Now that you are riding regularly, group riding is a great option for boosting fitness, making friends and finding new routes. You might be wondering how to keep up with that Saturday morning group ride, how to jump up to the faster group or maybe you have a friend or family member who is struggling to keep up in a group ride.
These six tips might just be the difference.
We may as well get this one out of the way first. It’s pretty obvious if you can gain fitness, you have more of a chance surviving and even thriving in a group ride. While the tips and tactics that follow help maximize the fitness you currently have, the benefit of a ‘bigger engine’ is you have more energy to waste and more margin for error.
If you are a new cyclist, try getting out for another session or two — even short ones — each week to increase fitness and your familiarity with the bike. Intermediate riders should start looking at making some rides steady and low-intensity and adding very hard intervals to 1–2 rides per week (remembering group rides are hard, so be careful to avoid overdoing intervals and group rides).
GET BETTER AT DRAFTING
One of the coolest things about riding in a group is the speed: You can cover distances much greater than you can on your own. To maximize your speed and efficiency, though, you will need to ride close to the rider ahead of you and get low (generally in the handlebar drops). If you are nervous about drafting, ride with small groups where you can practice following riders and changing position with fewer riders versus starting on the big 50-person group ride. Covering both of your brakes while in a group is also a good practice to ensure you are prepared to slow down and maintain control.
HONE VISION AND ATTENTION
Riding in a group means riding smart. If the idea of following closely is terrifying, you are not alone. This is a very common reason group rides become hard. If you can’t recover, get in to draft — don’t stay on the front. Gain comfort in a group by actively focusing on scanning the road ahead and the riders around you. You can be looking well ahead but also ‘attending’ to the riders and other relevant things around you.
Try this exercise while reading this article: Can you read the words but also pay attention to things going on around you? I can see some pens beside my keyboard and some photos on the wall while I read these words on the screen, for example. That’s the kind of multitasking attention you’ll need in a group ride.
FIND THE RIGHT CADENCE
While there is no one magic cadence for all cyclists there is a trend toward higher (i.e., 85–95 rpm) for road cyclists. This can be even higher as speeds increase, especially when you are drafting in a group. Your long-term goal should be to be comfortable at higher cadences by using high-cadence drills and playing with riding at the different cadence in your rides and intervals.
In the group ride, your goal is to maintain a gear which allows you to accelerate quickly to stay in the draft of the rider ahead. You may eventually need to shift if the acceleration is long or very hard, but this initial spin-up is critical to maximizing your efficiency — often, you won’t have time to shift when the pack starts surging. It’s similar to the way you push the gas pedal in a standard transmission car to accelerate until the rpms are too high, signaling the need to clutch and shift.
GO ALL IN
One of the hardest things to coach athletes on is embracing the critical moments in road rides and races where you need to go all-in to stay with the group. Knowing and actively telling yourself the discomfort of this one hill/attack won’t go on for the whole 2-hour group ride but simply for this one climb is a tactic of expending energy at the right time. This maximal effort is very hard, as it seems irrational, but if you can stay in the group, it often means you can recover for extended periods on the flat and downhill periods while drafting versus riding behind the group trying to catch up for minutes (if not longer).
STILL GETTING DROPPED? DROP A LEVEL
Most clubs and shops offer different group ride levels. You may feel like you’ve outgrown the beginner/no-drop group from a fitness standpoint and often spend the entire ride off the front of the pack, but then you find yourself getting dropped every time you move into the middle or fast group ride. You can always go back and focus on riding in the ‘easier’ group, paying attention to where the draft is and how the ride unfolds. Mixing your ride difficulty also ensures you aren’t always going as hard as you can. Group riding should be challenging, but it should also be a fun and social experience.