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How to handle surges within the peloton

Using cadence effectively to handle changes of pace in the peloton.

In cycling, the strongest rider, the one who can push the most watts, doesn’t always do the best. Ever notice how the more experienced riders seem to float in the peloton around you, the same people you thought you definitely dropped a while back? Skills, such as being able to ride smoothly and efficiently in the peloton, can make up for big deficits in fitness. One of the ways in which these more experienced riders are more efficient is in how they handle the surges that tend to happen when riding in the large group.

Let’s assume you’re comfortable with drafting. You can stay on the leeward side of the rider in front of you, protected from the wind as much as possible. The next issue is how to stay on the wheel when the peloton is constantly changing speeds. Do you ride on a heavy gear and stomp on the pedals each time, putting out a maximum-watt effort? Or, do you use a lighter gear and a higher cadence to adjust your speed and stay glued to that wheel in front of you?

The simple answer is that you should be using your cadence to stay in the draft of the rider in front of you. By riding at a higher cadence, say 95–100 r.p.m. rather than slogging along at 80–85 r.p.m., your ability to accelerate without putting out increasingly large amounts of power will be much improved. With this in mind, you should be incorporating cadence workouts into your training. (See cadence pyramid drills.) They may not be super hard, but they will certainly help you to be more efficient.

The more complex answer, though, is that efficiency in the peloton goes beyond simple cadence or power numbers. Those riders who have the experience are more efficient in part because they can read the peloton and better predict how it is going to move. They know how the undulations in the road, and changes in wind and course direction are going to affect the pace of the group. They can anticipate where they need to place themselves. For instance, a good trick when riding toward the bottom of a hill is knowing that the front riders always slow down more than those coming behind and that if you can get a clear run at the hill you can often coast the first part and keep your speed up, saving energy overall. Also, with a better understanding of how the peloton moves, you don’t have to use your brakes as much, feathering them rather than jamming them on and having to re-accelerate constantly. Small practices such as these can save a lot of energy over the course of an event and make a difference in the finale.

Often, there are riders who are very strong when training in a small group but who can’t perform once they have to ride in a larger peloton. Their lack of finesse and efficiency means that they are wasting energy all the time. Next time you are riding in a peloton, find and follow an experienced rider for a while. Make note of how the rider moves, uses the brakes and makes sure to always be in the draft. Soon you’ll be more efficient and find things much easier.