Working on the Chain Gang


“That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang”

The lyrics of the 1960 hit song by Sam Cooke reverberated in my head as we rolled down the road with me out in front with my nose in the wind. I have been on many group rides where a pace line is simply one person at the front and everyone else drafting. They may pull for 3-4 minutes or 10-12. And often it only ends because the group has to stop. And today looked like I might be that guy.

Rolling through Easton

I have often wanted to organize a “chain gang” pace line but the opportunity did not present itself with the exception of one brief time in Florida on a cancer charity ride. These are hard to organize because of the roads we ride or sometimes the composition or size of the group.

Rolling through Easton

The weather in Warrenton, Va. today scrubbed my plans to ride to see my grandson play baseball. It rained off and on all day in Warrenton for his games. I would not have enjoyed a 70-mile ride in the rain. But our local club had a field trip to Easton, Maryland, which is one of my favorite rides.

Rolling through Easton

Our leader was Michele who is known for starting rides promptly as advertised which I absolutely love. And she is known also for leading a ride, that is, riding at the very front. I had not responded that I was going to join the ride because it was a spur-of-the-moment decision made this morning when the weather was bad in Virginia but nice in Maryland. I arrived at 9:15 a.m. and Michele was surprised to see me. Heck, I was surprised to see me.

Rolling through Easton

I started my Wahoo bike computer and brought up my route for the Tilghman Island Metric which I have ridden multiple times. I love riding on St. Michael’s Island. I did not have the specific route they were riding because I didn’t need it although it would prove to be a little bit different.

Rolling through Easton

It was 9:40 a.m. when we rolled out, 10 minutes later than the group’s posted start time. I chided Michele about always being prompt and she told me she gave a grace period for a “field trip” ride. I chuckled. She made a couple of announcements as we were rolling with two groups and then said I would be leading her group. Just as we were starting to roll my Wahoo shut down. I told her that because of the downtime, my computer went to sleep so I’d catch them after a reboot. We’re all data geeks and I couldn’t roll out and miss one or two kilometers waiting for it to turn back on.

Rolling through Easton

They took off into Easton. I saw them make their first turn and they disappeared down a street. Once Wahoo “warmed up” and was ready to go I took off to catch them. It was a different route than I have taken in the past but I was confident I would find them. I did, bypassing them on a side street and then waiting for them at the next turn.

Rolling through Easton

Our route was farther north than the main road to Saint Michael’s I have always taken. We were on Glebe Road. It was better since it was rural and didn’t go past the Target and BJs shopping center on St. Michael’s Road. When I have ridden this loop my mileage was 60 miles so if one wanted 62.14 miles, a metric century, this extra addition would probably do it.

St. Michael’s, Md.

Michele was leading the group in a line and I rode up beside her. We rode double for a little bit and then single-file with me at the front. And we rode one group off the back. We waited for them at the next turn.

I was on the front to St. Michael’s when Michele called for a stop to wait for our second group on the road. We stopped but then decided we wouldn’t wait and try to ride as a large group even to our predefined split. Our group had eight riders and we went through a residential area of St. Michael’s and avoided the main street through town.

The end of Tilghman Island. Chesapeake Bay.

After going through St. Michael’s and back on the main road, Highway 33 or Tilghman Island Road, we had a wide shoulder. I had been doing almost all the pulling along with Michele. We had passengers. And I wanted to break it up.

In cycling, a chain gang is a group of cyclists in a close-knit formation of two parallel lines drafting behind the leader. The formation comes from the fact that it is harder to cycle at the front of a group than in the shelter of another rider. The rider behind enjoys the slipstream of the rider in front. The motion of the formation is such that the left line is always passing the right line.

Tilhman Island Country Store

Better than most groups we had settled into a double-pace line. Two people would take their turns pulling at the front, usually 3-5 minutes, and then they would peel off. This would work if it could be done safely. But we were on a shoulder next to a two-lane main road. The person on the left would have to move to their left which meant crossing the white lane and into the traffic lane on the highway itself. Ideally, the person on the right would peel off to the right and drift back but there was no room. So they too made their way to the left crossing in front of the pace line to the highway. This was not ideal.

Donkey Donut – Sprout Cafe

John and I were sitting on third wheel when one rider decided he was going to pass us and go up to the front. He passed in the center, very close to John, which was a very dangerous maneuver. Just as we avoided a mishap, a second guy followed him. Wow. This was a sketchy group. Or a ride with some sketchy riders. I wasn’t sure about a double pace line.

Michele had mentioned to me that I might want to try and teach a chain gang formation. And the opportunity was right. I told John that when he and I got to the front we would start a chain gang rotation. We did not stop to explain to others but started this while riding on the shoulder. I knew three of our riders, Michele, Sunny, and John. And I knew I could trust them. The other four guys I wasn’t sure about as I had not met them before. But we had to do something different than passing each other in the middle of a pace line. We would have to try this and see.

Oxford Ferry

It was our turn. We were rolling along at 18 mph. I told John to slow down a little (17 mph) and let me pass in front of him. I moved over and Sunny, who had been following me, moved up to take my place. I slowed down to 17 and told her to pass me at 18 mph. She did.

Oxford Ferry

In the back, we tried to instruct the last person on the right to move to the left. We knew we had varying degrees of experience. Some may have been ex-pros, who knows? But some also may have had very little group riding. A couple of guys got to the front and “attacked” to pass, ramping the speeds up to 21-22 mph. This, of course, was not the purpose of a steady line.

Call for the ferry

And we had a couple of guys that when they passed and moved to the right they kept their speed. Actually, they even increased their speed. John seemed to have been the victim of this tactic more than others. I picked the wheels I wanted to follow and it was my friends, Michel, John, and Sunny. They picked it up quickly.

Oxford Ferry
Credit: PWCC Facebook (Orange Pinarello)

John held 18 mph. When the rider in front of him moved to the right and kept it at 18 John kept it there too. He would hold his pace as long as it took for the right side to slow down to let him in. If they didn’t, they would be riding on the front and not rotating. The great thing about the chain gang is that it is self-correcting. As we rode the 11 miles towards Tilghman Island the pace line got better.

Onboard the ferry

We arrived at the draw bridge as the bells were going off. The bridge was opening. Seven of us hurried across the open grate segment while Sunny wasn’t sure if she would have to bunny-hop an opening in the bridge. She made it.

Tilghman’s Island

We rolled to Tilghman Island Country store and stopped. Most riders bought sandwiches. I wanted to roll on as I prefer to eat after a ride. Once everyone was fulfilled we rolled to the end of the island and turned around at Sharps Island Light. After crossing the draw bridge again, we formed our chain gang and rolled the 11 miles back to St. Michael’s. The time flies by while in a line like this.

We stopped at Sprout Cafe in St. Michaels for another snack. Another break. Then we went to the bike trail that bypassed the town. The main road had a narrower shoulder so we rode single file to Royal Oak Road towards the ferry. And while it was a country two-lane road, there were signs for bikes to ride single file. Ugh.

On the ferry

We arrived at the Oxford ferry at 1:30 and did not see it. There was a sign for bikes to go to the end of the pier to raise the call signal if the ferry was not there. Michele gave the ropes a tug and opened the sign board. It seemed to take forever but the ferry arrived at 1:45.

Scottish Highland Creamery

In Oxford, we went down to the Scottish Highland Creamery at the waterfront but it was closed. Although they opened a new storefront on Main (Morris) Street, we rolled past without stopping. Although I always want to stop there, with the stop at Tilghman’s Island and another in St. Michael’s, plus waiting 15 minutes more for the ferry, I was fine with rolling towards home.

We left Oxford and the road presented itself once again for a chain gang. Wide shoulders and little traffic. The last 10 miles flew past. The group dynamics really improved and everyone eventually got the hang of it. In all, we rode 32 of the 62 miles using a chain gang. It was one of the best group rides I have done in a while.

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