Group rides have been a part of cycling since the first few people with bikes got together to see who was the fastest. It’s a part of cycling culture, it’s part of what makes cycling fun but there are plenty of things to consider when choosing to participate in a group ride.
First the good. Group rides are social, you can ride with lots of people, friends and frienemies alike. In some cases, riding in a group is safer than riding solo as it’s much easier for motorist to see a group. Group rides can be motivating. Riding in a group is going to improve your bike handling and cycling awareness. The group ride can also teach you a lot, sometimes these are good things but sometimes not. From the very relaxed coffee ride to the “race” ride and anything in between cyclist seem to prefer some company from time to time.
When speaking about what makes a “good” group ride vs a “bad” one the number one thing that stands out is safety and communication. Understanding and respecting the nuances of a particular ride can radically change perception of that ride.
For purposes of this blog, am going to list five common group ride styles and of course the pros and cons of each type and then I will get to the “ugly” parts.
Let’s Look at the Types of Rides
The Coffee or Café ride
This ride will eventually become everyone’s favorite ride simply because it is the most relaxed and most social way to enjoy cycling. The more experienced you become as a cyclist the more you enjoy the extra easy days and wearing your best kit aiming to win the King of the Parking Lot (KOPL) for the day. Coffee rides literally start and end or stop at a café along the way. They are usually best in small to medium sized groups depending on the size of the café. Whether a single pair or a double paceline the ride is usually at conversation pace covering a relaxed route. The only negative to the coffee ride is when someone has too much espresso and the pace gets too high after the stop and someone has to slow it all back down.
The Chain-Gang ride
This is probably my favorite type of ride. These are the rides that motivate everyone to get better and get used to pushing beyond their comfort zone. Some of my best cycling memories are from our old 4D Saturday chain-gang rides in St. Francisville. A chain-gang is a hard paceline ride where everyone is on the same page about pushing the fastest pace the group can collectively go. Stronger riders typically take longer pulls not pushing a pace too much to drop the weaker riders, at least until a certain know point after which the group will recover and regroup before starting the process over again. Over time everyone gets stronger and everyone has fun. The key to a successful chain-gang is knowing everyone on the ride and making sure that the attack and regroup points are known. Communicating this with new people is very important.
The Mentor Ride
Somewhere between the coffee ride and the chain-gang is the Mentor Ride. This is a ride with a clear emphasis on teaching new and less experienced riders about group riding, explaining communication within the pack, as well as technique and fundamentals. There is a clearly defined ride leader and likely a few other more seasoned riders in the group to help mentor the new riders. There should be a pre-ride discussion as we as in-ride coaching, and a post ride follow up. This will always be a no-drop ride. At some point everyone was a beginner, and it is always good to help others along the path once you have gained good experience. The route, rules, and expectations of the group are all clearly defined.
The Race Ride
Aka the weekday/weekend world championships, can be fun and can push people to get stronger. It is also more dangerous. People take more risks, attacks are less predictable, and more people punch outside their weight class to borrow a boxing analogy. These rides are not very conducive to beginners and can remain intimidating to less aggressive riders. It should be the duty of veterans of this ride to make new people aware of these things. Everyone needs to know the finish line or sprint points. Center lines and traffic laws need to be observed.
The Anything Goes Ride
Lastly the Anything Goes Ride is the worst type of ride. This ride is just known for its inconsistency and disregard for safety. Thankfully these rides are not too common. All of the previously mentioned rides from time to time can become one if things get ugly.
As you should have gathered most of what I have covered has been good and only a little of it was bad. What truly gets ugly about a group ride? The biggest difference between a good group and a bad group is consistency and lack of communication. These are two huge safety issues but certainly not the worst. Things get ugly when there is lots of unexpected change in pace whether it come from surging or braking. When this happens wheels can get overlapped and a crash is much more likely to occur. No one likes to crash. Rides that do not respect traffic by either running red lights or crossing the center line not only risk lives but also cause community backlash. There are also rides where the new people are left in the dark and yelled at when they don’t do something “right”. Every cyclist has a civic responsibility to choose to do the right thing with respect to litter and nature breaks. Route selection and time of day also play a role here. What may be a perfect route on an early weekend morning may not be so good when people are commuting to and from work.
Most of the time, good communication can resolve the issue regardless if it is between riders or motorists. Collectively the group should be self-aware and resolve the issues to encourage new riders and grow the sport. There are always going to be errors and bad judgment won’t entirely go away. Unfortunately, crashes can still happen when everything is done by the book. As cyclists and vulnerable road users, we need to be proactive in protecting one another. No matter your experience level, you should always ask questions about the group ride dynamic and rider expectations before you find yourself somewhere you would rather not be.