My first group road ride went something like this. I showed up and nervously smiled at a few of the other cyclists. When the ride began, I placed myself dead last, felt my heart rate shoot up from anxiety and was promptly dropped the minute the pace escalated. As I fought off the urge to cry, a few kind riders waited for me. I apologized profusely and the next day, returned to the solitude of riding alone.
Fast forward a couple of years and now I’m keeping pace with the fast guys for 50 miles, chasing down breaks (or making them) and even participating in friendly sprints.
So, what happened?
Against all odds, I swallowed my pride, accepted my anxiety and threw my proverbial helmet into the ring. Yeah it sucked for a while, as many group rides meant me riding alone and eventually returning to the parking lot where the group was waiting. But every ride, I held on for a little longer and learned a few valuable lessons along the way.
Choose the right ride. Check local shops, clubs and the internet for group rides and find one that caters to your skill level. If in doubt, choose a slower ride and look for one that’s no-drop. Some ride leaders like to be contacted ahead of time when a new cyclist plans to join. This is a great way to ensure that you’re on the correct ride and the leader may suggest one that better suits your abilities.
Show up on time and prepared. Aim to show up at least 15 minutes early. Make sure your bike is in good working order and that you have a spare tube, pump or C02 cartridge, plenty of food and water, a helmet and the appropriate clothing for the weather forecast.
Introduce yourself. Many new riders are shy or feel like others are judging them. Take this opportunity to break the ice. Introduce yourself to the group leader and find out if the group plans to wait at turns or if a cue sheet is provided.
Know the basics. Cyclists love to talk about riding tactics and most will be more than happy to answer any questions you have about group riding. In return, you owe it to the group to be both safe and predictable. This is easier than you think. Before the ride, learn some basic hand signals like signaling when you’re turning or stopping and pointing out potential hazards. Never swerve or suddenly hit the breaks when you’re in the peloton and keep as far to the right as possible. Only ride two abreast when traffic is low and don’t cross the yellow line. If you’re going to keep a close draft, avoid half wheeling the rider in front of you.
Watch and learn. Observe as much as you can as riders point out hazards and announce passing cars. Watch how they eat and drink on the bike and note their gearing and cadence. An effective rider spins a gear of at least 90 rpm and has the ability to quickly increase or decrease that cadence in the same gear when the pace changes quickly.
Be an insider. Too often, new riders position themselves at the back of the pack and this is a mistake. As the peloton snakes along like a giant slinky, the first few riders can quickly adapt to pace changes, but it’s more difficult for the rear riders to respond in time. And if that acceleration causes a split in the peloton, suddenly you’re a long way from the front riders. Not only is it safer to ride near the front, but you’re also at an advantage if you tend to get dropped on climbs.
Enlist in the draft. Drafting behind another rider can save up to 30% of your energy. Riders typically conserve energy and recover in the pack and then exert a hard effort when they make it to the front and take a pull. It’s best to practice drafting with a riding buddy before your first group ride, just to overcome the initial fear of riding closely behind another rider. The best way to stay with the group is to find a wheel, any wheel, and try to stick to it for as long as possible. Pick predictable and safe riders to draft.
Give it time. Getting dropped is painful, but even the best professional cyclists fall off the back. Don’t beat yourself up and, as hard as it can be, try not to feel defeated. As you become more comfortable drafting and understand how to find the right cadence and read the road, group riding will get easier.