Group Ride Survival Guide
Group riding is an important part of the sport of road cycling. Regardless of your level of fitness, if you are meeting a group of fellow cyclists for a fun and/or training ride, that group experience can be very beneficial to your training routine. The problem is that group riding is very challenging and intimidating. Do you ever get scared, dropped, or constantly left behind? Cinch can help you.
At Cinch Coaching, we believe coaching is more than just training plans. In this article, I am going to share with you some tips and techniques that I use in teaching our clients to become better at group riding. I developed many of them from my own experiences, being constantly terrified and frustrated on fast-paced rides. After all, I had to jump right into the deep end as Tom brought me on training rides with his World Tour teammates from the start.
Before we get into the good stuff: Principle #1: You do not have to be as strong as the group you ride with. For example, in our ride last week, a few girls had fallen off the back, and they asked me, “What happened?” Followed by, “How do you ride with those fast people?” Well, quite frankly, I was the weakest in that group by far! I kept in the group because of how I rode, not how strongly I rode.
In this article, all of my words of wisdom come from my own personal, group ride, shortcomings. The reason I can ride with people significantly stronger than me is because I’ve made a ton of mistakes, and those mistakes turned into lessons; then the lessons turned into calculated corrections. But really, what it boils down to is the old adage, “ride smarter not harder.” Therefore, I will share my tips on how “to ride with people that are better than you.”
Start in the Front
Stay in the front, stay in the front, stay in the front! Not on the front, but in the front. There’s a big distinction there. The easiest way to get to the front is to start in the front when the whole group rolls out and be ready to go. Arrive early so you can position yourself on the edge of the group with your foot in the pedal.
Stay in Front
Whether you’re on a casual group ride or in a criterium, there’s always a lot of moving parts. Use that group dynamic pace change to your advantage and look for places to move up. The trick is these places are far from obvious! In fact, they occur when everyone else is NOT moving up. One of the best times to change your place in the line is when the group is slowing down as they enter into a corner or they are approaching a stoplight. Most people slow down sooner than necessary which causes the group to bunch, or in cycling terms to “swarm.” You will notice that everyone in the group will mindlessly brake behind the person in front of them, only to perform a herculean sprint when the group takes off twenty seconds later. Instead, when the group starts to slow down and swarm, look to the inside, and if it’s clear take a few more pedal strokes before breaking. You can move up 5-10 spots with minimal effort just by doing this! If you are rolling up on a stop light or a stop sign, take a free 5-10 spots right there. Again, it goes against the grain of thinking, but this technique will save you a ton of energy and keep you in the front the group.
What to do on the Front
Now, you’ve executed the moves and you’re near the front but the group decides it’s time to rotate. When it’s your turn to pull, know that you are the pilot of the plane. Quite often, riders feel the gust of wind hit them and pull through extremely hard because they are concerned about what the passengers behind think. Forget that. This isn’t the World Tour and if it were, you wouldn’t be seeing any hero pulls because the professional riders know better than to drop themselves.
Fly the plane how you want by riding within yourself and take a shorter pull if need be. After you’ve taken your incredibly smooth, first-class pull and begin to drift back into the line, look for the first gap. Do not, I repeat, do not, drift to the very back. Use a hand signal to show the person behind that you’re moving over.
Smooth out the Accordion Effect
Position yourself near the front to help with the Accordion Effect and to stabilize the feeling of whiplash. Try and pick one side of the person you are riding behind and stay on that side. Avoid fixating on staying directly behind someone’s wheel. Try to ride just to the side of the rider in front of you by aligning yourself slightly to one side of the persons’ wheel. Pick your side based off the best possible line during a crash scenario. You’re either going to go into the dirt or onto the road. So if you are on a very busy road it may be advisable to go to the outside. Congruently, if going right means going into another rider or into a ditch, it’s probably not the best bailout strategy. You need to assess your options and pick your best position that can aid you if a crash should occur. By riding in this fashion, with your place slightly to the side of the rider in front of you, you will be able to prevent the never-ending sprint, slam on the brakes and then, coast cycle.
Sense of Urgency
Something I struggled with early on, is having a sense of urgency while riding.
When you go into the corner, be ready to sprint out of the corner. There will be an elastic effect and if you’re a smaller rider, it will take you longer to get back.
During the times when I’ve hesitated or thought I’ll bring it back nice and steady, I never made it back to the group. If you see a gap, close it immediately; even if that means 60 seconds of going as hard as you can to stay with the group, it makes for a much better scenario than riding threshold for the next 20 minutes as you watch your comrades fade into the sunset.
Swim with the Sharks
Don’t clump yourself with all the weaker riders. This is similar to swimming with a deflated, safety raft. It makes you feel comfortable but in reality, it’s not going to help you stay afloat. I like to position myself around stronger riders. If there’s a gap that opens they will definitely make it back. If you politely, let them know you are there and ask for help, they can help you get back too. Most cyclists are gracious people who are more than willing to assist you.
Most importantly, show up to the ride with a full tank of glycogen. The local, hometown hero, group ride is not the place to test out your new “keto,” diet. Whilst on the ride, find time to eat. Lots of riders feel uncomfortable taking their hands off the handlebars which prevents them from eating. Look ahead for stoplights and stop signs as a good spot to take in some fuel. Cut the tops off your energy bars beforehand so if you’re at a light, you can rip off half of it and shove it in your mouth. If you have a chance to eat, take it. Bonking on a ride with a strong group of riders can make for a very emotional and lonely ride home.
Don’t Give Up when it Gets Hard
What most riders do not know is that the first 20 minutes of their ride is the hardest. Understand that the pace for the next 4 minutes, to the next 8 minutes, to the next 20 minutes is going to drop off dramatically. If you are in the hurt locker, chances are you aren’t the only one.
When you start to struggle, don’t give up. If you followed what I’ve said with positioning you know that there’s a grace period behind you and odds are there’s a wheel to catch, even if you have to drop back.
So many times I’ve seen people just pull the plug and sit up and lose the whole group when in reality they probably could’ve just drifted back a little. But when you’re suffering in a group scenario everything is amplified, so people often pull the plug prematurely. Keep your tips in mind and make a calculated move instead.
Set your Intention
Finally, set your intention before the ride; make it something you can control. For instance, implementing one of these techniques into your group ride is completely attainable so even if you don’t make it the full 50 miles with the A group, it’s still a success.
Wise words once shared, “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail.” Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and push the envelope, because that is the only way we grow. It’s going to feel uncomfortable and awkward at times but there’s no substitute for experiences. If you continue to put yourself out there, week after week, month after month, year after year, you are going to become the best possible version of yourself.
If this hits home and you would like to become better at the sport of cycling, then reach out to us. Tom Danielson and our Cinch Cycling Coaching team are here to help you enjoy cycling on a new level. For us, the sport of cycling is not just a training plan, it’s a life experience. Start riding your bike like a badass and become a black belt in cycling.