Among the benefits of live Tour de France coverage on television is the opportunity to observe the benefits of riding near the front of the peloton. By maintaining a constant presence on the front of the race, teams kept their leaders out of trouble and in position to win.
You, however, probably don't have eight men committed to keeping you in perfect position, so you better know how to maneuver through the peloton on your own.
Every racer has heard someone yelling, "Move up," or "Get to the front," in the middle of a criterium or road race. Of course, the processes of getting there and staying there aren't as simple as they seem. With 100 riders all trying to be in the top 15, people are passing and being passed constantly. Your ability to move through the peloton efficiently plays a significant role in the amount of energy you use during a race or group ride, and hence influences the power you have left for the finish.
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Keeping your head up is the most important key to improving your position in the peloton. You have to be aware of what's going on in the field, and that means keeping an eye on the riders around you as well as the riders far to your front and sides. You need to see the big picture of the peloton so you can react to surges or decelerations from riders near or far away from you.
Field splits often happen because the riders in the front accelerate and someone who's not paying attention doesn't realize he has to speed up until it's too late. He's too slow to react because he was only watching the wheel ahead of him and failed to anticipate the acceleration. Not only do you want to avoid being that guy, you also have to be prepared for someone else to fill that role.
Closing gaps at race pace takes a lot of effort, so it's important to move around struggling riders before they allow a gap to open. If you watch the peloton carefully, you see accelerations and decelerations well before they affect you, giving you time to react with minimal additional effort.
Anticipating changes in weather and road conditions plays a large role in peloton positioning as well. You want to make your move before you turn into a crosswind or before the road narrows.
When you're in the wrong position and the conditions change, someone else may be occupying the space you want and you have to use energy to either take that space or find another. For instance, if you're riding with a tailwind and are about to turn right, you know you're going to be riding in a crosswind from the right as soon as you make the turn.
You want to avoid being stuck in the gutter on the left side of the road, meaning you have to position yourself prior to the turn in order to end up in the middle of an echelon, preferably the first one. Likewise, it's typically easier to move up when the peloton is riding on wider roads, so you don't want to be at the back of the group when the roads get narrow.