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Lessons learned, lessons taught.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.


Tom Demerly in wind test

Some lessons are learned, some lessons are taught.

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 well.

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 riding talent.

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 limitations:

"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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© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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