Get a Move On
Knowing where you need to be and actually getting there are two entirely different things. Moving up through the field is much more efficient than pulling out to the side of the peloton and accelerating in the wind. To efficiently move through the field, you have to develop the ability to see passing lanes opening and closing around you. While you may be able to move up by going straight up in between two riders ahead of you, you're more likely to find diagonal lanes to accelerate through.
The trick to moving up through a diagonal lane is to get your handlebars ahead of the rider beside you. If your bars are ahead of his, you control where the two of you go. As you accelerate forward and to the side, the rider next to you has to move with you in order to avoid hitting your thigh with his handlebar.
Moving up through diagonal lanes doesn't mean cutting people off or riding recklessly. The best riders are so smooth they can move up through the field without being noticed. Once you decide a space is big enough and you're going to accelerate through a lane, commit to the move and go.
When you're uncertain, you make riders around you nervous because you're jerking your bike and head around as you decide whether you can make it through the hole. Keep your eyes on your destination and move steadily into that space; the riders around you won't flinch because you've already made your move by the time they realize what's going on.
In criteriums, the entry into a corner often provides prime opportunities to move up. If you can find a lane that will help you keep more of your speed through the corner, you can move up several places.
You have to have confidence in your handling skills and brakes to pull this off safely. As the corner approaches, some riders will back off the wheel ahead of them slightly in order to float through the turn without having to hit the brakes as hard. This opens up passing lanes, but to take advantage of them you have to come into the corner with more speed and be comfortable passing people in close quarters.
Again, you have to commit to the pass, get your handlebars ahead of the person you're passing, and move confidently into the space. In this case, hesitating will likely mean getting stuck between two riders as the lane closes; not a good situation to be in while leaning into a turn at 30mph.
Practice Makes Perfect
Group rides and training criteriums are the best places to practice moving around the peloton. In order to stay near the front of a real race, you have to find and move through passing lanes rapidly and frequently.
One of the best ways to simulate those demands in training is to start at the back of a group and move up to the front as quickly as possible without ever going to the outside of the pack or taking your hands off your handlebars. If you can consistently move from the back to the front of a big (50-100 riders) training criterium within one lap, you're doing well.
Knowing how and when to move around the peloton compliments the fitness you've developed through training. All the action is at the front, and you can't take full advantage of your fitness if you're caught in traffic at the back of the field. If you want to win a sprint or get into the winning breakaway, you have to be in the best place at the right time. Don't leave it up to blind luck; develop the skills to get where you need to go, and you'll see a big improvement in your results.Search for a cycling event.
Chris Carmichael was Lance Armstrong's personal coach and founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS), and author of "The Ultimate Ride" and "Chris Carmichael's Food for Fitness". To learn what CTS can do for you and to sign up for our free newsletters, visit www.trainright.com.