Lessons of the Peloton

Lessons of the Peloton

Of the many recreational pursuits human beings enjoy, I know of nothing that requires the level of skill and fitness required to ride in a peloton. It’s a complicated algorithm of aerobic capacity, sheer strength, endurance, eye-hand coordination, and a level of awareness that’s like sporting eyes on the side and in back of your head. The experience required to master pack riding suggests that each participant knows a thing or two about humility, isn’t too proud to learn something new.

I was raised by people with deeply held values and attended church on Sundays, without fail, so I can say my childhood had a deep moral underpinning. However, nothing illustrated the civics my church and school attempted to instill in me the way that becoming a cyclist did. The peloton survives and thrives based on its social contract. The many lessons pack riding taught me became a real-world crucible for what it means to peacefully coexist and even collaborate with others. I’d like to think that the peloton made me a better citizen. Community is almost always our best shot.

  1. Communicate: The safety of the pack depends on communication between riders. From stoplights to potholes, glass to grates, part of my duty to my fellow riders is to alert them to anything that might cause a crash. Basic consideration can have big consequences.
  2. Be friendly: Saying hi to a fellow rider requires zero effort. One word and a wave can be the difference between someone concluding I’m nice or a jerk. Invariably, the guy who passed me with nary a word and a foot off my elbow turned up in a group ride and that event colored my perception of him. We need all the friends we can get; let’s start at home.
  3. Self Sufficiency: I can’t show up for a 50-mile ride with no food or water and nothing to fix a flat. It’s irresponsible and inconsiderate to expect others to care for me.
  4. Offer to help: If I see a rider in distress, I ask if they need anything. That can be a tow back to the group, a spare tube, a CO2 cartridge or my last gel. Statistically, we will all come up short some day. I’d rather live in a community where riders are known to help each other. It’s also easier for me to ask for help when I’ve given it in the past.
  5. Take care of my stuff: It’s important to show up to a ride with a bike in good working order. If I flat every 10k because my tires are bald or drive everyone nuts with a squeaking chain that hasn’t been oiled since the invention of the Internet, I won’t be very welcome on rides. Sporting threadbare bibs to display my derriere isn’t a great way to win friends, either. Part of doing a group ride is not disrupting the group.
  6. Share: On a long ride, someone is going to run out of food or water. I experienced how important it is to divvy up water and food when supplies run low. And if I didn’t bring enough to cover my own needs, I wasn’t much use to the group. Sharing makes the community stronger.
  7. Stop once in a while: People get dropped. Whether they are new, returning from injury or just having an off day, there will always be riders who can’t hold the pace. It doesn’t hurt the group to stop occasionally to allow the exhaust to catch back on. Allowing others the dignity to rejoin can help them become stronger.
  8. Consideration: One of the toughest early lessons I faced was that riding in a pack required a light touch. Holding my line meant more than just being able to ride in a straight line, but adapting to the group. Braking was only ever as much as was necessary in order to give riders behind me as much room to work with as possible. Whatever I do will affect those closest to me, and it will usually affect them the most.
  9. Decorum: Rides tend to have their own rhythms and character. It’s not cool to turn an easy coffee ride into a sprint workout without asking for and receiving the group’s blessing. Similarly, whining about the speed of a fast ride is passé. Respect the history of the ride. Don’t try to turn a formal dinner into a beer bash.
  10. No free rides: Wheel sucker is one of the all-time peloton insults. I learned that I needed to be prepared to take my pulls or it would hurt my reputation as much as my fitness. The smaller the group, the more crucial it is to chip in. Honest work is remembered. As my family taught me, I need to do my part.
  11. Success is earned: In the real world there’s no such thing as my turn. If I want something I need to be prepared to do all the work to get it. That means homework—easy solo miles—as much as making the big efforts when they matter. No one will ever invite me to succeed.
  12. Work with others: I have ridden with people much wealthier and much poorer than I. I’ve ridden with folks with whom I agreed about very little. I’ve ridden with people who deliberately endangered me. But that shared mission, to keep the group going, keep it upright, gave us a clear enough mission to set aside our differences. Never has that shared perspective been clearer than on those occasions when I was in a breakaway in a race. We each wanted to win. We each wanted to prevent the others from winning, and yet, unless we made it to the line ahead of the pack, we’d have failed in our larger goal, and in that we had little choice but to work together until the line. That need to cooperate is something I consider every time our society breaks down and people view the world through an us vs. them lens. Getting third from a group of three was better than being pack stuffing, and because I pedaled my ass off until those final meters, the guys I raced with knew I could be trusted to work with them again. It wasn’t the trust of friends, but it was a detente that afforded us all respect and a measure of grace.


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  1. TomInAlbany

    Padraig, this is a well written piece. I could see where it was going the entire time and enjoyed it!

    It’s time for each of us to pull up our bibs, clip in, and take our pull.

  2. Justin

    Beautiful piece, Padraig! Beautiful.
    Numbers 2 and 9, especially, resonated with me. Be kind and display a certain level of decorum. Yes! This is precisely the time to do that.
    Thank you!

  3. Tom

    Re: number 12, you wrote, “I’ve ridden with people who deliberately endangered me. But that shared mission, to keep the group going, keep it upright, gave us a clear enough mission to set aside our differences.” How do you square being deliberately endangered with the shared mission? I’m asking the question sincerely, having never even ridden in a paceline. Thanks.

    1. Author

      They thought it all part of how riding goes down. Putting someone in the gutter is something some riders think is okay. I think it’s a bit over the line, but it’s important for me to keep in mind that even though we draw the line in slightly different locations, they didn’t crash me by hooking my wheel.

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