You’ve got it all. You’ve got the stamina. You’ve got the speed. You’ve got the mental and physical tools to win it all. And then you don’t. Why? Well, there are a million reasons; millions of reasons that are beyond our control. The roads could be bad. You could get a puncture. You could have a mechanical failure. Someone else might crash right in front of you. Those are all things that you can’t control. And you really can’t control them (aside from having good equipment that’s been serviced well) but there are things that you can control, and you need to focus on those things.
When you’re in a mass start event or a road race or any number of other events, you need to get used to riding with others and so to start off, you need to get a little hands on. It’s natural to say, “I don’t want any part of this” and either drop back or go for gold out of the gate. Neither one of these is something that we’d recommend as a strategy. You want to ride at the pace you’ve trained at. And in order to do that, you’re going to need some help.
Find a friend and somewhere quiet. This could be a quiet road with little to no traffic or a park when it’s early and there aren’t a lot of dogs or joggers. When you’re riding beside your friend(s) reach out your hand and put in on their shoulder. Try the other hand on the other side. Try switching.
Next up, hold your bars low, on the drops and stick your elbows out a little bit on either side. This will look pretty silly but you’re with friends, so you’re good. Now bump elbows. Don’t throw them like this is an MMA fight. Just do enough so that you can feel where the other riders are.
Once you’ve mastered this, start getting even closer, leaning into each other with your shoulders. This will get you used to riding in a pack. The tendency during each of these is to look at the people that you’re bumping into. Don’t. Instead, always focus on the road. Look at where you’re going.
Unless you’re racing in one of the weirdest races I’ve ever heard of, there’s a really good chance that at some point you’re going to have to turn. You’ve turned before, I assume and you know how to make a bike go around a corner, but maybe not in a crowd. And one of the easiest ways to lose speed and energy in a race is dropping back and slowing down on a corner because you’re not comfortable taking the turn in a crowd. So how do you figure out how to take turns when everyone else is trying to do the same thing?
First, pick your line and stick to it. Enter wide and exit wide but pick your line. Don’t slow down WHILE you’re cornering. If you know that you’re coming in too fast, coast a little heading in. Don’t brake in the middle of your turn. Once you know where you want to ride, have a friend enter the corner just a little ahead of you and practice getting closer and closer to that back wheel. Start as far back as you need, but eventually you’re going to want to get about a foot away from their back wheel.
When you feel comfortable doing this try having them ride the corner beside you. It will absolutely slow you down and might force you to pick a different line but knowing what to do when you’re trailing versus what to do when you’re in the pack on a corner is going to pay major dividends come race day.
You can’t race without hydrating and keeping your body fuelled, particularly longer races. So you need to figure out how to feed yourself when you’re in a pack.
Try passing gels and water back and forth between you and a friend as you’re riding. You need to get used to taking your hands off the bars and grabbing a quick swig while you’re riding.
And you also need to practice when you should take a drink. Your best bet is to set a timer so that you get used to taking a drink regularly. A lot of riders forget all about water when they get in a pack but if you make it a habit, it becomes a lot easier.
The one major consideration in all of this is safety. You need to make sure that when you’re practicing each of these skills, you’re doing so safely. And it’s important to remember that you’re doing all of this to make sure that you’re safe come race day. So it defeats the purpose if you get hurt in training.
Finally, connect with local rides and associations. You’re not the only person starting out and everyone could use some people in the same boat. This also puts you in contact with some great, experienced riders that have even more tips and tricks you might be able to use.