Some lessons are learned, some lessons are
Most people can be taught, but few learn
on their own.
I saw an example of someone who could learn
on a ride today.
Our ride skirted south of here through the
U.S. Steel Plant on Jefferson and out toward the industrial
wasteland of Zug Island. It was hot, mid-80’s with
enough warm wind to be difficult. We rode through the
industrial complex along the Detroit River. This area
is abandoned on the weekends. It is a fun setting for
a fast group ride, different and more interesting than
the hum-drum of the same old Hines Drive route. Riding
east we picked up the Ambassador Bridge as a landmark.
We would ride under the bridge headed East on Fort Street.
It was the usual crew today along with a
couple guests. One of those guests was Sarah. Sarah is
a talented multisport athlete, diver and gymnast. Sarah
came out with her friend Mike, an impressive athlete himself
with a lot of experience and a significant depth of fitness.
Mike and Sarah train together almost every day and are
seldom seen apart. Sarah credits most of her success in
endurance sports to Mike, rightfully so as he has been
generous with his time and energy in bringing Sarah into
the sport. We invited them along since they are a good
crew to have on the rides, and without fresh faces, things
start to get old.
As is often the case on group rides Mike
and Sarah were reluctant to jump into a close pace line
and draft behind the wheels of strangers. These two are
used to riding with each other, and we weren’t accustomed
to riding with them. So, as we entered the steel plant
natural caution and a stubborn cross wind opened a gap
between our morning crew and Mike and Sarah. But these
guys were determined and understood the purpose of a group
ride, so they worked together to pull the group into a
cohesive unit. Before long we were working together reasonably
We rolled through downtown Detroit, past
the Renaissance Center and out toward St. Clair Shores
east along Jefferson.
Our speed increased as the wind spun in
behind us. I watched something quite miraculous happen:
Sarah was learning, something you rarely see a person
do on their own.
Learning is a funny thing. A Taoist proverb
says that it is not the walls of the bowl that make it
useful, but the empty space inside. The same is true of
a person’s mind. When it is full of pre-conceptions
and ego it cannot be filled with new ideas, skills and
knowledge. Sarah came to our ride with an open mind, and
she used her initiative to fill it.
We hear a lot of things through the grapevine
about our group and our rides. The cycling community is
small, and word gets around. People aren’t always
very nice. We hear words like “elitist” and
phrases like “just a bunch of racers”. That’s
a shame, and it isn’t true. The people who say those
things have never ridden with us, most don’t even
know us. When people put up barriers like that, usually
ill-informed and short sighted, they limit themselves
from new experiences. I think people say those things
to protect themselves. They are convenient excuses. Sarah
was not about excuses. She was about learning and getting
better at riding. To do that she knew she had to maintain
the willingness to learn.
Riding in a group requires a subtle set
of skills. You need good situational awareness. You have
to intuitively know what is going on around you without
looking. You must be aware of the rider behind you- their
safety becomes your responsibility as lead rider. If you
hesitate and slow down approaching an intersection or
bad pavement, you drift back into their front wheel, putting
them in danger of a crash. To benefit from the group you
must be relaxed enough to ride inches from the wheel in
front of you at high speed on bad pavement. A minor lapse
of attention opens a little gap, and the little gaps take
little amounts of energy to close, and the little amounts
of energy add up to a lot of fatigue over time, and then
you are dropped. Then it isn’t a group ride anymore.
So you follow the wheel in front of you from about 6-10
inches all the time for that life giving draft. The wheel
in front of you is your life-line. You have to trust the
rider in front of you, and they have to understand their
responsibility as they lead the pace line. The rider on
the front has an obligation to those in the back to be
smooth, predictable and resolute. The person on the front
is driving the bus. In addition to this, you have to know
the tactical situation. How tired are you? How tired is
the person on the front? Where is the wind coming from?
Where will the wind be coming from when you make your
next turn? Where do you ride in the road to be safe from
traffic and also sheltered from the cross wind? You have
to think about this while you ride six inches from the
person in front of you at 25 m.p.h. Like the fly-by-wire
flight control system in a fighter jet, you are a human
computer making minor corrections every second to avoid
the necessity of making major efforts. It usually isn’t
the strongest rider who does best on group rides, but
the smartest, most skilled rider.
If you doubt the importance of good group
riding skills consider the case of Tour de France sensation,
David Zabriskie of the CSC Team. Zabriskie may be taught,
but it would appear he hasn’t learned enough on
his own. Zabriskie’s position on his Cervelo P3
time trail bike was characterized by race commentator
Phil Liggett as “The best in the peloton”.
Zabriskie is incredibly strong, able to maintain average
speeds of over 34 M.P.H. for an hour riding on his own.
As a top professional cyclist in the Tour de France, the
best of the best, he commands a massive salary for his
But Zabriskie has a reputation for not knowing
how to ride in a group. Like a missile without a guidance
system he does fine on the straight and fast, but has
a tough time in the tight confines of a group. Zabriskie’s
former team manager back when he rode on the U. S. Postal
Service Team, Johan Bruyneel, had this to say about Zabriskie’s
"Stylistically, he's the best in the
world. But," Bruyneel told French newspaper L'Equipe,
"He won't keep his yellow jersey for long, you'll
very quickly see why. David has never known how to ride
in a peloton."
David Zabriskie, the Tour de France pro,
the expert time trialist, has not learned what everything
he needs to know to ride with a group. Perhaps because
of this, he fell off his bike in the team time trial (the
only rider in the race to fall), nearly took out the rest
of his team, and lost the Yellow Jersey. Two days later
he fell off again. Then he dropped out of the Tour from
injuries sustained in crashes while riding in a group.
It’s tough to say what conspired to Zabriskie’s
bad luck, but it is highly probable his purported lack
of group riding skills was a contributing factor. To be
fair, the skills a pro cyclist must acquire far exceed
what we need to ride together in relative harmony, and
Zabriskie’s task is enormous. I wager he starts
to get better as time goes on, provided he continues to
learn, and the lessons of the Tour de France are usually
taught quite harshly.
No one explained this to Sarah. She is a
triathlete and duathlete so she doesn’t need to
draft too often. Today would be the longest ride she ever
did so learning to benefit from the group was very important
in order to conserve energy. Sarah would have to learn,
and learn pretty fast.
Entering “The Pointes” is a
quick transformation from a dusty urban setting to an
upscale, millionaire community populated by owners of
furniture stores, surgeons, car dealership barons and
auto company V.P.’s. The houses that line the lake
shore are seven figures, the pavement is perfect, the
people exercising on the side walks are fit and attractive.
We use an exclusive yacht club as a turn around point.
Mike Aderhold was on the front. We were
going somewhere between 25 and 28 M.P.H., a very business
like pace. Sarah was in front of me. I gave Sarah a slightly
wider berth than normal; after all, she hadn’t ridden
with us before at these speeds. Honestly, I wasn’t
sure I could trust her. At the beginning of the ride she
seemed reluctant to close the gap and ride on the wheel.
But now she started to learn, and learn fast.
As we picked up speed in front of the mansions
along the coast of Lake St. Clair I saw Sarah experimenting
with minimizing the gap between her front wheel and Mike
Aderhold’s rear wheel. She was toying with entering
the cone of moving air behind Aderhold and feeling the
draft. Our speed continued to build and she sensed her
best strategy for survival on this ride was counter-intuitive:
She had to get closer to the wheel in front of her. Sarah
delicately moved slightly left and right behind Mike Aderhold
just a couple gentle inches at a time. She was feeling
for the draft, the moving vortex of air behind a rider
that is precious for conserving energy. Once you learn
the subtleties of the draft, you become a passenger. Right
before my eyes, Sarah was doing that. She was learning
without being taught. She figured it out on her own. Few
people have the humility and insight to do that at all,
let alone at 28 m.p.h.
Once Sarah found the little vortex behind
Mike Aderhold’s rear wheel she stayed in it. I tucked
in right behind her, only four inches from her rear wheel.
The distances closed, the speed came up. As the third
person in the pace line it was very easy for me. Aderhold,
the man on the front, is one of the most skilled natural
cyclists I know. His wheel is the best there is to follow.
He did a hard effort at the front as he punched a hole
through still air at 28 M.P.H. He made it look easy and
kept it steady and smooth. From where I was sitting I
had a privileged view of this rare process: Learning.
We were taught basic group riding skills.
We weren’t smart enough to learn on our own. Sarah
was, and that is rare.
Most of us learned from the Great Mike Walden.
Mike Walden, the coach of the Wolverine Sports Club, is
a member of the Cycling Hall of Fame. Some of us, myself
included, learned or were taught by other people. Michael
R. Rabe, Mike Aderhold, Frankie Andreu, Mikey Roland,
Tom Markley, Ray Dybowski, Dave Koesel, Pierre Gosellin
and a long list of other people helped teach me how to
ride in a group. I had to put a lot of ego and insecurity
aside to ride with these guys and learn how to be a decent
cyclist on a group ride.
Some group riding skills I did learn on
my own. Those were hard won lessons. One thing I know
now, looking back over 23 years of being a road cyclist:
It is much easier to be taught something than to learn
it on your own. That said, most people seem opposed to
learning on their own. They simply don’t pay attention,
or they are so headstrong they think they already know
it all. One think I was taught (not learned- I wasn’t
smart enough to learn this on my own) is that if you think
you know everything, it’s tough to learn anything.
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