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The Offside Rule for Cycling - Cycling Etiquette

by Holly Blades

Words by Peta McSharry: For many of us, understanding the offside rule in football is never going to happen, but for those who play football it's easy. Getting to grips with the rules of sport often happens during training and when the match comes along fewer mistakes happen or the ref is there to blow a whistle.

Cycling is the one sport where there are no written rules. There are regulations and guidelines, for instance you may be thrown out of a race for head-butting or have points deducted for changing line in a sprint, but no one blows the whistle if you do something wrong, while penalties often come in the form of road-rash.

Without rules, cycling is governed by etiquette not found in a rulebook, it's passed down through generations of cyclists traditionally within the club system. 
The explosion of cycling, in particular sportive's, sees more and more riders take part in cycling without coming through the club system, many of them very strong riders but showing little understanding of the "rules" of cycling.

Very rarely do sportive riders organise themselves into groups, choosing to ride for themselves aiming to get the best time, similar to doing a TT. Yet this negates the one massive benefit of group riding, a well-organised group can ride faster than an individual. It also takes away one of the beautiful aspects of the sport, the social interaction and reward of working together to allow a weaker rider the benefit of draughting rather than being hung out to dry alone in a headwind.

Having signed up to ride the full Giro d'Italia route as part of the Gran Corsa challenge in June, coming in just short of 3,500km (2,000 miles) in 21 days it never occurred to me that adding another 520km to this distance a few days later was anything other than normal. 

But those 520km are extraordinary miles to ride, a chance to sit in a controlled bunch with rolling road closures where the pre race The London-Paris 2011 email has a group riding etiquette brief from the legendary Stephen Roche.

Riding etiquette is common sense, well should be, and many of the things we do are similar to driving a car on a motorway in close proximity to other cars.

Keeping an awareness of the distance between your bumper and the car in front, yet looking ahead to anticipate changes in speed and line. An inexperienced driver would probably not sit in the fast lane on the bumper of another, and they would certainly be paying attention. Drivers on a motorway wouldn't drive up the hard shoulder to get around a slower car, they'd wait for them to pull over. Fair enough if you are racing in controlled conditions you can undertake but where it puts riders on open roads at risk is equivalent to getting a red card.  If you saw a motorist changing lanes erratically or touching the brakes constantly, you'd move away from them. Yet I see this so often on group rides where cyclists are completely unaware of how erratic they are.

The next time you do a sportive organise yourselves into groups and work together (you are allowed to talk to each other on the bike), slow up to give a wheel to a struggling rider, you'll get more reward than shaving five minutes off your best time. You'll also become part of the etiquette system that has survived generations of cyclists but seems to be dying out in our modern explosion of cycling.

Things to consider when group riding:
Be predictable: you are the eyes for the person behind you, their safety is in your hands, they are not mind readers and may have slower reaction times than you. Sudden movements equal a yellow card offence.

Stay vigilant: like driving a car at high speed, keep your eye on the road ahead no matter where you sit in the group. Penalty shot for being offside.

Sit offset: in a big group line your wheel to the side of the bike ahead, this gives room to slide past the bike ahead if they slow down too quickly. It will help easy the concertina effect of cyclists backing into each other, slowing down too much and then chasing back on. It also allows you to see up the road rather than up someone's behind. If you are doing "through and off" by all means line your wheels up. Whistle blow for obstruction.

Don't shout: a sudden shout panics the group resulting in riders grabbing the brakes or changing direction suddenly - point out the obstacle or call it calmly. Yellow card offence.

Take the rough with the smooth: in a group when you change your line suddenly you could take out another cyclist, so at times you'll just have to ride the rough stuff. Keep pedaling over the rough tarmac or small holes, lifting your weight off the saddle to save your jewels. Penalty to the opposition.

Mirror, signal, manoeuvre: as with a car where you check your mirror to make sure it's safe to change lanes, so you should on a bike. A quick glance behind will confirm if you have space to move and will alert the person behind that you are changing line. Signal if you need the person behind to give you space to move in. Whistle blow for a bad tackle.

Steer the group from the front: if you are on the front you are the steering wheel of the group, keep an eye out for obstacles and steer the group around then, not over them with a panicked yelp. Red card offence.

Signalling: if you can't hold your bike in a straight line when taking a hand off the handlebar, use calm voice commands. Signal turns, when you need to slow or stop the group, steer the group wide of an obstacle in good time or point out an obstacle you cant steer around it. Red card offence.

Keep it steady: keep the tempo steady, don't slow down or speed up rapidly or dart left and right, think of the concertina effect and how to minimise it in a group of cyclists. Soft pedal rather than freewheel keeping an even space with the wheel in front. Sinbin for 10 minutes.

Look after the weak: don't lob the slow riders on the back, it takes more effort to hold on at the back. Put them in the middle and if they start dropping off give them a little push back on. Penalty shot in your favour for good etiquette.

Unsquare the legs: if you see a rider "pedaling squares" starting to drop off, remind them to take a gel or open one of yours to give to them, they'll come back to life in no time and who knows, you may need the favour returned one day. Wins the game.

Look after each other, become a trustworthy wheel others feels safe to sit on and when you set your goals for a sportive don't just make your finishing time the only goal on your list. 

Peta McSharry has just ridden 2,300 miles in 28 days, completing the Giro d'Italia and 2 days later taking part in London2Paris. Starting out as a commuter and moving onto sportives, she now races for Blue Bikes. An account of her Giro ride can be found at

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5th July 2011 10:34pm wrote:

When I enter a sportive it's because I want to complete it on my own merit. So no I won't be cheating by sitting on anyone's back wheel, and if anyone sits on mine, good luck to you.

Drafting, IMO is a mugs game. I saw the pile up on day one of TdF and would rather not be one of those landing on the tarmac thank you.

7th August 2011 11:59am Yoyo wrote:

Wise words indeed Holly.
@corshamjim - you sir, are an ass.

7th August 2011 12:06pm CamillaB wrote:

Great article, Holly & Peta! These are some of the things I've learnt from riding for the first time with a club. Before that, I rode either alone or with one or two other people, and there's a world of difference. Etiquette makes good sense when there are a lot of people using the road. Helping out when you can adds to the camaraderie, especially when the ride is long and hard. As you said, you never know when you might need a hand too.


7th August 2011 12:15pm GiveitsomeV wrote:

You get dickheads in every walk of life, even in cycling. corshamjim is a perfect example of this. Enjoy plowing your lonely furrow, we'll wave when we go whizzing past!

7th August 2011 12:24pm TurnerNoir wrote:

Nicely written and how true. corshamjim clearly needs to stick to time trials or triathlon, testing yourself is part of cycling but personally I am always amazed by the speed and distances that a well controlled group can achieve, even with "weaker" riders in the group. As with all sports cyclists fall into 2 camps, the serious individual with no interest in other participants and those that look to sport as part of their social (but still physically challenging) activities.

7th August 2011 1:03pm yenrod wrote:

Like it says "you can go faster as a group" and looking out for each other at that...big words and alot of people need to realise this...

Happy riding!

7th August 2011 1:39pm Das_Mikei wrote:

I'm left with mixed feelings after reading some of the comments. What's great about sportives is they attract people of all abilities, all shapes and sizes, people who are not necessarily cycling to get a good time, but to challenge themselves, enjoy the ride, or enjoy the countryside, and know they have the security of a broom wagon if it all goes wrong. Some sportive riders will have trained, or are using it as training, improving their fitness, keeping an eye on their heart rate, cadence and average speed for example, and will probably be familiar with 'cycling etiquette' . Some sportives address this by encouraging the more sporty cyclists to start earlier, leaving the more leisurely riders to enjoy the sportive at their own pace. With this in mind, some people may come across as bullying, when they specifically attack or criticise someone for not falling in line with cycling etiquette. A lot of riders on sportives are just having fun on their bikes, and I don't see why they should be criticised for that.

7th August 2011 2:16pm Holly Blades wrote:

I just need to clarify that this fantastic article is all Peta's work! The "By *****" aspect of articles added to the site is a glitch that we're working on.