The Midwest winter is already showing signs of fading and many of you are likely itching to get outside (or you already added some extra layers and went out). With the weather warming, local group rides are beginning to swell from those few hard men who lasted the winter to those other riders who have a lower tolerance for cold and ice. Many of us have favorite groups that we are anxious to join, while others may be feeling that after a solid winter of training, they finally have the fitness to hang with some of the faster groups that have seemed intimidating and out of reach in the past. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a newcomer to the group riding experience, here are some things to keep in mind as you get ready to start riding with others outdoors. Group rides are a part of nearly everyone’s training plan in some way, shape or form. Common reasons cited for joining group rides include:
- gauging fitness
- socializing with friends
- improving bike handling skills
- learning the art of conservation (drafting) and pack etiquette
- challenging yourself to push to new limits to maximize the high end power
- simply getting a good hard workout in without the structured rigidity of intervals
These are all great reasons to make group rides a regular part of your training plan, so long as you make sure that participation with the group makes sense for your individual situation and both short-term and long-term development as an athlete. The second and more important thing than appropriate development is making sure that the group you are riding with is safe. I personally love group rides and believe that with a few twists, you can achieve both of these goals. For our VQ riders, we require all athletes that attend VQ-organized rides to go through the Vision Quest Bike Handling Certification. This is a process that teaches each rider basic bike handling skills at the intro levels of certification and more advanced handling skills along with appropriate paceline technique and etiquette as they improve.
Once we have ensured that all are riders are capable of riding safely and efficiently, we will add a specific goal and structure to every group ride we run. The rides still target many if not all of the reasons cited above for group ride participation, but we also want to make sure that there is a stated goal so that we don’t end up “just riding around.” The most common adjustment made is dividing the groups based on ability and experience to ensure that a given ride makes sense for all the riders in that group. Some individuals will gain the most benefit from easier rides that focus on teaching conservation and group etiquette. More experienced riders have already mastered these skills and see greater benefits from high intensity efforts and race-simulation rides, including hard paceline, breakaways and bridging efforts. In either situation, we also commonly plan for brief stops, not only so the riders can regroup, but so that we can use different examples as valuable teaching points while they are still fresh in the riders minds. Not only that, but after we explain a point, we can immediately put it into practice, and then regroup again to make further corrections or suggestions.
Now that I have outlined all the reasons that you may want to include a few group rides here and there, it is also important to understand that these rides sometimes make more sense depending on your goals and the time of the year. When your training is very specific and you are trying to target certain intensity zones and durations, group rides may not be the ideal choice. You are probably short changing your development in this case because there are too many other things to worry about in the group to really get the specific work in you need. Even more important, if you try to get your specific work in by going off the front, you may frustrate other riders because such moves can disrupt the flow of the group. On the other side of things, group rides can be mentally stressful for many riders and it is easy to be influenced by the competitive spirit of everyone around you. If you are aiming to gain base fitness with easy miles, group rides may not be the ideal choice because you will probably end up either pulling too hard at the front or riding too easily if you are sitting in the draft, meaning your aerobic system won’t develop optimally.
Not every ride needs to be this organized to be valuable, if they were it would take a lot of the fun out of group riding. I often join open rides, but these are also rides I have done hundreds of times. I know what to expect on the ride and I understand where these rides fit in the bigger picture of my training plan, along with what I need to do to reap the biggest reward from each ride. Sometimes just riding with friends is the only reason I need. So this year, don’t be afraid to join in on that group you often see passing you on the road, but I would encourage you to first do some leg work to find out the basic facts of ride distance, speed and safety, as well as the types of efforts that will be required in different groups. If it all works out, go out and have fun!