the corner isn’t worth the risk.

After a short, flat section, the road begins to climb up the scenic Cheddar Gorge. Different climbing abilities cause a natural split in the group but everyone regroups at a pre-arranged meeting place at the top of the hill. Those who reach the top quicker spin a little further than the meeting point, before returning to make sure any lactate built up during the climb doesn’t accumulate in the legs while they wait for the rest of the group.

As the group passes Chew Valley Lake, they are faced with flatter open roads and a head wind. They take the opportunity to form a circular pace line (chain gang). If viewed from above the group would be seen rotating in an anti-clockwise circle. To do this, the line of riders on the left maintain their speed, while the line of riders on the right moves at an increased pace until each rider reaches the front and moves left, joining the line moving at a constant speed.

To make sure there’s a constant supply of riders moving up on the outside, the riders at the back of the inside line must move out and accelerate up behind the rider who was previously behind him or her. Rotating this way (from the back up to the front) is safer on open roads because the riders at the back are able to check if there are cars approaching.

It takes a great deal of co-operation, concentration, practise and skill to make this pace line work but it can be fun and allows the riders to move quicker than in a double line. You’ll also find that the athletes work harder moving up the line, therefore adding some controlled increases in intensity. In addition, this variability in the form of constantly moving position in the group helps to develop bike skills. All relevant for a faster triathlon bike leg come race day.

The group then join the A38 and start to decrease the pace, warming down for the last 10-15mins of the ride. On finishing the ride, the group spend 10mins stretching out the major muscle groups.

Ride intensity

Longer rides increase the ability of the body to use oxygen during training and racing. This results from physiological changes that occur within the muscles during and after endurance training, which include an increased network of blood vessels around the muscles and a heightened number of mitochondria. The alterations allow more oxygen to be delivered to the working muscles by a heart whose pumping action is also improved. In addition, an increase in neuromuscular efficiency of pedalling technique and an escalation in the ability of one’s body to burn fat as a fuel add to the reasons why endurance training is beneficial.

However, the riders in this group are all in the ‘build’ phase of their training programmes; in other words, building on the base endurance they already have towards race fitness. To do this they must also include short sprints, to improve power, and spend intervals operating higher than their endurance training intensity but lower than their race-pace intensity.

Case study: Ali Bradburn

Ali is aware that during long rides her heart rate (HR) should be around 145bpm. Her average in the first 25mins was 130bpm (see Analysis of Ali’s HR box), which is fine for her warm-up. However, there are a few occasions when her heart rate goes over 150bpm. This isn’t ideal early in a ride but, when speaking to Ali, she mentioned she was trying to stay with the group going up a hill. Ali’s HR continues to spike as the group sprints up a few short hills to help improve power development. During the three sections of climbing, Ali’s heart rate increases above her endurance riding intensity for prolonged periods. On warming down, her statistics show 10mins of an overall decrease in HR.

What is there to learn from Ali’s ride?

Setting a different target heart rate for different parts of the ride will help keep track of the appropriate intensity for her aims. Then constantly monitoring her heart rate throughout should help to regulate her effort to the right intensity at the right times.However, trying to adhere to a specific heart rate is difficult due to changes in gradient and other conditions. Therefore, setting a zone of around five beats either side of your ideal heart rate is more realistic. Spending 10mins at low intensity at the end of the ride will help to remove any waste products that might have built up, and bring in oxygen to help start the recovery process.

It may be hard when riding with a group to get exactly what you want. However, giving a bit to the group brings its own rewards in terms of both challenge and companionship.

Andy Bullock is a former 220 Triathlon Coach of the Year. He began his coaching career in 2001 while studying for an MSc in Exercise Physiology



Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.