Pulling Through

Pulling Through

When I first began riding in groups the guys who taught me had a habit of slapping their thighs as a means to call out debris in the road. Slap your left thigh for something on the left, slap your right thigh for something on the right. It’s not a bad system if you’ve only got a half dozen people. But when a ride swells to dozen, it doesn’t work so well. By the time the group grows to 30 or more, it’s absurd as a means of communication.

The guys in those larger groups taught me to point at whatever was in the road and to call it out. But even that wasn’t foolproof. With big groups, it can be hard to hear what the guy five rows ahead of you is saying. So what do you say so that everyone understands? A friend of mine is a member of a club where they all agreed to yell, “Debris!” That’s great if you’re with a group where people expect to hear that word, but if they aren’t accustomed to listening for such a term, they might not understand.

When I took up rock climbing some years back, I was instructed that any time anything fell, no matter what it was, I was to yell, “Rock!” The reason was that more often than not it was, and it was a word that every climber would come to be familiar with hearing. I adopted that for group rides. Doesn’t matter if it’s glass or thumb tacks or a VW transmission, I call out, “Glass!” Everyone is familiar with what that word sounds like in a group and they know to avoid it. Whether the object is literally glass or not, riders know to avoid that spot. No harm, less foul.

There are times when I wish my personal life had as simple a social contract. That you’ve got a responsibility to speak up at certain times. After all, if you don’t tell the riders behind you about a broken beer bottle and someone gets a flat, you’re going to hear about it, right? And you’d deserve to get a what-for, wouldn’t you?

We can agree that cycling is a crucible, can’t we? That while all the same physics apply, the whole endeavor is either under more or less pressure in a way the rest of our lives is not. But the real world is more complicated, the rules of relationships less obvious, more subtle. What do I call out? How do I call it out?

It’s easy to put a hand out and show an open palm as you approach an intersection and announce, “Stopping!” It’s what you do when there’s a light, one that’s red. I mean totes obvs, yeah? We know not to let others roll into the intersection. Why? The consequences are immediate. In parenting, those stop lights might get violated without us ever knowing, or at least not knowing for some years to come.

The only rule I know that still applies is to go to the front when the pace drops. We’re all going to need help. Maybe not this hour, not this day, but we’re going to need the help. Don’t storm to the front, and keep it steady.

It’s a simple rule: If you can still pull, keep pulling.


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  1. Lyford

    Even if all you can manage is a dozen pedal strokes before you pull off…..it helps the group, and it helps you.

  2. Michael

    It is nice to read that someone else thinks of this metaphor. I often thought of this idea, pulling through steadily, over the past twenty years raising a child with disabilities. When my wife or I would despair (it happens), the other never did. One of us has to pull, and if the other is clearly fading, well, no matter how slow you are going, it isn’t backward. It doesn’t mean you are not bummed that the other couldn’t have pulled for a bit longer though! Of course, most of the time, the transition is simply an elbow flick.

  3. Peter Dedes

    i have two favourite types of group rides. one is going flat out but essentially silent. everyone is attentive and there aren’t that many hand signals. the next is an early season long haul. two up, with the front two pulling off to either side after a few minutes. conversations up and down the line as old friends and teammates and rivals put in the work. still no shouting or absurd slapping to get around the inevitable obstructions. it still amazes me how beautiful the sport can be as we all gain experience and ride with others who’ve taken the time and put in the kilometres.

  4. Stefan Bike

    It’s a great article about responsibility. When I first startet cycling I was always afraid, that I could not be as fast or as fit as the group. So I wanted to be the first, to show the others my tempo and my fitness. But I soon realized it’s not be good to be the first, if you are not really the oldest or fittest in the team. So I tried to be the last and it got really fine. I recognized the solidarity of the group, when I could help others. So I’m always one of the last bikers to share my solidarity with the hole team.

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