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Cycling survival: What to do when you get dropped — and how to avoid it

Ride vanishing up the road? Don't panic

Image: Climbing (CC BY 2.0

It’s an awful moment: that sinking feeling when you realise that today your legs just won’t cooperate and you’re watching your riding companions heading off down the road, unable to summon the speed to hang on. What should you do?

The answer, as is so often the case is: it depends. Let’s look at a few scenarios, including a race, a chaingang, a club ride and a ride with friends.


Chasing back on (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Gordon Ross|Flickr).jpg

Chasing back on (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Gordon Ross|Flickr)

If you’re in a race and dropped on your own, it’s probably game over. Getting spat out the back of your first few Cat 4 go-arounds is a rite of passage for almost everyone who races. Depending on the course your options are to treat the rest of the race as a hard training ride that will help build the fitness to stay with the bunch in future; or to simply try not to get lapped for as long as possible.

If you’re not alone, then there’s a glimmer of hope. If the bunch eases off from its current friskiness you may be able to work with other dropped riders to rejoin the race. Even if you don’t manage to get back on, it’s a great opportunity to work on your paceline skills. Riding through-and-off, a small group can travel very quickly, but you’ll have to be disciplined both to keep the pace high and to not lose anyone.

Group rides

Paceline (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 reid.neureiter|Flickr).jpg

Paceline (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 reid.neureiter|Flickr)

On a group ride, things may be different, depending on the format of the ride.

On a high-intensity chaingang training ride, the usual rule is that if you get dropped you’re on your own; the ride won’t wait. As in a race you may be able to work with other riders to get back on, but you’re more likely to be putting together your own mini-chaingang.

On a more sociable ride, like a club run, you should be able to get back on. The most common place to get dropped is on a climb, where it’s generally considered acceptable for fitter riders to stretch their legs as long as they wait for the group to reassemble at the top.

TIP! Don’t bury yourself trying to get back on, then; ride at a comfortable pace, conserving your energy for the rest of the ride, and rejoin the group when you get to them.

If the pace was already a bit hectic before the climb, have a word with the ride leader. He or she almost certainly doesn’t want you to have a miserable time hanging on for grim death at the back of the group.

If you get dropped on a flatter section, the same applies. The ride leader should have been keeping count of the group size, and should either slow or stop the group so you can catch up. Again, pace yourself and team up with anyone else who’s been dropped.

When you do rejoin the group, even if you’ve regained some energy, resist the temptation to blast past. You want to be riding with the group, not getting everyone revved up to get giddy again.

Sometimes though, it all goes wrong and the ride just gets away from you. If that’s because you’ve run out of energy or are getting cold, then it’s time to take action. Get to shelter, preferably somewhere warm like a cafe, warm up and refuel.

Hopefully you’re not alone and there are a couple of others to ride with you. The one time I’ve been in the situation of having simply lost the front half of a ride, it was because an inexperienced but very fit ride leader blasted off with the group’s other fast riders, and gapped us. At the next junction we had no way of knowing where they’d gone so we did our own ride from there on.

TIP! This is one reason I’m a big fan of mapping GPS units. If you get dropped in unfamiliar country, they’ll get you home.

The situation's similar if you're simply riding with a group of friends. You've probably got a ride leader, even that's just the person who knows the route. Someone should be in charge of keeping the ride together; that can be the ride leader, the strongest rider in the group or someone who just likes looking after his or her friends.

On a ride like this your absence is more likely to be noticed straight away, so once again, don't panic, and ride steadily until you rejoin the group.

TIP! Riding with friends, you're also more likely to have the phone numbers of other people on the ride so you can call someone if they've vanished or you've had a mechanical.

Avoiding getting dropped

One of the most common mistakes less fit riders make is to ride near the back of the group. If you get into trouble back there it’s easy to be missed and for there to be nobody around to help.

Plus, you’re more likely to get dropped in the first place. Changes of pace at the front have a ‘concertina effect’, stretching the group out. If you’re near the front you have a chance to stay on as the front riders accelerate. By the time the wave of acceleration gets to the back, the front riders can be travelling fast enough to split the group and leave you behind.

TIP! Ride near the front instead where you can see and respond to what’s going on. If you’re starting to struggle you have more chance of being noticed by the rider leader; you can even ask for the pace to drop a bit.

Keeping a ride together

Helping out (CC BY-SA Wesley Nitsckie|Flickr).jpg

Helping out (CC BY-SA 2.0 Wesley Nitsckie|Flickr)

A social ride should begin and end with the same number of riders. The ride leader’s role is to know the route and make sure the pace is such that everyone can keep together.

That means being constantly aware of where the back of the group is, especially on hills where weaker riders are more likely to get dropped.

If, as ride leader, you’re not the strongest member of the group, then don’t let them just sit at the front towing the ride along. Instead, lead from near the front of the group and have Captain Fit ride near the back to keep an eye on slower riders.

Acting as a ‘ride lieutenant’, your fittest rider can patrol up and down the group, coming up to let the front riders know if the pace needs to drop, and dropping back to help slower riders.

TIP! An incredibly useful skill for fitter riders is the ability to physically push another rider. To do this, drop down a couple of gears, and come alongside the rider who needs help, on their right. Reach out with your left hand to their lower back and gradually pick the pace up to a level you’re comfortable with. Being on the right side of the rider means you’ll still be able to use your rear gears if you need to shift.

A rider being helped like this will often perk up so you won’t even have to push very hard to get them back to the group.

If a rider’s not flagging that badly, but still needs a bit of help, then assign a really steady, and preferably tall, rider to provide them with a wheel to follow.

I was lucky enough to ride with former England rugby union captain Lawrence Dallaglio a few years ago. Also on the ride were Sam “Richard’s son” Branson and his then-girlfriend Isabella Calthorpe, to whom he’s now married.

A relatively inexperienced rider, Isabella was struggling to keep pace even on the flat. I chatted to her a bit about following a wheel, then called to Lawrence: “Can I borrow you a second?” The big man looked a bit puzzled at being told what to do — he’s kinda used to being in charge — but waited while I escorted Isabella up to him. I showed her where to sit behind him so she could take advantage of his slipstream and she followed him for the next 30 miles until the route hit the mountains.

Your ride is unlikely to have a 6ft 4in, 17st, former England number eight as a windbreak, but you probably have someone who can fit the bill and ride steadily by keeping a very close eye on their speed and effort level (a heart rate monitor is handy for this).

John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for Along with founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

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mabikes | 1 year ago
1 like

Hi. I'm finding it hard to keep up with the pack on flats.  It's odd, though, because I'm much faster than 90% of everyone else on hill climbs.  Here are some factors that might be causing me problems:  I ride with my seat about 3.5cm back from the crank spindle (I'm more forward than most other riders -- it seems to help my back, and generate more power from my hips and glutes; but maybe causing me aero issues). I'm 6'/210lbs (maybe not aero?).  I also find it challenging keeping up on long hill descents.  Maybe losing about 20lbs would help me keep up in the pack and descents, but my climbing strength doesn't make sense.

wycombewheeler replied to mabikes | 1 year ago

mabikes wrote:

  Maybe losing about 20lbs would help me keep up in the pack and descents, but my climbing strength doesn't make sense.

Pretty sure heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, except in a vacuum. So unless you are riding on the moon, losing weight will only make you slower downhill.

Is the issue the pack are all heavier than you, and so have more power, but are still slower climbers? Although at 95kg, this seems unlikely.

Probably your sea forward position to ease your back is resulting ina  more upright, less aero position. This will slow you on the flat and downhills.

AltBren replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago
1 like

The weight might make faster cornering harder though, cos of the momentum.

mabikes replied to AltBren | 1 year ago

I agree.  I've been smoked on several really long downhill straights.  I haven't found that cornering is holding me back yet -- for now, I'm just focused straight downhill speed, and keeping up with the pack at high-speed.  Thanks everyone for your responses.

mabikes replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago

I'm actually one of the heavier, biggger guys.  I totally get the "heavier...fall faster" physics.  But maybe my less-aero position is off-setting any weight advantage on downhills.  I can probably experiment with my seat postion -- move it back, and as a result move it down a bit to keep the same leg extension.  (Then, see if my back remains okay.)  It'll get me lower to the ground.  Sometimes, I wonder, if more weight on the front tire is slowing me down, too.

mabikes replied to wycombewheeler | 1 year ago

Problem solved!  I lowered my seat 2 cm, and lowering my stem about 2cm AND flipped it down!  I was way too tall on the bike -- lower to the ground = faster.  Duh!!  Comfort was much better, too!  I was flying downhill again, and had no problem staying in the pack. I owe lunches for a couple guys whom I rode with on Thursday!  They told me that I was rocking my hips like crazy, and to lower my seat.  Also, I was skidding my front tire a lot the way I was riding/setup.  I have a little more fine tuning to do -- I might try going a ring lower on the stem, and see if I'm still comfortable.  Thanks to the folks who read my post, too!!

Sriracha replied to mabikes | 1 year ago
1 like
mabikes wrote:

Hi. I'm finding it hard to keep up with the pack on flats. It's odd, though, because I'm much faster than 90% of everyone else on hill climbs

on the face of it, they have more power output than you (so they win on the flats), but you have greater power to weight ratio (so you have the advantage on hill climbs). Or, you're less aero, and lose out when the speed picks up, on the flat.

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