Riding your bike in a group is both a privilege and a burden of responsibility. While sometimes “accidents just happen,” there are many other times where they can be, and should have been, avoided. I will not rant today about the horrors I have seen on some group rides lately (even though I am sure that my ranting is deserved), instead I’ll write about the unwritten rules of the road and the cycling etiquette of a group ride. This may serve as a reminder to those of us who have been pedaling for years now as well as an introduction to cycling etiquette for those of us who may be new to the sport. Cycling is a team sport. Even if you never race your bicycle or compete on a team you are generally safer riding your bicycle with a group of friends. A small cluster of cyclists is simply easier to see than a solo cyclist. Also, cycling has become a sort of brotherhood or club these days and while pedaling down the road you often get waived at or simple hand gestures by other cyclists passing opposite the road to you. Why is that? It’s because cycling is getting “cool” and those of us who are out there want to acknowledge each other when we ride by. Cycling is a team thing. You will eventually ride your bike with someone else – it’s almost unavoidable.
So, no matter your experience level and years (or even just a few weeks) in the saddle – let’s review the basics of cycling etiquette so we can all ride safer and happier. Riding your bike in a group requires some thick skin. There is always a risk of course, but more importantly you should be called out for making any of these cycling etiquette mistakes. If you get called out, don’t be offended. Learn from it, fix it, and pedal on. We have all been there before…
Rule #1: Be predictable
There is almost nothing more irritating and dangerous than an erratic cyclist. This holds true for the solo cyclist as well. Be predictable in EVERYTHING you do. Riding smooth and with predictability is key to a safer and more enjoyable ride. Whether it be changing hand positions, making a turn, standing up out of the saddle, passing on the left, pulling through to lead the group, etc., be predictable. There is no room or reason for an erratic cyclist to try and squeeze into a position in the peloton where there isn’t room or where another rider wouldn’t even think you should be. There is never a reason to just randomly and without apparent reason shoot off the front in a full on sprint just to show how fast you can pedal your bike. Group rides are not for racing. With the advent of Strava, there are cyclists who literally just jump out of a group in a dead sprint for just a 1/4 mile or so to try and beat a PR or KOM. Without warning the group, you put everyone at risk when you shoot through the middle of the peloton to break out on the side somewhere to just sprint your brains out for a few meters. There is really no point and you end up putting others at risk. I am the first to recognize the value of sprints, and even better group sprints for records or speed training etc. However, these are announced in advance and should never just surprise the group. Remember that predictability is key to a smooth and safe ride – it doesn’t mean you have to ride slow. Ride smarter. Be predictable.
Rule #2: Never Overlap Wheels & No “Half Wheeling” on the Front
Overlapping Wheels: Surprisingly this happens all of the time. It is likely one of the leading causes of accidents in group rides. Again, this is about being predictable – NEVER roll up next to someone with your front wheel overlapping their rear wheel. This is called overlapping wheels. When you overlap wheels you remove any room for minor adjustments or corrections by the cyclist in front of you. The cyclist in front of you probably has no idea that you are even there and this even more dangerous. A group ride can often “breathe” a bit with some fluctuations in speed or even an expanded width as your neighboring cyclists move over just a bit to avoid something in the road etc. This is all normal and causes the peloton to expand, speed up, and slow down all with ripple effects. If you are half wheeling someone and they move just a bit then your wheels will collide and the chances of a wreck are almost certain! I have nearly been hit hundreds of times by cars that didn’t see me, or were distracted by their cell phones etc. – BUT I SWEAR if I get injured because some idiot was half wheeling me I would be more angry at them than I ever have been at motorist. There is no excuse or reason for half wheeling. Stop it. “Half Wheeling” is also a no no and should not be confused with overlapping wheels. Half Wheeling occurs when you are pulling on the front in a group ride where everyone is two by two down the line, and you don’t hold a steady pace. When one of the two cyclists up front speeds up just a bit – about a half a wheel – faster than the cyclist next to him then the other counters and goes back and forth ever increasing the speed and breaking the group to where people drop off the back. Don’t be that guy that half wheels in an ego competition upfront, or who half wheels because you lack the steadiness of pace and pedal stroke. No half wheeling.
Rule #3: Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate Some More
Call out hazards in the road by pointing them out. Yelling rarely is effective in a group ride as anyone 2-3 cyclists behind you can’t hear what you said and will then divert their focus to frantically scanning the road to see whatever it is you were yelling about. Point out the hazard with hand signals and do it quickly and in advance. Also, announce yourself. If you are coming in the line or wanting to pass some of the cyclists in the group then announce yourself with something like: “On your left.” Knowing someone is coming up is always better than being surprised. Remember predictability? There is no reason to be a jerk and yell out “on your left” like some drill sergeant on a mission to find a new KOM or PR. Whenever announcing yourself, you should say it clearly and nicely. Announce when you are standing up out of the saddle! Most cyclists don’t know how to properly stand up out of the saddle and that the initial action will often result in your bike being “thrown back” a bit. In a group ride that can cause a wreck in the draft or panic and brake slamming. Remember predictability? That’s right; announce everything you are doing when it affects the cyclists near you – but no yelling. This doesn’t mean that you need to announce the fact that you are eating a GU. But it does mean that you should indicate by hand signal and sometimes also by voice when you are slowing down, accelerating, standing, stopping, etc. The silent cyclist is an unpredictable and erratic cyclist. Communicate in your group. When solo – communicate to the cars around via hand signals. You can’t really ever communicate to much, but you certainly can too little.
Rule #4: Obey Traffic Rules
This comes down to predictability as well. If there is a red light and you slow down but then decide to stand up and sprint through it you are putting the rest of the group at risk. Besides the fact that if you get hurt or injured in a bike wreck that your possible recovery will be minimal if at all, you are helping support the bias against cyclists that almost every motorist feels. Obey the law. We certainly expect the cars around us to obey the traffic laws so we don’t get hurt. We also expect you to obey the traffic laws when you are riding in a group. In some circumstances it may be appropriate to slow down and then roll through a traffic signal or stop sign in very rural areas where your carbon fiber bikes will never trigger the sensor, and the time of the day is such that there is literally no traffic. In such cases, remember rule #3 – Communicate. Make sure you determine the safety of such a decision and then communicate it to the group. Be safe, and approach with caution.
Rule #5: Pulling On The Front
Not every one of us can ride a bike like Chris Froome. Don’t pass the group to get in the front only to slow down because you are out of gas. Know your own limits. Don’t get mixed up in some “sprint finish” only to slam on your brakes because you don’t know how to make a tight turn well. Stay in the back if that is where your capabilities put you. We have all been there and there are many days where that is still where we each sit. Pushing yourself too hard to the point where you flail about to and fro like a fish out of water is not safe either. There is much to be said about taking your turn in the wind, and doing your part to pull the group. Most of us firmly believe that you should always take your turn in the wind, even if it is a short turn. It helps you feel like a part of the group. However, be sure to keep it brief or skip it all together until you are recovered and rested enough to safely be up front. Being at the front bears a special kind of responsibility. The cyclist(s) at the front bear the burden of pace setting, determining traffic safety at upcoming intersections, calling out road hazards, and much more. In a way, the safety of the entire group rests on the shoulders of whoever is up at the front. It does little good to be so fatigued or to put your head down in a full on sprint and ignore this responsibility. Be alert and attentive at the front, or move to the back. When moving to the back you should check behind you to make sure that you are not being half wheeled. Then proceed safely out of the way announcing to the cyclist behind you by hand signals or voice that you are moving to the back. Never stop pedaling when finished pulling as it creates an accordion effect throughout the entire peloton. Keep a steady pressure on the pedals and slowly move over. Don’t stop pedaling when moving to the back as you may not be able to slip into the draft again and you could get caught watching the group ride off into the sunrise without you. Don’t wait to move off the front until you have absolutely nothing left in the tank. You should stop pulling and move to the back while you still have a little left so you don’t get dropped. When taking a turn pulling on the front, DON’T drop the hammer immediately. Pull through steady. Keep the pace where it was for a few meters before increasing your speed. When at the front you should constantly check behind you to see if the group is still in your draft. If you pulled through too quickly then you will be off the front as a soloist and an idiot that just left the group behind.
Rule #6: Gaps
There should be no gaps in a group ride. If you see a gap ride up and fill it. When filling a gap don’t be “that guy” who speeds up and then has to slam on his brakes just to prevent riding up into the back wheel of the rider ahead. Fill the gaps smoothly. Just ride up in a steady and controlled manner. Remember predictability? No need to be a surge sort of rider constantly sprinting and braking. This puts everyone around you at risk not to mention that it drains your energy almost faster than anything else.
Rule #7: Drafting
Drafting is one of the greatest pleasures in the cycling world. It is also one of the most dangerous. First and foremost, don’t draft off a stranger – it’s just rude and a little creepy. If you are on a solo ride and you come across another cyclist or two, or even a group, don’t roll up on them and start drafting without first talking to them and asking if you can tag along. No one likes a creeper or a group ride crasher. In the groups I ride with we always have the mentality of the more the merrier, but even then if a stranger just rolls up without saying anything to us and just drafts the whole time we all get creeped out. Also, don’t only draft. In other words, don’t be that cyclist that only ever drafts. No one likes the one or two riders in a group that mooch off of everyone else. Take your turn in the wind. If you are strong enough to draft off of fast cyclists then you are strong enough to pull – even if it is just for a short while. Know your limits, yeah I know we said that before – but take your turn in the wind. It’s not a welfare ride. The guys up front are working hard – you should too.
More on drafting – do not fixate or stare at the rear wheel of the cyclist you are drafting off of. Yes, you should pay close attention to the speed, and movements of who you are drafting off of. But you shouldn’t pay so much attention that you lost all connectivity with the road conditions, the movements of the group around you, etc. Don’t draft so closely that you have no room to move or that you have to slam on your brakes every few seconds because of speed changes. Give the cyclist in front of you enough courtesy room that you don’t cause a wreck because of your careless drafting skills. If you are a triathlete on a TT bike (p.s. I love these cyclists, I too started out as a triathlete once upon a time) then you have an extra duty of care. Your TT bike is not really set up for drafting and you will find yourself often popping in and out of a draft to control speed as opposed to using brakes, etc. You will most likely cause other cyclists around you an extra bit of anxiety. Be cautious and aware of the fact that your bike is simply more dangerous in a group draft than a road bike is. No need to be offended, it is what it is. But maybe you triathletes should consider giving yourself a little extra room while drafting and maybe even hanging out in the very back or the very front.
Rule #8: Climbing & Descending
Climbing: Don’t be the guy who slows down to stand up. Ever have that happen to you? You know what I mean, you are spinning right up a hill and all of the sudden the sudden the guy in front of you decides to stand up (probably didn’t communicate it – a clear violation of rule #3) and when he does his bike is thrown back and you find yourself ditching out to the left or right as quickly as you can to not hit him. When climbing and the need to stand up out of the saddle arises, announce it by saying: “Standing,” then shift 2 gears into a lower cadence while applying steady pressure on the pedals (this helps avoid abrupt changes in speed) – then you can stand up without throwing your bike backwards. Also, don’t swerve or rock your bike so much during your climbing that you take out all the other cyclists near you. Climbing out of the saddle doesn’t require flailing, just a good rhythm. Descending: Pick your line and hold it! Besides the danger of stopping pedaling while in front, pick a line and hold it. Know your abilities. Do not attempt to pass someone a descent in a tight turn. Group rides are not stages in the TDF – pass with care. When in a turn, pick a line and hold it. Never slam on your brakes while on a descent without checking to see how close your neighboring cyclists are behind you. Drafting on a descent is a great deal of fun, and you can reach extremely fast speeds – but you should always hold your line and be mindful of everyone and everything around you. Be careful when you turn your head to look to one side or the other, as you can drift in that direction and take out another cyclist. Of course this should go without saying, but strictly follow rule #2 (Never Half Wheel) while descending.
Rule #9: The Snot Rocket & Gas
It happens. Just peel off to the side for any sort of fluid release. Any and all fluid releases should be done off to the side of the peloton and never in the middle of your riding buddies. This goes for snot rockets, spit, urine, and even those nasty expulsions of air. Passing gas on a while riding your bike just happens out there. It’s almost as guaranteed as the sun coming up every day. If you have particularly bad gas, peel off to the side and drift to the back. Return to your position when you’re confident you won’t be choking the rest of the peloton with your aroma.
Rule #10: Moving Around In a Group
Be predictable. Be steady and smooth. There is no reason to go all herky jerky with sudden movements or accelerations. Don’t just swerve over and accelerate, you could end up taking out part of the group. Be consistent. Slow and steady movements inside the peloton is the safest bet for everyone involved. Pick your line and gradually move towards it allowing everyone around you time and space to react. I have nearly been run off the road on group rides because someone thought they had to hurry up and accelerate around a slower rider just to try and catch the “break away” sprinter(s). Don’t let your ego and carelessness get you mixed up in a wreck. Be steady, predictable, and gradually move in the direction you wish to go when riding in a group. Most unwritten group riding rules mention that there should not be any space between bikes but a few centimeters between handlebars. And that all group rides should be two abreast with handlebar to handlebar. I recognize that there is a lot of sense to this style and that bike handling skills play a huge role in the comfort level of cyclists participating in such a group ride. Further, when this rule is followed there aren’t riders coming up in the middle of 2 cyclists filling up a space that shouldn’t be there anyways.
Rule #11: Never Show Crack
This should go without saying, but don’t show up on a group ride with bibs or cycling shorts so thin or low cut that your crack is exposed to everyone behind you. Really? This is NEVER ok. Enough said.
Rule #12: No Earbuds
This will strike anger in the hearts of many readers… but lets be honest, how can you really hear what is going on around you in the peloton when your ear is plugged with music blasting in it. You put yourself and everyone else around you at risk. You will have a harder time hearing traffic, movements of the bikes in the peloton, etc. And worse, everyone hates it when they roll up next to you and start chatting and only to have to repeat everything because you had your ear bud(s) in. One of the greatest aspects of the sport cycling is the nature of the group ride and the social side of training. You completely remove this when you wear ear buds. But more importantly you put everyone at risk as your hearing (no matter how low the volume is) is obviously impaired to some degree. In any USAC sanctioned race, Ironman Triathlon, and other competition of note earbuds are strictly prohibited and you can be disqualified for using them. Why? Because they are unsafe and unnecessary. Don’t be that guy with ear buds. Is your cycling ability really that dependent on the beat of the music you’re listening to? Just pedal, with as few distractions as possible.
If you violate these and other rules of your local group then you may have been chastised by the group leader or a concerned cyclist. Don’t be offended by this chastisement, just roll with it. It’s how we all learn and develop together into better, safer, and even faster cyclists. I still remember once when I was new to the sport an older cyclist ripped me a new one because I stopped pedaling in the group and coasted too much while I was drafting. This free spinning sounds cool when you have a nice set of wheels, but it causes hesitation and concern for the cyclist directly behind you. He yelled at me and for a long time I thought he was the biggest jerk I had met. After giving it some thought I realized that he was right and that if I could pedal more steadily and smoothly then not only was I better cyclist, but I would not throw the group into a constant accordion effect with my free spinning.
Don’t be “that guy” that breaks these rules and puts yourself and others around you in harm’s way. And don’t be “that guy” that comes off as a jerk when chastising others. DO take the opportunity to teach others the rules of cycling etiquette and DO call people out for these mistakes – just do it with a friendly tone and in a teaching moment.
Ben Dodge, the Bike Lawyer
Arizona bicycle accident lawyer Ben Dodge
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Bike Accident Attorneys, PLC
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