Grab basic skills for great group rides

It may seem like cycling is a solo sport but the fun of group rides can be what you need to go from a weekend puttered to a lifetime cyclist. We have all been out cruising a beautiful road when suddenly a loud buzz is heading your way. The road goes from birds chirping to suddenly a flock of 50+ riders whizzing by inches from your bike. At best is can be unsettling and sometimes it can feel downright dangerous. Being pushed to the side of the road by an aggressive peloton can be the single reason new and intermediate riders avoid group rides. From the outside, the speed and synchronicity of the group ride can feel intimidating. But, there is some poetry in motion when you watch a team or club that has been riding together for a long time. The pacing and communication leads to a flow that is quite easy to appreciate. Joining a group can help elevate your cycling to the next level, be a gentle push towards a new goal and a great way to find some comrades.

What you need to know about group rides

There are a few things that are essential to group rides: expectations, confidence, communication, and practice.

Picking your group

The first step to riding in a group is to find the right group. There are clubs to join, community centre events or weekly bike shop groups. Look for a group that has a clearly defined purpose. 1)What is the speed - average 25 km/h, 32 km/h, a casual speed that changes from day today? A group ride at 32 will feel way different than 25 and the expectations of the riders around you will be different. 2) Is it no drop? This means that if you fall behind the back of the pack will they wait for you and likewise if someone else gets dropped are you prepared to wait. Most beginner and intermediate rides are no drop - the group takes care of the group but there are plenty of groups that do drop. The riders are really pushing themselves or perhaps have a limited time to train. If you go with a group that drops you could be left behind on a hill, a headwind or with a mechanical failure. You have to be ready to take care of yourself. 3) What’s the goal of the group? Are the riders getting together to just spin their wheels once a week? Is the group working of speed, hills or a skill? Are they working on building up their miles for a charity ride or fondo? Having clear expectations will help everyone enjoy the ride.

Bring some confidence

It does take a little bit of grit to tackle a group ride. You need to be aware of how you ride. You need to be able to maintain a straight line and be comfortable with both braking and other speed adjustment techniques. In a group you will be saving energy by drafting - so take a moment to relax and get in the groove of the group. The other basic skill you need is to be able to ride with one hand off the handlebars. If you aren’t confident taking one hand off to signal you may need a bit more practice before joining a group.

Communicate clearly

Left, right, stop. Left, right, stop.
Group rides use the basic signals all cyclists should know - Left, Right and Stop. When riding in a group you don’t have the clear sightlines of riding solo. Riders behind rely on those in front to let them know about road and safety hazards. It isn’t practical to indicate every small bit of debris on the road, too many signals can make the ride chaotic - as can too much chatter. Keeping your voice down (your essential group communication voice, not your friendly paceline partner conversation voice) except for important events or obstacles will ensure that riders know what is being signaled is important. Some key signals are:
Gravel, debris or uneven pavement. Gravel, debris or uneven pavement.
Pothole, grate or large debris. Pothole, grate or large debris HERE.
Move over to avoid and obstacle. Move over to avoid and obstacle.
Slowing down. Slowing down.
When in doubt - YELL. Some situations happen quickly - you miss the chance to signal in advance or it simply isn’t safe to take a hand off to signal. In all those cases it is better to yell and communicate then cause an incident for the people behind you.

Practice! Practice! More practice!

Riding in a group is typically done in a paceline - a long line of riders where each person takes a turn “pulling” at the front while the others in the back enjoy and recover by saving up to 30 percent of their energy while drafting. The goal is to get nice and close to the person in front of you to ensure you get the maximum draft. This takes time. As you get more confident in groups and as you get to know your group better you will slowly pull closer and closer to the person in front of you. Try to stay as close as a wheel length to take advantage of the draft. Don’t focus too much on the wheel in front of you. Try to look ahead to see what’s coming - you will be able to adjust instead of reacting.
Paceline skills
  1. Do not halfwheel - this means do not overlap your front wheel with the rear wheel of the person in front of you. If they move to the side suddenly you will go down.
  2. Adjusting without braking - hitting the brakes can be disastrous for the riders behind you. Instead to slow down try: sitting up (your body adds wind resistance), soft-pedaling (do a couple of pedal strokes without applying pressure) or feathering (give your brakes a brief gentle squeeze).
  3. Rotating - the paceline works best when everyone has a turn at the front and consequently has a nice long turn in the back to recover. When your turn at the front is through following these steps:
    1. Shoulder check for riders or traffic.
      Signal with a "chicken wing," pull off and quickly move to the back. Signal with a "chicken wing," pull off and quickly move to the back.
    2. Signal with a chicken wing.
    3. Pull forward and to the left. Ease up on pedaling or soft pedal to allow the line to pass and move as quickly as possible to the back - you don’t want to be any closer to traffic than you have. Don’t ease up too much so you can grab on the back without being dropped.
    4. As your turn at the front approaches, make note of the average speed. It is typical for new riders to surge a bit at the front and speed up but this disrupts the line. Maintain the average speed while at the front. If you get tired rotate off.

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