Group Ride Tips
Try these techniques on your next group ride.
Once you get your confidence going in cycling you start to look for the next challenge. You’ve done the work, ate healthy and got plenty of rest. You aren’t ready to race just yet but you figure between what Strava tells you and your riding buddies, the fast group ride is the next logical step. Once you get started, things are going great until they aren’t. People who are less fit than you are leaving you in the dust and you are left scratching your helmet as to what the heck happened? On paper you should be right up there but things aren’t clicking. As Mike Tyson says “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.” The group ride is the ultimate fitness indicator.
Group rides tend to be a polarizing thing. Either people can’t stand them or they are essential to gauging and improving fitness. Lets first be clear, we are talking about the fast group ride and for the most part in large numbers. Let’s leave the friendly social no drop, coffee rides out of this discussion for now. In SoCal there are people that train for group rides. I’ve seen people actually post up when they win the group sprint (not ironically) and there are people that even have coaches for being at the top of group rides. People use them as race practice and a time to experiment. For some of the harder rides, it’s not uncommon to see professionals mixing it up with the weekend warriors. I can see the appeal. It’s free, most people don’t have to commute through nasty traffic, Strava gives you either bragging rights or that slice of humble pie and at least at the start of the ride they are somewhat social.
There are some things that you can do to help you get the most out of that group ride. In racing there is fitness and then there is race IQ. The same applies to group rides. Most people, waste massive amounts of energy and then get frustrated and discouraged on rides that they should be smashing. Keep in mind, this does not involve cheeky or unwelcome behavior such as running red lights or filtering through traffic to make the front of the red light. This is incremental actionable information that keeps you working smarter rather than only relying on fitness.
- STAY NEAR THE FRONTSome group rides can have over one hundred people on the ride. This seems like a no brainer right. People sometimes psych themselves out thinking they don't belong up there. Mix that with a lack of spacial awareness and before you know it you are riding in the back. Riding near the front is not only safer but it keeps you in prime position to watch for attacks, or sudden accelerations. Also once the ride gets hard and everyone gets quiet, you are less likely to be gapped by the people in front of you. Try to do a quick count of the riders in front of you. If that number is greater than ten, move up. Sometimes people psych themselves out say they don’t belong up there. You do. Have faith in your abilities as a rider. Also it helps to know the route!
2. USE THE WATERFALL TECHNIQUE Maybe you can’t climb like Quintana. That’s ok most people can’t either. If you know a section of the ride that is going uphill, get to the front and then as the climbers pick up the pace, ride within your limit and slowly drift back. You’d be surprised you can make it up and over with the group by doing this small technique. If you were in the back of the group at the start of the climb you might be spat out the back and forced to chase on the downhill. I tried this at Sea Otter Classic road race and it worked great. I was able to recover on the descents and stay with the front group. Don’t worry about pulling, wind and drafting can be negligible when you are going less than ten miles per hour.
3. ADVANCE POSITION THROUGH THE GROUP It is inevitable that you see someone moving up on either side of the group ride. They are out of the saddle many times on the left and even crossing the centerline of the lane. Impressive right? They are actually burning a match and in the wind. Crossing that center line is also a major breach of etiquette not to mention being extremely dangerous. It may be a quicker way to the front and if you are meters from the finish, that’s ok (except for the center line part). Instead try moving through the pack. You’d be surprised how much space there can be in a peloton. Towards the rear of the group, there is even more space. It not only helps with your pack riding skills but you are saving more energy not putting yourself out there in the wind. Just move up slowly and methodically, don’t freak out if you touch another riders elbow and don’t push your way through. Think of it like you are water and finding ways to move through a group and use your momentum. People are less likely to notice you and before you know it you are in prime position in the group.
4. TRY TO PEDAL THE WHOLE TIMEYou’d be surprised about how much smoother a group ride can go if you keep pedaling. I’m not talking about smashing on the pedals and I’m not talking about staying in a certain zone. Group rides are notorious for being unpredictable and you have to be able to respond even if you don’t want to or aren’t ready. One way to actually save energy is to keep pedaling even when you are coasting. If you are stuck behind someone who pedals and coasts every 10 seconds, you’ll find yourself doing the same. Instead, if you soft pedal in the parts where you would normally coast, you are more likely to keep your momentum, brake less and respond faster to a surge before any lactic acid can build up in your legs. Also it makes you less likely to fall behind the wheel in front of you. If you can go the whole group ride with your legs moving, consider that a success!
5. RIDE WITH PEOPLE SLIGHTLY BETTER THAN YOUSome group rides have some sort of hierarchy with an A group and a B group and so on. Let’s say you are smashing it in the B’s. It may be good for your confidence but it also may be holding you back. Your goal should always be to challenge yourself and riding with people just a little bit better that you pushes you in ways that you can’t be pushed being the best in your category. Keep in mind though you shouldn’t be riding with people way outside of your ability either. It does you no good to roll out with the fast group only to spend the majority of the ride by yourself. If you ride with people just slightly above your level, it gives you something to shoot for. Remember it’s a TRAINING ride right? Don’t be afraid to keep pushing yourself even if the weekend is your personal Tour De France.
Brian Co is the founder of SoCal Cyclist and runs the SoCal Cyclist Podcast. He is a professional life plate spinner and tries to help the cycling community one cyclist at a time.