Desperate times breed desperate measures, and with the entire countryside off limits, slinging on slicks and riding road looks like our only biking option for some time.
The good news is that contrary to rabid mountain bike folklore, road riding can be a real blast if you know the techniques and tactics to make if fast and fun whatever you’re level of fitness.Group Riding
Group riding on road is – shock horror – pretty similar to group riding off road with one big difference. Roads don’t have ruts, rocks, boulders and mudholes to interrupt your concentration just when the gossip you are listening to gets interesting.
Road riding doesn’t have to be a headlong, balls-out charge up every hill, it just can be a steady trundle with your mates. Plus you can ride straight from your house rather than driving to the middle of nowhere only to find you’ve forgotten your shoes (eh Dave White?). This also means you can be sitting in the bath with a cup of hot tea 5 minutes after getting off your bike, which definitely has its advantages in lousy weather.
Organised right, group rides allow riders of different strengths to stick together. Friskier riders can sit at the front, while slower riders can shelter out of the wind behind them. To get these slipstreaming advantages though, you have to stay pretty close and trust those around you.
The key to relaxed group riding is therefore working out whose ‘wheel’ you can trust. Don’t try and ride near the kid whose weaving about no-handed, popping wheelies or freewheeling and then sprinting back up to pace. Give him, or less likely, her a wide berth and stay close to the steady eddy who trundles along at a steady pace in as straight a line as possible.Tactics
If you want the maximum advantage from slipstreaming learn to ride in the correct position for the prevailing wind. If the wind is from the front, tuck right behind the lead rider. If it’s from the side then sit on the downwind side of the rider, overlapping their back wheel slightly.
If you’re feeling organised, form a ‘pace-line’ or ‘chain-gang’. Ride so that you form two lines with one gradually overtaking the other like a slowly rotating chain. After rider ‘A’ has sat on the front for a period (anything from 10 seconds to a minute or so) the next rider in the overtaking line ‘B’ slowly overtakes him. ‘A’ moves back down the group in the slower line until he’s at the back. He then moves across onto the end of the overtaking line and moves forward until it’s his time on the front again. Get it right and it should operate smoothly at a much higher average speed than a disorganised group with a few riders taking the front for longer periods.
If you feel like you’re suffering on your turn at the front, then don’t be afraid to stay at the back in shelter. Just make sure the other riders know that’s what you’re doing, or gaps will start forming.
To keep the group steady, don’t brake or swerve suddenly, and overtake steadily so people can stay on your tail without sprinting. If you’re climbing, make sure you pull cleanly and smoothly forwards out of the saddle or your bike will kick backwards which can knock following riders out of their rythmn.
If you’re still splitting up on the hills, let the chargers gallop off the front but make sure once they get to the top they come back down the hill and ride up it again. That generally calms them down pretty quick and means the back markers aren’t left alone on the hill while everyone stands around at the top getting cold.
If you find yourself in one of those ‘friendly’ shoulder-to-shoulder-winding-up-speed-till-someone-gives-up-scenarios then try this trick: Start talking to your adversary, but make sure you ask them short questions that require long answers – queries about something on their bike usually work.
If you can’t talk then make sure you look as comfy as possible. Keep smiling and keep your shoulders still rather than rolling about on the bike and cursing, if they’re feeling flakey and you’re looking fresh it’ll be them that concedes first.Road technique
Adjusting for riding on the road isn’t just a case of sticking on slicks, there’s a few technique and handling issues too.
Aerodynamics are far more of an issue at the higher speeds of road riding. Bend your elbows and drop your shoulders to get your body as flat as possible.
If you’ve got some bar ends dig them out and stick them back on. Otherwise try holding the bars in the centre to keep your profile narrower, but not when you’re riding in the middle of the pack as it’s hard to steer.
Slicks add a bunch of speed, but they also change the handling of the bike noticeably. The bike will run further and faster when you’re not pedalling, which can take some getting used to if you’re riding in a group.
The combination of slicks and tarmac can also make cornering very frightening until you find how far you can lean over. Even then don’t push it, as road surfaces can be very slippery at this time of year and narrow tyres will flick out suddenly rather than the gentle slide you’re used to offroad. Tarmac’s also a lot less forgiving than mud.
High pressure slicks also give a lot less grip on the gravelly and muddy conditions you can find on roads at this time of year, so look a long way ahead through corners or braking areas to give yourself time to react and avoid. If you’re riding at the front of a group, warn following riders of this kind of hazard or pot holes, parked cars etc.
Shellgrip (the red or creamy textured stuff they put near corners and junctions) is amazingly grippy for cornering, but don’t skid your tyres on it or you’ll rip them to shreds.
The combination of powerful mtb brakes and narrow slick tyres also makes skids much more likely, so get used to braking early and gently until you learn how much traction you’ve actually got.
Finally though there’s a lot of road riders out there who seem to be trying to look deliberately miserable, you might as well try and enjoy yourself as much as possible. You might not be on the trails, but at least you’re out on your bike in the fresh air – And that’s a good thing, for you and your local livestock!