We’re just back from 800+km of riding in bunches with 1300 other cyclists in Europe and we saw not one crash occur, not even someone buzzing wheels. Now, depending where you live that might be quite normal. But, living, riding and racing in New Zealand it (sadly) isn’t. It’s very hard to think of a race that we’ve been part of that hasn’t involved watching a bunch “explode” and people hitting the deck – at the very least their day spoilt and all too often their season.
What is the difference between riding in New Zealand and Europe? In New Zealand we see double pace lines with ten centimetres between handlebars and riders frequently lapping wheels (riding with the front wheel overlapping the rider in fronts back wheel). If you are in a team time trial with people you know well, or you are in a well drilled echelon that might be appropriate and safe. But, when you turn up to a race and don’t know everyone in the bunch – how evenly they ride (speed and line) – how much time is gained from lapping wheels? None. Lapping wheels causes crashes. When the rider in front moves from their line to avoid an imperfection in the road, or gets out of the saddle, there is a good chance that the rider behind will go down. And, the rider behind is the person responsible for that crash!
In Europe we had very large bunches riding safely. They rode with at least a handlebar width between handlebars (40cm or so). There was also a gap between the back wheel of the front rider and the front wheel of the following bike of at least the diameter of a wheel. That gives the rider behind time to slow, and/or move to the side when the rider in front deviates from their line or changes their speed. The bigger the bunch, the more room needs to be left between bikes. The European bunches were riding quicker than typical New Zealand bunches.
Unlike New Zealand where there often seems to be a competition to see how many, and how loudly, you can announce the presence of pot holes, stones on the road, etc. etc. riders in Europe reserved announcements for the truly unusual. The small pot holes, gravel, etc. might be marked by a small hand gesture, but the key job of the lead riders was to gently, not suddenly, guide the bunch around any obstacles.
So, when you’re out there on your bike, especially riding with people you don’t know well, your job is to guide the bunch smoothly if you’re at the front and to leave enough room (both side to side and front) to manoeuvre if you are following another rider. A safe ride is a fast ride.