Group Ride Wisdom

Why the Group Ride is the Center of the Cycling Lifestyle

If you had to pick just one aspect of cycling that most accurately characterized and encompassed the cycling (specifically the roadie) lifestyle, what would it be? This was the debate around the table at a popular cycling magazine’s headquarters many years ago.

Red Kite Prayer is my favorite cycling blog, hands down. Padraig (author’s pen name) was a major contributing writer to the iconic, cult favorite Belgium Knee Warmers blog and branched off on his own to pursue RKP as his own creative endeavor and tribute to the sport we love. And are we glad he did! I would argue that few know as much about this great sport we love than he does. Just a quick view of RKP tells you that this guy possesses a wealth of knowledge on almost every aspect of the sport. The writing is compelling and there’s always something new. There’s my best recommendation. It’s just great stuff. Subscribe.

Each Friday, Padraig sends the world his Friday Group Ride posts. Topics vary but last week’s caught my attention. He writes that many years ago he was in a staff meeting at a well-known cycling mag and the question of how best to depict the Roadie lifestyle came up. Racing? Commuting? Centuries? This was his conclusion:

My opinion is the same now as it was then: The center of the bullseye of the roadie lifestyle is the group ride.

Not only do I agree wholeheartedly, but I’ve written HERE, HERE, and HERE (among other places) about the innumerable benefits of riding in a group including the fact that Group Rides are the center of any local cycling scene. If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s the major theme of this blog. Regarding Group Rides, Padraig said it well:

As the day-in-day-out social nexus of the riding community anywhere I’ve ever lived, group rides do more for cyclists than provide a great way to train. They offer the community a valuable way for riders to get to know each other and form bonds beyond the sweat that drips off them. I could never live some place that had no group rides.

If you’re a regular on a Group Ride, of course you already know this to be true. If you’re not a regular on a ride, you should seriously consider getting out there and finding a ride that suits your aspirations. You’ll be happy you did – not only for the training but also for the benefits listed in the RKP post: community, insight, motivation, and inspiration.

Head over to RKP now to read Friday Group Ride #58 and follow the comment thread as people weigh in on their local Group Rides from around the world. And subscribe.

It’s late right now as I type. Gotta get to bed. Group Ride in the morning.

Ride on…


8 Ways a Group Ride is Like “Fight Club” – Part 2

Yesterday, I posted Part One of 8 Ways a Group Ride is Like “Fight Club.” I encourage you to read the introduction to this series from yesterday’s post before launching into today’s. This post won’t make much sense otherwise. Here’s the continuation, Rules 6, 7, and 8, with adapted explanations for a Group Ride:

#6 – No shirts, no shoes.

  • There are some rules when it comes to basic, essential attire in a Group Ride. That’s just the way it is. You don’t need a $5,000 bike, a pair of $500 Assos bibs, or the hottest Italian shoes in order to fit in but don’t expect someone to let you in out of the wind if you show up in board shorts and running shoes. You know who I’ll think twice about making room for in a paceline? The dude that shows up on the huge Saturday ride in a skateboarding helmet and t-shirt. Why? ‘Cause if he hasn’t made the basic investment in clothes that work then he’s tipped his hand that he shouldn’t be out there. And he’s probably riding a bike with loose skewers. I don’t want to follow that squirrely guy around a 90 degree downhill corner at 30mph.

#7 – Fights will go on as long as they have to.

  • Some of the best advice I received about cycling came from a 55 year old friend who’s been racing for 40 years and owns multiple national and world masters championships. He told me to take a long-view of this cycling thing. There will be seasons of life where the miles and hours come freely. Other times, he told me, you have to scrap and fight to simply get out on the road a couple of times a week. A bad race or limited training time used to get me down. It would affect other parts of my life and leave me grumpy and pissed off. But you know when I’m most passionate about cycling? When it doesn’t own me and when it’s in its proper, prioritized place in my life. My 55 year old sensei told me that cycling tends to breed or bring out obsessive tendencies in us when it comes to getting the miles in but first things must come first, whatever that means in your life. Unless you’re riding the bike to pay the bills, time off the bike can actually be a good thing for regenerating your passion for riding. So take a long-view. The fight will go on. The road will still be there when you get back. Just make sure to get yourself back in the fight when the time’s right.
#8 – If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight.
  • This is initiation. If you’re headed out to your first big Group Ride, just know you will get dropped. I don’t mean your first Group Ride in a new area if you’ve been doing Group Rides for years in your old hometown. I mean, your very first Group Ride ever. Dropped. It’s ok. You’ll have aspirations, you’ll hang on as long as you can dangling off the back. But you won’t know where the ride twists and turns or where the regular surges go down. When I first started riding, it took me 2 months just to finish with the big Saturday ride and another 6 months before I started to feel comfortable in the pack. Six months! You may adjust more quickly. Just don’t beat yourself up if you can’t keep up for a few months. Keep at it. You’ll come around. You’ll get stronger. That’s why Group Rides are so awesome. A great truth about cycling that I’ve mentioned before: the best way to become a better, stronger rider is to ride with better, stronger riders. Just know that every single person in the Group Ride including the hot local pro and the old grizzly veteran had to start somewhere. And we all took our turns in those early days getting shelled and dropped. The best fighters at Fight Club have just been at it longer than most, persevering.

There you have it! Any reactions? Any insights to add? Would love to hear.

Ride on…

8 Ways a Group Ride is Like “Fight Club” – Part 1

There are all sorts of Group Rides out there. Some are recovery rides, some tempo spins, some hammerfests. My favorite Group Rides are like a boxing match. Not literally, mind you (though I’ve seen it happen). In the figurative sense, a great Group Ride should be great training. And great training is hard. Head down, pushing to hold the wheel in front, trying to coax another ounce of power from somewhere deep within. When it’s like a boxing match, someone hits out off the front and the group hangs on or chases. Then, there’s barely time to recover and BOOM someone else hits out. Over and over it goes. Barely hanging on. 101% of your maximum effort. Suffering. Too many cyclists ride too many miles in the comfortable, medium tempo zone. These kinds of boxing-match rides balanced with off-day recovery spins are the only way to get stronger. Easy recovery days should feel too easy. On your hard days of training, it should be really hard.

If you’ve seen the movie, “Fight Club” you know that the fights aren’t so much a boxing match as an all-out street brawl. Before you think I’m going all machismo here, let me point out that it’s not a movie about fighting for fighting’s sake. For the characters in the movie, fighting becomes therapy. As the story unfolds, fighting is a metaphor (I guess the screenwriter could have chosen some other backdrop like fly fishing or something but Ed Norton and Brad Pitt punching each other in a basement sell more tickets). I’m obviously not advocating fighting but I am saying that competitive, safe Group Rides are therapy and even a metaphor if you want to see it that way. My favorite Group Rides are like Fight Club.

Here are the 8 rules of Fight Club with adapted explanations for a Group Ride:

#1 – The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club.

  • It’s usually difficult to find information about Group Rides except for possibly a start location and departure time. Occasionally a bike shop website will list rides. Apart from start location and departure time, the listing might read “fast” or “challenging” or “B group” for a slower ride. But when it comes to what the ride is actually like (friendly, competitive, hardcore, etc), you don’t know what the ride is really like until you get out there and do it. Regulars or veteran riders might be able to give you a few insights or tips but experience is the best way to find out. Because outside of the Group, regular people don’t really talk about it. Not because it’s some big secret but because most of the world doesn’t really understand the allure anyway. Kinda like Fight Club. So get out there.
#2 – The second rule of Fight Club is, you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.
  • Ditto. See above.
#3 – If someone says stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over.
  • If someone goes down, usually the ride stops unless it’s one of those huge Saturday morning Group Rides. In that case, a small group of riders will stop, usually the friends of the fallen rider, but the rest of the ride will most likely continue. I’m not saying it’s right but watch what happens if there’s a crash on a ride with more than 50 people. If it happens towards the back, the front of the ride won’t even know what happened. However, on a morning ride (where the riders are usually more well-known to each other) or smaller Group Rides, when there’s a crash then the group stops. If it’s a really serious crash involving multiple riders or a car/truck/large stationary object, then the entire ride stops. Game over. Time to take care of a fallen comrade.

#4 – Two guys to a fight.

  • Group Rides like Fight Club are competitive. And it is possible to be competitive and safe at the same time. It just means that riders are pushing each other. The best kind of Group Ride is one where you’re in it with riders that are stronger than you. I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: Ride with riders that are stronger than you. That’s the only way to get stronger.

#5 – One fight at a time.

  • Get in the fight and do something. Don’t be a passenger. Go with the break. Chase down a break. Initiate a move. Pull through in the paceline. You’ll take your licks and you may even give a few. Maybe you’ll win a town-line sprint. Maybe you’ll get dropped. Either way, make sure you do something.  As long as you went to all the trouble to wake up early, kit up, and take precious time away from your family, at least make it worthwhile. Ride hard. Get in the fight.

That does it for Part 1. Part 2 is HERE.

Ride on…

Tempers Flare as the Noon Ride Heats Up

Click on image to view interactive map of the Noon Ride in Palo Alto, CA

The Noon Ride got a little chippy today as tempers flared. Essentially, the issues centered around basic Group Ride etiquette. Without going into too much detail about today’s ride in particular, there are some basic, unwritten yet clearly understood rules that apply to all Group Rides. That being said, we’re all competitive beings and sometimes the adrenaline gets going and riders take unnecessary risks. Hopefully not too many, too often as unnecessary risks put not only the offending rider in harms way but the rest of the group as well.

Riding bikes in fast moving groups has certain inherent risks but when individuals take unnecessary risks on a regular basis, this is where the group must step up and point out the offense. Here’s a short list of basic etiquette based on what I saw on the Noon Ride today. These rules should really go without saying but I’m still amazed when they’re not understood or flat out ignored.

Here’s an additional thought after the original post: I want to clarify that these points of etiquette have not been invented by the author. Actually, all of the posts on this blog having to do with Group Ride etiquette are simply collective wisdom that’s understood by most cyclists who frequent Group Rides of all sorts. In other words, my comments here are based not only on my personal thoughts and experience but also on what I heard expressed from other riders during the Noon Ride. If you disagree with any of the points of etiquette below (or any listed in previous posts), I would actually love to hear about it. This blog is open to all kinds of questions and comments are encouraged (see comment box below).  I would ask that comments keep a generally positive tone. My purpose for writing this post is not to bash, judge, or call out anyone in particular but simply to re-emphasize that it’s up to the Group to keep things in line and safe.  Furthermore, I’m also not claiming to be perfect! At one time or another in my riding life, I’ve violated different rules and etiquette. My hunch is that we all have at one time or another. When possible I try to own up to any of my offenses and apologize when necessary. When the air is clear, we can all get back to the business of having a great, safe ride.

  1. Riders should never blow through stop signs. That being said, it would be hypocritical to say that we never run stop signs. There are a few stop signs on this ride in particular that we roll through (the front riders calling out “all clear” or “car” whichever the case may be) and everyone knows which ones they are. For example, there’s one at a dead end right turn deep in the back roads with little traffic (I’ve never actually seen a car there). The stop signs I’m talking about are at busy intersections where the Group is clearly slowing and stopping for other traffic on the road.
  2. If sitting 20 wheels back when the group slows for a stop sign, it’s considered poor etiquette to fly up alongside the group and blow past the front riders in order to gain an advantage as the group accelerates slowly out of the stop .
  3. If a rider is in a paceline and finds themselves on the front, that rider must do work like everyone else.  If a rider is in a break, everyone must work. If a rider isn’t strong enough to work in a paceline or in a break like everyone else up there, then that rider should sit in the bunch rather than upset the tempo on the front.
  4. If a rider wants to hang around on the front but isn’t strong enough to do an equal share of the work, there’s a simple solution: Ride more and get stronger.
  5. If a rider is on or near the front, it’s the duty of that rider (and others up there) to point out branches, soda cans, traffic cones, baby strollers, etc for the rest of the group. It’s not optional. It’s the responsibility of the leaders of the ride. The best Group Rides have trustworthy leaders.
  6. If the majority of the group has to slow for a car or other obstruction, it’s poor etiquette to attack. If the group splits because of an obstruction, it’s good etiquette to wait for everyone to safely pass before dropping the hammer again. The last riders to pass through the obstruction should give an “all here” call.
  7. Don’t get tactical. There aren’t any trophies, podium girls, or photogs waiting for us at the end. “I’ve got a teammate in the break” is not an excuse for not doing work. Which brings me to my final point…
  8. I’ve written HERE about what a Group Ride is and HERE about what a Group Ride isn’t. Bottom line, it’s not a race. It should be hard, competitive, and challenging but it’s not a race.

When these things happen, my personal feeling is that it’s up to the group to hold one another accountable to safety and basic etiquette. I’ve written previously HERE and in other posts about the character of Group Rides. The character of any Group Ride is defined over a long period of time by a well-known psychological concept called Group Think. This can be a either a really good or really annoying truth. No single rider defines the character of the ride, but rather it’s the collective consciousness of the group itself. And it’s this collective consciousness that needs to define and enforce safe parameters for a fun, challenging, competitive and safe ride.

The Noon Ride is a great ride with great group of riders – and it’s generally safe and very challenging. A few guys stepped up today and pointed out to offending riders where unnecessary risks where being taken and poor etiquette was being displayed. It usually comes down to the veterans and leaders of the ride to speak up. We’re all out there to have fun and get some good training after all.

Be respectful. Ride safe. Ride hard. Everyone wins.

Ride on…

Anatomy of a GREAT Group Ride, Part 5

This post is Part 5 in the series Anatomy of a GREAT Group Ride. I highly recommend that you read PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE, and PART FOUR (below) before launching into this final addition. Along the way, we’ve taken a detailed look at the different phases of a great Group Ride, starting with the Meet Up and ending with what you read below. So here goes, the wrap up to a GREAT Group Ride:

  1. The Roll-Back – The Roll Back happens after the Lead Out and Sprint where usually there’s a regrouping of the pack. This is an often over-looked aspect of any ride but I contend that it’s actually the most social aspect of any Group Ride. The ice has been broken. The riders have shared an experience. First, conversation focuses on the ride and the sprint. Tactics are discussed, close calls are dissected, and memories of similar rides come to mind. Then talk drifts towards the days activities, work, family, etc. It’s during the Roll Back that I get to know the folks that I’m riding with and catch up with old friends. This also happens at the Meet Up but if it’s an early ride I’m usually still just waking up when the ride departs. At the end, it’s a different story. Adrenaline from the ride wakens riders up and chatter is usually louder and more animated. We’ve had the best possible start to the day: a great ride.
  2. The Coffee – The ride’s come to an end and a GREAT Group Ride usually winds up at a great coffee shop. Cycling and coffee just go together. Try Googling “cycling and coffee” and you’ll get almost 20 million search results (at least I just did). Great coffee after a great ride is just right. After a Group Ride, I don’t always have the time to sit and chat as work and the day’s activities are bearing down. But when I do have the time, hanging around the coffee shop with other riders feels like a luxury. For those who are self-employed, set their own work schedules, or just have more time on their hands, conversations over coffee can go well into the morning. Along with the Roll-Back, if you’re looking to get to know your fellow riders, grabbing a cup o’ Joe or espresso after the ride is the best way to go.
  3. Character – Does the ride remain true to what it is? Is it meant to be a recovery ride or hammerfest? There’s nothing more annoying than waking up fresh with a desire to go hard and find out that someone decided that this particular morning we weren’t going to break 18mph. On the other hand, if I roll out to a Monday ride that’s well known as an easy spin because everyone’s usually recovering from a weekend of racing and a few riders skipped the races and decided to make our recovery ride a hammerfest, that’s my cue to find some other place to ride. A great, long-standing ride sticks to it’s character…or riders will go find another ride.
  4. Aesthetics – Finally, great aesthetics do matter. A Group Ride through the urban jungle may be all that’s available during the week but make sure to find a Group Ride that gets you out into the country at some point. The landscape of a ride, where the road takes you, across rolling fields, up a beautiful climb, adds to the adventure and sense that the bicycle is taking you somewhere. We all fell in love with the bicycle as children because it was this vehicle that allowed us to leave behind the 4 boring corners of our neighborhood and opened us up to a world of adventure. That feeling doesn’t have to go away just because we’re all grown up. The bike can still take you to beautiful, less traveled places that most people have never even seen.

Well, there it is! Hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Here are links to the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. Is there anything I’ve missed? Anything else that should be included in what makes up a GREAT Group Ride? Thanks for reading.

Ride on…

Anatomy of a GREAT Group Ride, Part 4

This post is Part 4 in the series, Anatomy of a GREAT Group Ride. I highly recommend that you read PART ONE, PART TWO, and PART THREE. As in the previous posts, some of these phases will seem obvious but I contend that most of us rarely take the time to fully observe the dynamics present that actually influence the rest of the ride. This series is designed to intentionally take a step back and consider the innumerable social and physical factors that determine the character, quality, and tone of the communal nature of training rides in large groups.

There are all kinds of Group Rides out there, some great and some not so much. Part One of this series in particular defines the various factors that go into making a Group Ride great. Before we jump in, the phases of a GREAT Group Ride leading up to this post are the Meet-Up, the Roll-Out and Early Stage, the Initial Surge, Attacks and Bridges, the Paceline, All Strung Out, and the Final Pulls. These are the phases detailed in previous posts.

So here we go, the final phases of a GREAT Group Ride:

  1. The Lead Out – Great, long-standing Group Rides almost always end with some kind of sprint. The Lead Out sets up the sprint and it’s where the sprinters come out to play. This is also quite possibly the most dangerous aspect of any Group Ride so it’s important to know what’s going on. The Lead Out is usually initiated by an attack where others follow or a veteran rider moving to the front and simply drilling it. Everyone familiar with the ride will recognize this when it happens. If you’re new to the ride, it’s best to sit in and watch how things unfold. Every Group Ride and Lead Out has it’s subtle nuances and regular players know one anothers’ tendencies. This is key in a Lead Out on an open road with 20 or more cyclists traveling faster than 30mph. You don’t want someone in there who doesn’t know what’s going on. When you’re sufficiently familiar with the ride and other riders’ tendencies, you might feel ready to mix it up. When you’re ready, your timing and choosing the right wheel to follow are key. When you’re in the mix, the one thing you cannot do is lose a wheel or open up a gap. This is simply bad form and will identify you as an unreliable wheel. So hold the wheel in front of you. Usually the first few riders know the job: go as hard as you can for as long as you can then slowly and smoothly move off to the right. Do not move out of line to the left, out into the road. When you find yourself on the front, don’t get tactical, just go as hard as you can for as long as you can. If you wanted to contest the sprint and find yourself on the front too early then recognize where you are and what’s going on: you messed up your timing or place in line. You’ll have another chance tomorrow or next week to get it right so just get down with the job at hand and ride hard. If you pop, pull off to the right slowly and smoothly. If you’re in a good position a few wheels off the front, 100 meters or so from the line, then you’re in a good spot to sprint.
  2. The Sprint – The sprint line is usually a road sign or other roadside marker. Just like in the Lead Out, if you’re new to a Group Ride it’s best to sit back and watch as the sprint “line” is not always easy to pick out. Veterans of the ride usually aren’t quick to point out where it is to newcomers as this may encourage those unfamiliar with the ride to join in the high-speed finale. And for good reason. If a rider is unfamiliar with the location of the sprint then they’re most likely unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of how a the sprint unwinds on a particular ride. Even strong riders new to a particular Group Ride would be best served to take part in the Group Ride for a few weeks before stepping into mix. So you’re in a good position from the Lead Out and you’re ready to uncork your final burst for the line. If you’re second in line 100 meters out, perfect. Wait for the Lead Out rider to pull off and launch. Above all else, hold your line and sprint straight. It’s most likely that all hell is breaking loose behind you as riders try to match your sprint, follow your wheel, or come around you. You’re on an open road with traffic too so all this is going down in the narrow area from the shoulder/bike lane/part of the right lane. If you’re a few wheels back and start your sprint early to try and come around the riders in front of you, it’s a good idea to take a glance to your left to see if someone is coming around you. Do not sprint or try to come around riders on the right (shoulder side of the road). And don’t take your attention off the wheel in front of you. A lot is happening here in the blink of an eye and realistically it takes years of experience to do this well AND safely. I’ve had riders go down right in front of me because someone up front swerved out of the Lead Out unexpectedly to start their sprint. This is bad.  Additionally, if there’s a car coming up from behind, that kills it. Sprint over. So hopefully the riders behind the Lead Out will have your back and give a “car back” call. If all goes well, if the Lead Out and Sprint are done safely and smoothly, you’ll get that great rush of flying along north of 35mph with your guts in your throat. Maybe you’ll even win a sprint or two! But remember, it’s not really a race after all. Unnecessary risks are not worth it. We’re all out here to have fun. Identify consistently unsafe riders and stay away. Or better yet, calmly point out (after the testosterone from the sprint dies down) an unsafe habit or move that puts the rest of the ride in jeopardy. Be safe above all.

Tomorrow we’ll wrap up this series and take a look at the final stages of a GREAT Group Ride. Here are links to the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Ride on…

The Spectrum Ride: March 12th, 2011

The Spectrum Ride is my regular Saturday spin. Leaving from Cupertino and heading north on Foothill Expressway, the ride winds it’s way through Portola Valley and out Canada Road to the turnaround point at Hwy 92. It’s as fun and sketchy as any large weekend Group Ride but yesterday morning was more interesting and sketchier than usual…before I go on, here’s video posted on YouTube by CyclistAndre to give you a brief overview of this institution of a ride:

Thanks for posting CyclistAndre. Don’t know who you are but cool video bro.

Interesting and chaotic notes from yesterday’s Spectrum Ride:

  1. It was strung-out most of the time. Usually, like many Group Rides, the Spectrum Ride vacillates between surges and regrouping but not today. Even with my slow meandering out and back from the ride, I averaged just over 21 mph for 3 hours (the actual ride is about 2 hours) which means the ride probably averaged in the upper-20’s.
  2. Cops were everywhere. They were pulling over cyclists at virtually every stop from four corners in Woodside, out Canada, and even at Alpine/Portola in the valley. Tough to get a group of 75 riders to all stop and put a foot down but when a $400 citation is at stake, we’d all rather stop and chase like maniacs than take the hit.
  3. Road rage was all the rage. I swear, it seemed like every car or truck that came up behind us laid on the horn for minutes. At one point on Portola Rd, a Ford F-150 brushed my elbow as I was in the bike lane and revved his engine at the front of the group while laying on his horn…and then…
  4. A rider tried to throw his bottle at the truck. I say “tried” because he completely whiffed and hit the rider next to me in the side of the head with his bottle. Don’t throw your bottle, dude. Even if the Ford is the most obnoxious driver on the planet (which he was), throwing bottles sucks. Especially if you hit a fellow rider in the side of the head.
  5. After the F-150 passed the middle part of the group, it swerved in the direction of the front of the group then drove off. This created a major split in the group as those of us behind the incident slowed down to see what Mr. Insane Maniac Driver would do. When he drove off, we had to chase back on to the front group. As we got down to work, 6 of us started a nice, even, fast paceline and then a few riders unfamiliar with how to work in a paceline would pull through and wreck it. Surging, not pulling off, not holding wheels, not pulling through, it was all frustrating. It still surprises me that so many riders still don’t know how to ride in a paceline properly. But we eventually caught back on.

I should probably post on proper paceline etiquette soon.

Anyone else out there on yesterday’s Spectrum Ride? Hope your Saturday Group Ride was super fun and less harrowing than mine!

Ride on…