The peloton of the Tour de France might be unfamiliar territory to most triathletes, but sooner or later you're likely to find yourself training or racing in a bunch. Group rides are a great way to put in some miles, learn new skills and meet other triathletes, but before you join the bunch, here are a few skills to master.
First things first: you need to learn to ride steady on your own. Many beginners use too low a cadence, so the bike surges forward with every pedal stroke - this can be annoying and even dangerous in a group. Try to ride at least at 90 revolutions per minute (rpm) on every ride. Keeping your cadence high will also allow you to adjust to speed changes in small increments, rather than braking or all-out acceleration. To keep your rpm constant, change gear frequently to match the terrain and wind conditions. Remember: don't look down as you shift gear. Practise solo until you can do it by feel.
Get close and be predictable
Packs are often formed of one or two lines of riders to maximise the wind-breaking benefits. To feel the draft, go with one or two other riders to a quiet, flat road and practise riding single file. Gently move laterally about a foot or so to find the space where there is the least wind resistance. That's the spot you want to ride in. This position will depend on where you are relative to the wind.
Group rides usually last for an hour or more, so it's important to eat and drink consistently, but it's even more important to do so without taking your eyes off the road. Open energy bars before you set off, for easy access when you're on the move, and keep snacks in the most reachable, outside part of your jersey pocket. Practise reaching into your pockets as well as grabbing your water bottle while riding alone before doing so in a group.
Take turns at the front
Putting in some time on the front means every rider shares the work. When you're ready to drop off from the lead, let the rider behind know with a hand or voice signal, check over your shoulder for cars, gradually pull out of the line and then ease up just enough to slowly drift to the back of the group. Next, ride two by two, trying to get within arm's reach of the shoulder next to you. You should be near enough to carry on a conversation without those behind you hearing what you're saying - really, that close. Build to a group of four or six riders before you join a larger pack.
No matter where you are in the pack, it's essential that you watch the road surface in front of the group. Those at the front should point out dangers ahead - holes, rocks, dogs and the like - but everyone is responsible for sharing this awareness. Gaining confidence in lifting your gaze from the wheel in front of you takes time, but you can jump-start it by going to a grass field with a friend and riding single file to practise. You'll find it's not so hard if you both ride steadily and predictably.