Few experiences in cycling are more dreaded than getting dropped. As your legs reach their limit and the wheel in front of you begins to slip away, a sense of panic gives way to a sinking feeling of helplessness, and ultimately frustration. What can you do to prevent getting dropped?
For more on avoiding getting dropped, check out Ask A Cycling Coach Ep 303.
It seems simple: you get dropped when you aren’t strong enough to hang on.
But in actuality, it’s rarely this straightforward, and it usually involves a combination of factors stretching back to the very beginning of your ride and beyond. By making yourself both stronger on the bike and smarter in the pack, you can hang on longer, even amidst a group of faster riders.
Here are five steps you can take after getting dropped to prevent it from happening again.
1. Analyze Why it’s Really Happening
When most of us get dropped, we jump to the easiest and most obvious association and assume it’s the cause. For instance, if you fall off the pace on a hill, you might logically think you need to improve your climbing, but a careful analysis almost always reveals a more nuanced cause.
Generally, it’s actually the efforts you do leading up to getting dropped that cause it to happen. Your abilities in the moment are dramatically affected by what precedes them, so analyze the entire ride leading up to the moment you get dropped when looking for a cause. Notice how many pulls you took, how long these efforts lasted, and how your normalized power compares to your FTP. Usually, the power you would have needed to hang on is well within your normal capabilities, but the gradual weakening of earlier hard efforts can leave you below your best.
2. Raise your Aerobic capacity
Getting dropped usually occurs during or just after a high-intensity effort, when you’re pushing above your FTP and have nothing more to give. But counter-intuitively, by improving your aerobic capacity and sustainable power, you’ll be better able to handle a high pace overall and have more left in the tank when things get hard.
Think of it this way- even in a very hard ride, most of the time you aren’t on the front, and when you do get there you want to be as fresh as possible. This is where aerobic fitness comes in, reducing the physical toll of sitting in the pack and raising your overall capacity for sustained efforts. Luckily, aerobic fitness is easy to improve through structured training, even if you don’t have the time for lots of long rides.
More on aerobic fitness and raising your FTP:
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3. Improve your Specific Fitness
The pace of any hard ride or race is out of your control, and you’ll inevitably be forced to ride above your comfort zone many times if you want to hang on. For this reason, it’s a great idea to replicate this kind of discomfort in training, through intervals that specifically mimic the demands of a group ride or race.
Over-Unders are a perfect type of workout to achieve this goal, closely matching the power demands of a rotating paceline. These workouts force you to alternate just above and just below your FTP, never letting your legs fully recover and training your muscles to process the metabolic byproducts of high intensity more effectively. VO2 max “float set” workouts are also useful, training you to repeatedly surge above threshold and improving your body’s maximal oxygen uptake. By combining these specialized workouts with general aerobic fitness, you can prepare yourself for the power demands of a fast group.
More on group-ride specific fitness:
4. Adjust Your Strategy
No matter how fit you are, the single most important way to avoid getting dropped is to ride strategically. By adjusting your tactics and respecting your own limitations, it’s entirely possible to hang on to a group of much faster and stronger riders.
One easy way to save yourself is by shortening or skipping pulls. Your effort level increases dramatically when you’re at the front of the group, but the pressure to match other riders’ efforts may make you feel obligated to pull longer or harder than you should. Even if other riders are taking long pulls, there’s no shame in rotating off quickly to save yourself, and this can often be the deciding factor in success. Be honest about what you have to contribute, and be mindful not to dig too deep – you need to save enough energy to catch back onto the paceline after you rotate off, as well as to respond to any surges or efforts later in the ride.
Positioning can be another way to prevent getting left behind. Sitting back in the pack can save an enormous amount of energy, but being last wheel also means you have no recourse if you do allow a gap to open up. Adjust your position in real-time in response to changes in pace and terrain. For example, if you know the group is approaching a hard climb, move up closer to the front beforehand and allow yourself to drift back a bit during the climb. This is known as sag climbing and can be a helpful way to make it over a hill a little easier, especially in a large group.
5. Fuel Up and Practice
Tough group rides are exciting, and the adrenaline can easily make you forget one of the most crucial factors of all: fueling. It’s not uncommon to seriously underestimate the fueling needs of training, and this problem is exacerbated in the high cognitive load of a group setting. Luckily, nutrition is an easy fix with potentially significant results. Set a timer or make a mental note to eat something every half hour, whether or not you feel hungry. In a group, it’s helpful to bring more easily-consumable snacks than you’d eat by yourself, since it can be challenging and risky to open packaging when riding close to others.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is practice. Fitness is essential and you can’t overlook planning and strategy, but it’s often your intuition in the moment that makes the difference. There’s simply no replacement for experience, so don’t let getting dropped serve as a discouragement. Instead, take it as motivation to try again, and watch yourself get faster in the process.