Many authoritative books, blogs, and websites explain the important set of skills that one should master in order to become a competent group cyclist. However, I have noticed that many of them — maybe most — neglect a few key points.
As such, freshly back from a big group ride (in fact, the biggest group ride I have ever seen in person!!!), I believe I am in a good position to comment, if not-so-authoritatively, on them. Note that I'm just commenting here — not so much advising as just observing.
The first skill I'd like to address is an essential one — an unpleasant-but-important one that any cyclist who rides often enough will eventually have to employ, particularly during allergy season. It's the skill that allows us to clear our throats as well as our thoughts; to remove obstacles (from our tracheas); and to roll on even after aspirating the occasional mayfly. It's a skill that is also near and dear to the hearts of old-timey saloon patrons, runners, and thugs — yes, I'm talking about spitting.
SpittingWhile nobody has performed a scientific analysis of the topic, I'm sure that we all agree that spitting, while totally gross, is sometimes necessary. It has taken me some time to become comfortable with the idea (and I still won't spit on the sidewalk, no matter how urgent the need), but there are simply times when one must, as they say, hawk a loogie, lest one drown in one's one sputum.
This is rarely a major issue for a cyclist — when riding solo, we may generally spit with abandon, and in a small group we can simply fall back or pull out of line just a bit.
In a large group, however, such as the main pack of a race, a charity ride, or a big municipal ride*, spitting without mishap requires a certain degree of grace and finesse.
This is especially true, I think, on non-competitive rides, wherein the riders come to have fun, not to suffer, possibly make it to within 43 spots of the podium, and earn another war story**. I suspect that I would be more willing to forgive the occasional ill-timed or ill-aimed goober in a race, assuming I even noticed it***. I tend to ride in a bit of a trance, anyway.
Among the first things I noticed (shortly after, Hey! I can actually keep up with these guys! Whaddaya know! and Crap, it's definitely time for a tuneup!) on my giant group ride yesterday morning is that I am the spittingest cyclist east of the Ohio River. West of the Ohio River, on the other hand, or east of the Eastern Continental divide, my allergies and asthma are much less bad, and thus I am less ... um ... productive.
But Louisville, she is a harsh mistress — and so I suffer through all the prime cycling months — you know, March through October — afloat on a sea of my own respiratory excreta. Or something like that.
This is especially true when one of my first orders of business during a ride is the aspiration of some kind of large insect (possibly a Mayfly?) during a climb. Normally, I can make it through a 20-ish mile ride without spitting 200 times, or even 20 times. Yesterday's ride, however, involved way, way more spitting than is usual for me, and probably doubled my annual loogies-per-mile average (an important cycling statistic).
I was concerned, at first, that it would be very difficult to, ahem, relieve myself of the bounty of my respiratory system's truly stupendous efforts without grossly (and I do mean 'grossly') offending some other poor soul. However, I quickly learned that a small set of steps can prevent catastrophe.
How to Spit in a Loose Group
- Move to the edge of the group.
- Check both your left and right sides — even if you plan to send your miniature missile sailing on the right, someone coming up behind you on the left might find it necessary to dart around you on the right. You might hear them coming, but if (like me) you are plagued with terrible allergies that also compromise your hearing, you might not.
- If you're going less than 15 or 20 MPH, you can probably just turn your head to roughly 2:00ish and launch. Turn your head too far, and you're likely to wind up wearing it. Ask. Me. How. I. Know.
- If you're moving fast, however, first check the immediate road for potholes and the like, then cock an elbow, tuck your head, and go for the hole shot.
- Lastly: the idea is to spit down, not out. The faster you're going, the truer it is.
How to Spit in a Tight Group
- Wait for the group to loosen up.
- See above.
How to Spit in a Tight Group — Alternate Method
- Attempt 'hole shot' manoeuvre.
It may, of course, be that you're one of those lucky souls who never find themselves foaming at the mouth on a group ride. If so, please, share with me your secret.
InsectsI have noticed that group rides seem to attract pesky insects. On my first LBC ride, one of my fellow riders was stung by a wasp which flew into his shorts.
On my daily excursions, I have inhaled, eaten, been eaten by, and wiped from both glasses and bike any number of species of flying arthropods.
And, of course, yesterday, I managed to inhale one, thereby profoundly irritating my highly-irritable respiratory tract. I spent the rest of the bridge crossing wheezing and trying to cough up my lungs (not to mention my breakfast), but manfully succeeded in keeping all internal items in place and, indeed, in keeping my spot in the fast group, minus a couple of places.
Likewise, I did not die, though for a moment I was mildly concerned about that possible outcome, as the Second Street Bridge is riddled with joints and various large metal structural elements just waiting to exact their revenge on some poor, addle-pated cyclist, and it is hard to watch out for obstacles while hacking up a lung, as it were.
I have absolutely no suggestions whatsoever concerning how to handle insects, short of 'Insects: avoid them when possible.' However, that's really not very helpful, because it is impossible to avoid insects while hurtling down the road at 20 MPH or faster.
Additional ObservationsI learned a couple other things on this ride.
First, I learned that I can maintain a reasonable pace — not blistering, but pretty good — while choking on insects. Also while fighting back the intense nausea that results from keeping up athletic effort while unable to properly breathe.
Second, I learned that there is at least one other guy who comes out on an old Allez for these things. I've seen another Allez of roughly Quicksilver's vintage once before; the one I saw yesterday makes three.
Third, I learned that I am extremely susceptible to the pack mentality. I headed out on this ride intending to pause along the way to shoot some pictures. All the pictures I took, however, are from the start and the end of the ride. This is because I rolled myself up to the back of the first starting group, the 'Competitive Cyclists' group, and once I found myself riding in the flock ... well, you know how it goes.
There was a lot of chasing, bridging, passing, and getting passed going on, considering that the announcer firmly admonished us: "THIS IS NOT A RACE. IT IS A RIDE." No organized efforts, perhaps, but I suspect many of us in the front group were, in our own minds at least, having the race of our lives.
I wonder how big a podium we'd need to fit all the winners? That's my kind of race. I grew up with Shel Silverstein, and while part of me is all about crushing the competition, another part of me is all about 'Hug-O-War'-style racing, where everyone**** wins (also known as 'randonneuring,' I guess?).
As for me, I didn't win, because in my fantasy race I was playing the role of 'star climber,' because apparently climbing is what I do well (when I'm not aspirating mayflies, and even then I'm not too bad at it). I'm confident that I led my (imaginary) team to victory, nobly sacrificing my own shot a the podium, and that's good enough for me. Besides, I'm pretty sure I finished in the top 50, which is pretty good out of a field of 6,000 (non-racers). Not that I care, or bothered to notice ;)
Lastly, I learned that The Jens Voigt Method works really well. If your lungs act up, you tell them, SHUT UP LUNGS! in your best German accent. If your legs start burning, you tell them, SHUT UP LEGS! in your best German accent. If your wrists ... well, you get the point.
Because Jens Voigt is The Man, and we should all try to be a little more like Jens Voigt, even when we're (AHEM) not racing.
Notes*Do other cities have these? If not, they're really missing out. Monday's ride was awe-inspiring!
**This, by the way, is my racing plan for next road-racing season.
***I hope my fellow cyclobloggers who have actually raced in actual races where they give you an actual number, as opposed to the kind which begin with exchanges like, "Bet I can beat you up that hill!", will be able to confirm or deny this theory. Thus far, all of my races have been the less formal kind (and sometiems not all the participants knew they were racing — I should note that it's particularly humiliating to lose a match race with someone twice your age who doesn't know he's in a race at all).