by Fred Matheny
My most memorable attempt to catch a group that had dropped me happened in a race near Boulder, Colorado. The state’s in- famous spring wind was howling and echelons formed on the unsheltered prairie roads. Soon the front group was down to 15 riders.
As we came to a narrow, bumpy section of road, the rider in front of me caught his wheel in a pavement crack and went down. This forced me off the road, and when I got going again I was 300 yards in arrears with no one to help me get back.
The finish was less than 10 miles away. I put my head down and went as hard as possible to catch the group. It was agonizing. I was bug-eyed from the effort. The gap shrank but so slowly I despaired. Then the road turned slightly so what had been a quartering headwind blew from my flank, and slowly the group started to come back.
When I got within 30 yards I gave it one final hard effort and latched on to the last rider. Just as I sat up a bit and tried to catch my breath, he blew sky high and let a gap open. Oh no! I had to sprint around him and get onto the guy who was now last in line. No sooner had I made it than he blew, too, and another gap opened.
This happened with 4 consecutive riders. When I finally got back to the dwindled group to stay, the finish was less than a mile away and I was so exhausted I could barely pedal much less sprint. Needless to say, I didn’t get on the podium that day.
Sooner or later you’re going to have to play catch up. No matter what put you in arrears, let’s see how to get back to the friendly draft of the group using as little energy as possible.
Of course, prevention is the best policy. You won’t need to chase if you don’t get left behind. Here are 3 common situations where even strong riders can get dropped:
Adding or removing clothes. If you need to stop to alter your wardrobe, you’re doomed to chasing. So learn to take off a vest, jacket or arm warmers while riding. Practice in an empty parking lot until you can ride no-hands, shed clothes and tuck them in your jersey pocket smoothly. And practice putting everything back on again. When riding with others, always wait till you’re at the back before you do any of this. Then you won’t endanger anyone if you swerve.
Hanging around too long at rest stops. Don’t linger at aid stations. Keep one eye on the group to see how fast they are re-assembling. Fill your bottles first and then stash food in your pockets so you can eat on the bike, not at the stop, if the train departs. Choose the porta-potty with the shortest line. Don’t chat and get distracted. There’ll be plenty of time to trade war stories when the ride is over.
Inattention. On the bike, pay attention so that you don’t let gaps open and burn energy closing them. You could get dropped, not because you’re too weak to hang, but because of a lack of concentration. This is especially true in strong crosswinds where a gap of only 10 or 15 feet can be unbridgeable.
Solutions When You Get Gapped
• Closing gaps of less than 50 yards. Okay, you got dropped and the group is pulling away. Assess the situation. Do you have to chase? Sometimes when a small gap opens you burn precious energy to get back on, then realize that the group had to slow for an intersection or railroad crossing. You could have rolled up to them with a lot less effort.
Don’t chase hard if it isn’t necessary. If the group is humming along, bridge as fast as possible. Don’t let a small and easily closed gap become a yawning chasm. Even if you’re tired, sprint across the space that separates you from the group. It’s better to suffer for a few seconds than to dangle behind, working hard but not hard enough to regain shelter quickly. Or worse, see the gap refuse to shrink.
• Closing gaps bigger than 50 yards. Gauge your strength. If you’re completely blown, let them go. Don’t waste strength in a futile chase if you have to finish the ride by yourself. If they’re a steady 400 yards ahead and you have some reserve strength, it’s probably worth the effort to try and bridge.
• Get aero. If you decide to chase, go into full time trial mode. Get as aero as possible by holding the handlebar in the drops and putting your chin just inches from the stem. Or stretch out along the top tube and put your palms over the tops of the brake lever hoods. Don’t emulate some pros and rest your forearms on the bar top. A small bump can dislodge your grip.
• Get help. It’s a lot easier to mount a successful chase if you have help. Look behind. Maybe another rider or a small group is coming up, intent on catching the same group you’re chasing. If so, soft pedal to recover, then jump on and help them. As coach Chris Carmichael says, “If there’s a wheel, there’s a way.” Another possibility: Maybe another rider or 2 are being dropped by the group. Ride easy enough to recover as they come back to you. Then form an efficient alliance to chase or reach the finish.
Okay, you’ve made a successful chase. Don’t be content to merely latch onto the back of the group. Look where that got me in my Colorado race! Move up several places in the bunch. If there’s another acceleration, you won’t be the last rider, in danger of getting dropped again. Tuck in the pack to get as much draft as possible and concentrate on recovery. If there’s still a ways to go and conditions allow, eat and drink to regain energy.