Most of the Haute Route is either climbing or descending. Don’t neglect the flatter parts however: if you manage these sections well you may make considerable gains (or, like the sprinters in the “gruppetto” during the Tour de France, you may at least help yourself to finish within the time limit).
The importance of being in the right group
You have probably heard or read that you can save up to 30% of your energy on the flat by cycling closely tucked in behind a group of other riders. The reason is of course that the wind resistance is considerably reduced. The actual amount saved depends on your speed – the faster you ride the more you save – and the size of the group, since you are better protected in the middle of a large group than behind a single cyclist.
Except on a steep climb, you are always better off in a group than on your own. Therefore, if you find yourself alone at the bottom of a long descent, it is usually better to wait for the group behind rather than to cycle on by yourself, even when there is no wind. On the other hand, if you finish the descent just a hundred metres or so behind a group, it is worth making a significant effort to catch them up.
For the same reasons, don’t underestimate the value of making a good start before the first climb. We are certainly not suggesting overdoing it (which you would have to pay for later) but simply making an effort slightly above your normal pace for a limited time. The point is to join a group at your level. Since the majority of riders start fast, you need to too. If you ride at your normal pace from the start you will most likely join a group where you are the strongest and will therefore end up doing most of the work.
Once in a group, progress depends on each rider taking his or her turn to relay effectively. It is important to do this smoothly, without the abrupt changes of pace that will disorganise the group. Each rider must take the lead by overtaking at no more than one kilometre per hour faster, and then immediately slow down to the pace of the group.
With no wind and for groups of roughly 6 to 20 cyclists, the best approach is to organise two columns roughly 50 centimetres apart, one advancing while the other slips back, with the lead cyclist in the advancing column and the trailing cyclist in the slower column changing from one side to the other as soon as the space opens up.
For example, if the advancing column is on the left, the cyclist at the head of this column overtakes the person at the head of the column on his right and then moves across in front, reducing speed slightly to allow the person that was behind him on the left to overtake him in turn without needing to accelerate. The process continues so that each person progressively moves backwards in the right-hand column until he is the last in line, at which point he moves across to the left-hand column again and accelerates slightly to begin moving up again.
A few extra points:
- The same technique can be used on a false flat climbing (up to about 3%), so long as everybody takes care to keep a very steady pace and not to accelerate as they take the relay. There is a natural tendency to do this, resulting inevitably in a rapid breakdown of the group as the pace gets too high.
- On a downward slope, the same need to maintain a steady pace means that the move from one column to the other has to be done smartly and quickly. The high speed means it is essential to pay attention and concentrate!
- There are no particular difficulties in using this technique with a headwind or a tailwind. It is more difficult in the case of a side wind, where each column will be in a fan formation rather than in line. This requires practice and coordination!