– Pack Riding Skills and Etiquette for MTB Riders

Words by Mark Fenner

Every year it seems that the racing calendar in Australia is growing and the biggest growth area for sure right now is the stage race and endurance/marathon scene. The challenge and adventure side of these races draws huge numbers of riders with very diverse cycling backgrounds and ability levels.

Many of these races by their very nature involve long sections of double track or fire roads and often sections of tarmac. With the big numbers of riders and often mass starts, it’s very common for big bunches of riders to develop on less technical sections. Many of the people at these kind of races spend a bit of time riding on the road and so are often quite familiar with bunch riding technique, but a similar number are not experienced with this kind of riding at all. Put the two mobs together and it can be a tense experience. The possibility of touching wheels and causing a crash, not seeing a turn or obstacle or not knowing when or how to ride at the front… there’s a lot going on. [private]

So how should we ride in a bunch environment and what are the do’s and don’ts of the peloton? Things are slightly different to the road as the trail conditions will often throw up a few obstacles, but, the basics will remain the same.

Riding in a big group takes a different set of skills and when not on singletrack the open roads and fire trails offer opportunities to help each other.  Learn what’s right and wrong so you too can both help and take advantage of the pack.

Try to be consistent with your actions

Firstly you are not riding on your own in these situations, so, remember that there are riders following closely behind and they need to get a clear idea of how you ride and what you are doing. If you tend to swing wide in corners that is ok, but, let the rider behind know as he may well want to leave a little gap and move through on the inside. Avoid sudden braking and changes of direction and always try to maintain as steady and straight a line as is possible.

Point out obstacles like fallen trees or holes/rocks

As the rider behind cannot see up the trail it is your responsibility to point out obstacles such as fallen trees, holes, rocks or where you need to duck under a tree. Shout out the instruction and back this up with a gesture to point out the threat if possible. If the people in front aren’t calling obstacles, let them know that they ought to be!

Doing your turn on the front

Not doing a turn on the front is a classic within mountain bike circles. The number of times I have seen or heard of a rider sitting on for 10km only to sprint right by the riders that have towed them to the finish is unbelievable. The best way to lose friends in the bunch is to be a bludger or a ‘wheel suck’ and sit on. If you’ve honestly got no legs left, fair enough, but don’t even think about attacking as the finish line appears!

Rolling through and doing your turn on the front is what allows a group to move faster than the individual on his or her own. When you do your turn you are able to hold a slightly greater speed intensity, because you can then pull off the front and sit at the back of the pack in the draft of the other riders and rest straight afterwards. Getting the intensity of your efforts at the front right is important. When it’s your turn at the front, don’t go for a super hero effort and make a sudden acceleration or the bunch will end up surging – try to keep the pace steady as you roll through to the front (unless of course, you’re launching a serious attack!).

Judging the time you’re able to maintain at the front is important too – if you have pulled yourself inside out smashing it on the front only to be faced with a big climb, you may find yourself going backwards through the group and getting dropped. Smooth controlled efforts are the key and keep something in reserve just in case a big hill is just around the corner, or, someone tries to attack the bunch.

Yes, us mountain bikers aren’t roadies, however there will be times when we face very similar riding circumstances. The long distance races can’t always be 100% singletrack and pack skills will help you, and everyone around you.

Try to hold the wheel in front

Trying to maintain an appropriate distance between your front wheel and the guy in front is more difficult on the dirt than the road, for obvious reasons. Hang back enough to still get a draft from the riders in front and keep very visual about upcoming issues or problems. Keep a finger ready to brake just in case, but don’t be overly eager to grab the brakes by the same measure, or you may end up with a rider crashing into your back wheel. If you do find yourself drifting up too much on the rider in front of you, stop pedaling or open up your position on the bike to increase the wind resistance to slow you down, rather than yanking a handful of brakes.

I like to ride just to the side of the riders in front on the dirt, so I can see a little better, but (and this is very important!) make sure not to overlap wheels with the rider in front. If your wheels are overlapped and the rider in front has to suddenly move to the side, you run the risk of clipping wheels and wiping out. This said, don’t allow big gaps to form as otherwise you will have to use extra energy to close the gap, or, somebody else will.

Riding down hill

When descending in a bunch on the mountain bike it is important not to try and make any stupid overtaking maneuvers. Remember that the bunch is a working group and by working together you will cover the ground faster. Hooning up the inside and then having to brake hard at the next corner will only upset the group dynamic and potentially cause a crash. Remember to be smooth and think of the bigger picture, not just you smashing the trail on your own.

Riding up hill

More often than not an uphill comes right after a downhill section and as the riders in front slow down the bunch behind gets the draft and catches up, causing the bunch to get condensed. When surging like this occurs, be mindful of the line you take – in your desperation to avoid losing too much momentum, don’t go cutting other riders off or swerving around the riders you’ve just caught. Keeping the pace consistent is important too; when you jump out of the saddle to climb a steep section of trail, you’ll usually freewheel for a second and in this moment gravity will slow you down. The riders directly behind you quite often can slam into your back wheel or rear mech and it could be the end of the race. So if you do get out of the saddle and change your climbing rhythm, make sure you keep pressure in your pedals and try to avoid suddenly slowing the pace.

These are a few handy pointer to help with riding in the bunch, if done correctly a fast moving group can really cover some ground and your next PB time for the 100km race you have planned could be just around the corner.

Cheers and give me a tow the next time you see me on the trail ;o) [/private]