Road Bike Rider: Closing Gaps

Closing Gaps

What’s the problem? My most memorable attempt to catch a group that had dropped me [Coach Fred Matheny writes] happened in a race near Boulder, Colorado. The state’s infamous spring wind was howling and echelons formed on the unsheltered prairie roads. Soon the front group was down to 15 riders.

As we came to a narrow, bumpy section of road, the rider in front of me caught his wheel in a pavement crack and went down. This forced me off the road, and when I got going again I was 300 meters in arrears with no one to help me get back.

The finish was less than 10 miles (16 km) away. I put my head down and chased as hard as I could. It was agonizing. I was bug-eyed from the effort. The gap shrank but so slowly I despaired. Then the road turned slightly so what had been a quartering headwind blew from my flank, and the group started to come back.

When I got within 30 meters I gave it one final hard effort and latched on to the last rider. Just as I sat up and tried to catch my breath, he blew sky high and let a gap open. Oh no! I had to sprint around him and get onto the guy who was now last in line. No sooner had I made it than he blew, too, and another gap opened.

When I finally got back to the dwindled group to stay, the finish was less than a mile away. I was so exhausted I could barely pedal, much less sprint. Needless to say, I didn’t get on the podium that day.

Sooner or later you, too, will need to play catch-up. No matter what put you in arrears, let’s see how to get back to the group’s friendly draft — and do it by using as little energy as possible.

Here’s Help

Of course, prevention is the best policy. You won’t need to chase if you don’t get left behind. But if a gap happens, try these strategies:

Closing gaps of less than 50 meters. Okay, you got dropped and the group is pulling away. Assess the situation. Do you need to chase?

Sometimes when a small gap opens you burn precious energy to get back on, then realize that the group had to slow for an intersection or railroad crossing. You could have rolled up to them with a lot less effort. Think ahead so you don’t chase unnecessarily.

But if the group is humming along, bridge as quickly as possible. Don’t let a small and easily-closed gap become a yawning chasm. Even if you’re tired, sprint across. It’s better to suffer for a few seconds than to dangle behind, working hard but not hard enough to regain shelter quickly. Or worse, see the gap refuse to shrink.

Closing gaps bigger than 50 meters. Gauge your strength. If you’re completely blown, let them go. Don’t squander strength in a futile chase if you have to finish the ride by yourself. If they’re a steady 400 meters ahead and you have some reserves, it’s probably worth the effort to try to bridge by upping your tempo.

Get aero. If you decide to chase, go into full time trial mode. Get aero by holding the handlebar in the drops and putting your chin just inches from the stem. Or stretch out along the top tube and put your palms over the tops of the brake lever hoods. Don’t emulate some pros and rest your forearms on the bar top while you hold onto Shimano STI shifter cables. A bump could dislodge your grip.

Get help. It’s a lot easier to mount a successful chase if you have help. Look behind. Maybe another rider or a small group is coming up, intent on catching the same group you’re chasing. If so, soft pedal to recover, then jump on and help them. As coach Chris Carmichael says, “If there’s a wheel, there’s a way.”

Another possibility: Maybe another rider or 2 are being dropped by the group. Ride easy enough to recover as they come back to you. Then form an efficient alliance to chase and catch, or at least share the work to the finish.

Okay, you’ve made a successful chase. Don’t be content to merely latch onto the back of the group. Look where that got me in my Colorado race!

Move up several places in the bunch. If there’s another acceleration, you won’t be the last rider, in danger of getting dropped again. Tuck in the pack to get as much draft as possible and concentrate on recovery. If there’s still a ways to go and conditions allow, eat and drink to regain energy.


(Adapted from Coach Fred’s Solutions to 150 Road Cycling Challenges, a helpful eBook especially for cycling newcomers.)

Republished by permission of Road Bike Rider.

This entry was posted in Encouragement, Riding Skills, Road Bike Rider. Bookmark the permalink.

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