cycling utah May 2000

Miss Manners never told us about pack etiquette

By R. S. Stone

If you want to lead the pack you'd better be ready to run with the big dogs.

Not long after I began hanging out at the rear of the pack on "Renegade" Saturday rides, I overheard comments about Tuesday and Thursday evening rides. My ears perked up and I strained to hear the conversation, as it was not spoken to me. I had not yet attained status such that I was spoken to. Spoken about, yes!

I didn't care. These rides were perfect for me as I detest riding alone. I could show up, follow the last wheel and not worry where I was going or where to turn. If I could hang on then I would arrive at the place I started. I would be worn out but feel richer for the experience. As long as I behaved myself in the pack and stayed near the rear, I was tolerated.

In the beginning, as the pace line was rotating, my pull would come. Inevitably someone would fall back and signal that he wanted to get in front of me, then fall off the pace pushing me to the rear, away from my rightful pull.

At first I was insulted, then hurt, then angry. "I can take my pull! I'm no charity case!" I thought. Over time as I showed up consistently and hung on tenaciously, the tutorials began.

Short one or two sentence tips were offered such as "shift down and spin more and try to match the cadence of the rider in front, you can see his feet while watching the wheel in front of you. When you tire, shift up to take a rest and then try again."

Or another "when you sense the pack slowing, don't stop pedaling. The person behind you is watching your feet, they'll think something serious is about to happen. Just slow your cadence slightly, your momentum will cause your freewheel to ratchet slowly and alert subsequent riders to back off a little."

After a time I realized that I was being taught, tested, watched, taught and re-tested. When the time was right my pull came and no one made a move to stop me. The only word that came was an understated "good pull."

It was during just such a tutorial that Ben, on a beautiful Tommissini, informed me that "aero" bars made everyone nervous, that one's ability to hold a line was diminished while using them. That very night the bars came off, never to reappear on any bike I owned. Though I'm loathe to admit it now, I was at the time a "Fred."

I owned most of the cyclist's regalia, although jerseys were not in the budget. I did however own several t-shirts emblazoned with the name of my brother's skateboard shop "The Bored of Provo." I enjoyed the play on words and it would become my moniker. While most just went by their first names, we did have a few nick names.

There was "thunder thighs" Tom who had a genetic predisposition for unusually large thighs, though mostly show and not much go. Then there were "the Daves," two friends both named Dave who always showed up together and left together. Then there was T.O.D., an acronym for "the other Dave." It seemed we were flush with Daves.

Looking back, the experience was not so much to exclude or belittle me but to teach me and simultaneously protect the pack from the foolish mistakes of a new, inexperienced rider.

I vividly recall one evening ride when two "tri-guys" joined ranks with us and on a first time ride took up position in the front of the pack. I presume this was to let us all know that they could "hang with the big dogs." That those who chose to only ride somehow were short-changing their training regimen.

Not understanding pack dynamics is a very dangerous ignorance to have while leading the pack. They were asked several time to filter back. Ignoring the requests they persisted until at an intersection only a few bike lengths from the light, now yellow in color, the lead "tri-guy" decided to demonstrate how effectively his brakes worked. He slid back over his saddle and locked them up.

By way of explanation, a large pack of cyclists is unable to come to a safe stop in such a short distnace. One rider sure, but the cumulative reaction time of each successive rider prohibits such stops. Hence the expression "pack dynamics."

I was about half-way back in the pack and was preparing to jump as we always did in just such a situation. Suddenly I noticed wheels seemingly going backwards toward me as brakes locked up and tires shredded on the pavement. Wheels touched and doomed riders struggled hopelessly to stay upright. I was one of the unfortunate ones to go down. Words, glares and uncomplimentary hand gestures were offered. After straightening bars and checking for blood, the ride resumed with the "tri-guys" sheepishly taking up the rear.

Quickly plans were made to drop the "tri-geeks." A few strong riders, now feeling their oats as a result of the crash, took up positions in front of tri-one and tri-two.

On a straight stretch of road the pack accelerated with four staying behind to do the dirty, but enjoyable, work. Relaxing in their aero bars the "tri-guys'" view of the pack was obscured by the four assassins who now were gradually falling off the pace. The "tri-guys" were taken by surprise as each assassin showed their best breakaway move. The reaction time to get out of a prone aero position into an upright sprint created too much of a gap for them to overcome. They were O.T.B. never to be heard from or seen again. Good riddance!

So what's my point? Since my October article have I changed positions 180 degrees?

No! But there are two sides to the issue. When formally joining or informally joining ranks with a new group be patient! Be considerate! Be respectful! Be responsible!

Go to the back of the pack, watch, learn, observe. Learn who is the leader, who's strong, who's not.

Watch pack politics, pack practices. Gain sufficient information and experience before letting your testosterone get the best of you. If asked to go to the back of the pack, do so gracefully. Let your bike handling skills, your strength, your pack savvy earn you the respect of those you wish to be among.

If your skills are not what they need to be, then stay in the back. Watch, listen, learn. If you do, then I promise your pull will come again and again and again. Then on one of those days when you don't feel so hot, you will long for the old days when you didn't have a name and no one would yell at you "Hey Fred, take your pull!"

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