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Dear Frank : To drop or not

Frank Strack
9 Mar 2016

Frank Strack, Velominati's arbiter of cycling etiquette, answers whether you should drop your riding buddy, just because you can.

Dear Frank,

I am curious as to your thoughts on riding with someone who is slower or indeed faster than yourself, particularly on climbs. Do you wait for them? What is the gentlemanly thing to do? Andrew, by email

Dear Andrew,

The best kinds of questions are those whose answers lurk just out of reach, teasing you to grasp them before scurrying a few steps further away. 

This is a very good question, mostly because there isn’t any clear answer, though the overarching principle is, as always, Rule #43: Don’t be a jackass. Assuming the objective of the ride is a social one, riding too fast for your companions is unnecessary, and in reality riding too slow can be uncomfortable for most of us. Instead of giving a clear ruling on the matter, I’ll discuss the merits of the various possibilities.

I’ve long held the belief that one of the great signals marking a good Cyclist is their ability to adjust their speed to ride comfortably for a slower rider’s pace. As a rider develops their skill, we focus on getting stronger and going faster. We cultivate the impulse to push harder on the pedals. As the force in the legs develops, we train ourselves to sustain higher levels of effort for longer periods of time. We have hard days and recovery days, but our focus is always on building the faculty of going faster.

When we ride casually with someone slower than ourselves, Rule #43 dictates that we take it easy and ride at a pace comfortable for them. They might be a Pedalwan, learning the ways of our sport, or they might be a friend who simply wants to enjoy some time out on the bike with you – in either case, blowing the doors off the pace would be counter-productive and unnecessary. 

Riding below our usual pace seems easy enough, but our inclination is to gradually lift it and bring our companion out of their comfort zone. Up a small climb, our training will drive us to unintentionally keep the pace too high for their abilities, resulting in their premature exhaustion or frustration. 

We mean well, but it is a lack of control over our bodies that causes us to gradually put our friend in the box. The greatest athletes, on the other hand, have learned control over their bodies to such an extent that they can adjust their effort perfectly and ride at a pace comfortable for any rider.

The other observation I’ve made while riding at a slower rider’s pace – particularly uphill – is that the levels of pain are still relatively high. The intensity of the effort may be of a different nature, but climbing slowly still produces a pressure in your legs and the fact that you spend a longer time on the slope means that when you’re at the top, you still hurt. The important lesson here is for hard days when the pace is high and the little voices in your head start chattering on about slowing down to ease the pain. Going slower won’t make the pain go away – the only way to make the pain stop is to get to the top.

Changing to the perspective of the slower rider, the best way to get faster is to ride with someone who is better than you. Sit on their wheel and don’t let go. You will benefit from the other rider’s draft, meaning you can be about 20% worse than them and still not get dropped. That’s a glorious concept, being 80% as good as someone and still finishing at the same time; it’s no wonder drugs hold a prevalent place in our sport’s history – even riding with another cyclist is akin to doping!

Back to the point – holding a faster rider’s wheel accomplishes two things. First, it will develop your physiology and help you become stronger and faster. More importantly, being tenacious about holding their wheel will teach you about exploring the place that your mind holds in becoming a better rider, namely our ability to go beyond the physical limits we believe we have.

None of this covers the most likely scenario, which is that neither rider is good enough to ride at a mutually acceptable pace when going uphill. This is no fault of either rider – neither can be blamed for not being good enough, so long as both endeavour to improve over time. 

And, of course, if the slower rider starts complaining, whimpers or rides a bicycle in violation of the Principle of Silence, you have my approval to blow the doors off and leave them in your dust. No one should be judged for how fast they can go, but everyone should be judged for their attitude.

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