The core of my attempts to get faster and closer to race-pace has been to take part in the local chain gang. The one in Stirling is attended by a number of clubs and sponsored riders from the area, usually making for 3 or 4 groups of around 6-12 riders each. Each week, riders meet to take part in the rides and the groups are formed by riders putting themselves with other riders of similar ability; if you work well as a group, the sustainable pace will be higher and you'll have a greater chance of staying away from the pursuing group(s). There's a time-gap between groups, usually decided upon by a member of the scratch group (the last group away containing the fastest riders).
The name of the game is to form two lines, with one travelling marginally faster, thus overtaking the slower line. This allows the riders in the line slower line to take it easier, recouping energy as they fall backwards to the end of the line, that energy is then expended as they move up the outside of the line to ultimately take their turn in the wind on the front of the group. This clip shows how it's done (video uploaded to Youtube.com by Cambridge CC)
The Wikipedia page states that 'This effect is very significant – up to 40% reduction in effort for the slip-streaming riders while the lead rider benefits from reduced drag (somewhat under 10%)' You can certainly feel this when taking part in a chain gang and it allows average speeds to be pushed up, especially on hills or undulations on the course.
It sounds fairly complicated, and due to the nature of the ride, you have to stick close to the wheel in front in order to get the best draught from the rider you're following – something I don't always do, and get told to hold the wheel by clubmates, usually the more experienced riders in the bunch. You do have to make sure that the pace is kept consistent as surges in speed are where people start accelerating and braking, which can cause accidents. Fortunately, I've not been in a group that's had any incidents, and they are pretty rare as the riders attending are used to riding in close quarter.
At the start of the chain gang season a few weeks ago, I had a couple of weeks riding with the scratch, I got dropped on the last lap of 3 (about 23miles into a 26mile course). This was when the ride kicked off at 6.30pm due to early sun sets, now that the start time has been pushed back to 7pm there are more riders so I've gone in a group that I can stick with until the end. That isn't to say that it's an easy ride, or at least it doesn't feel easy!
This is my Garmin data from the last ride I did. The pace is fairly high, especially as the course has a couple of lumps in it – other local chain gangs are held on flatter courses; I've not taken part in them but friends assure me that the Stirling course is fairly tasking. One thing I'm still working on is increasing my power output. From what I see, my heart rate drops too much so I can't be trying hard enough!
I didn't ride this week due to (yet another!) cold, which has turned into a sinus infection, my main export is yellow gunk at the moment but I'm hoping to be back on course next week.
As for racing, I still don't feel strong enough and this has given me a bit of doubt in my abilities (or lack of them), it comes at a time when I'm suffering from another bout of illness so morale is fairly low at the moment. I do have a request in with my GP to see an ear, nose and throat specialist though so I'm hoping for some kind of resolution to my continual infection-ridden nasal passages!