Forget Zwift, real cyclists go chain ganging in the winter. No matter the weather. High speed and intense, it’s great for building fitness as well as your morale. But before you head out, here’s some essential advice on etiquette and equipment to keep you safe cycling in a group in the winter.
Training solo in the cold and rain will make you fit and tough, but it will also make you lonely. Thankfully cycling has a social side to blow away the winter blues. You always push yourself harder than you would if you were riding by yourself. And suffering is so much easier when you’re watching your friends suffer even more.
It’s called a chain gang not because it’s torture – which it can feel like – but because two lines of riders rotate like the links of chain on a bike. Once you hit the front, you swing off and slowly move to the back of the group. You only have to ride on the front and take the wind for a short amount of time. The rest of the time you’re being sucked along in the slipstream of the rider in front. Everyone saves up to 40% energy and the whole group goes much faster.
So what things do you need to know about chain gangs before you join your first one?
1) Avoid being hated – Fit mudguards
Mudguards might seem optional when you ride alone, but if you’re with a group they’re essential. At best you’ll get shouted at for not having them. At worst you’ll get a bill from other riders for their washing.
2) Respect the road captain
Most chain gangs will nominate a senior rider to be leader on the road to call out the route and ensure everyone rides together at tempo. Also to change the rotation of the group from clockwise to anti-clockwise, depending on the wind direction. Listen to them.
3) Leave your ego at home
It’s important to ride together at the same speed. Chain gangs aren’t a place to prove you’re stronger than everyone else. Don’t be the idiot who does extra long turns or powers up the climbs. This disrupts the flow of the group and leads to a lower average speed. On the flipside, if you’re running out of steam, don’t be afraid to sit out a few turns on the back. Better to rest than go through, leaving a gap, and then blow up completely.
4) Go through smooth as silk
When you hit the front, maintain the same speed and slow down slightly when you pull off. Then when you reach the back and the last rider passes you, start to speed up to save energy. Above all, no sudden braking! When everyone is so close together it’s very dangerous. Keep it smooth and you’ll all go faster.
5) Stay in formation
Follow the wheel in front closely but without overlapping wheels. Don’t let gaps appear. Keep the two lines close together. A big channel of air down the middle will slow everyone down.
6) Help everyone stay safe
Normal group etiquette applies. But shout out obstacle and holes in the road ahead, rather than relying on hand signals when it’s dark and visibility is low and everyone is on the rivet. Listen for shouts from ahead. Concentration is essential. And if you’re not going through for a turn, shout out so that riders coming back know you’re sitting this one out.
7) Be independent
Don’t rely on other riders for a pump or a puncture kit. Carry all the tools you need plus a spare inner tube so you can get home on your own. Don’t ask other riders to stop and help you because they also risk catching a cold by going from flat out to zero. On dark cold winter nights, chain gangs stop for no one.
Have a dedicated winter bike
Hang up your carbon best and kit yourself out with a sturdy winter bike. Lights are mandatory, front and back. Plus puncture-proof tyres, as fixing a tyre on a cold dark night is no fun at all.
Dress for the worst
Prepare for rain even if it’s not forecast. Also pack a cape in case of rain or you have a mechanical and might be standing on the side of the road for a while.
Pack a snack for after
Hunger will hit hard once you stop riding hard. Refuel straight away. You may have a long ride home from where the group ride ends, probably at a slower speed. Avoid bonk or the chills by eating afterwards.
Use safe roads
If you’re starting up a new chain gang yourself, it’s important to realise that you may be riding in the middle of the rush hour. So make sure to stick to roads you know will be less busy.
It’s often better to do many laps of a small, well-lit circuit, than a large out and back loop. This also gives the chance for dropped riders to take a rest and then get back on a lap or two later. Industrial estates can be ideal.