If you’re thinking about becoming a beginning cyclist, it’s now time to brush up your cycling skills for riding in groups. While riding by yourself can be a great way to forget about that miserable day you had at work or just a fun way to get in some cardio, riding with a group is a great way to keep yourself motivated and can spur you to gain new skills and build endurance.
Safety in Numbers — Find a Group to Ride With
Regardless of whether you have ambitions of one day riding in a pro peloton or if you are just riding for fitness, finding a high-quality, like-minded group can add a whole new dimension to your ride. A good place to start your search for fellow cyclists is at your local bike shop. Most shops not only have organized group rides, but also usually have them for riders of all experience levels at several different times during the week.
If you are just getting the hang of your bike, start small. Don’t be embarrassed to join a beginner’s group. Not only are the rides more relaxed in those groups, but they’ll usually have more advanced riders on hand to show less-experienced riders the ropes. Even if you’re able to ride for miles at a hasty clip, resist the urge to join a mid-level or advanced group right away. These group rides tend to be frequented by more advanced riders and can get competitive, which can be jarring for someone who hasn’t yet experienced cycling group dynamics. In fact, some groups with advanced riders may start off casual, but can turn into unofficial races a couple miles into the ride.
Ride the Right Way in Groups
Before you start fantasizing about blasting through the hills of France in a yellow jersey, let’s cover the basics.
“One of the most important things you need to learn when riding in a group is to maintain a constant speed,” John Cascio, a co-worker of mine who not only crunches numbers, but also pounds out the miles on a local road racing team, said. “If you can’t, it will create an accordion effect within the group. This can cause big gaps, followed by tightly packed bunches of riders, and it’s how a lot of crashes happen.”
Cascio advises that you keep your pedal rotation, or spinning, as smooth as possible. Don’t worry too much about setting a blistering pace in the beginning. Instead, just focus on keeping your pedal speed constant and smooth. Doing so will help you maintain more of a constant speed that fellow riders in the group will appreciate.
Beyond just maintaining a constant speed, Cascio also stresses the importance of learning group etiquette. Find out if your group maintains a pace line (a single- or double-file line where each rider lines up behind the first rider, who maintains a constant speed) and what the rules are on passing. Also, find out how your group handles road signs and traffic signals. Beyond the basics, some of the finer points can vary from group to group, so find a regular attendee and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Beyond just finding out key information, learning to stick by experienced riders can be a great way to ensure you never wind up straying off course.
Learn to Draft
Once you’ve gotten the hang of your group’s route and riding etiquette, it’s time to learn to draft. If you are a fan of motorsports (like myself), then the concept should be familiar. Similar to how racecars can tuck closely in behind one another to avoid the massive amounts of wind resistance and aerodynamic drag that can burden the lead car, the same effect happens in cycling. This is exactly why you see professional riders packed tightly in large groups, referred to as “the peloton.”
“When you are drafting off of someone, the person in front is working 30-40% harder than you,” Cascio explains. “This is why it is so important to learn to ride in groups. People who ride in lines can go much further when they are able to seamlessly take turns leading and following.”
And unlike motorsports, you are aren’t stomping a gas pedal or twisting the throttle to overcome wind and rolling resistance. You are doing so with your own might. While it may not seem too important in the first couple of miles, it can pay big dividends late in your ride. In addition, proper drafting also goes hand-in-hand with keeping a constant pace. A common mistake for beginning riders is to go as hard as possible while climbing, only to coast on the way back down the hill. While there is almost no advantage to drafting at low speeds during a climb, by not pedaling on the descent, you’ll force riders behind to break their spin, and may even force them to ride the brakes to stay behind.
Lastly, don’t feel pressured to ride with the lead pack right away. There is no shame in hanging behind the pack on your first few rides. While the view may not be the best, it’s a great way to get a feel for your group by observing how they ride before you join the fray.