When I was around 11 years old, I was out cycling in the middle of nowhere outside of the city, when all of a sudden, a large group of adult cyclists went past me. They looked cool, so I sped up to join in, which wasn’t a conscious decision, but instead just something that seemed right. I had no knowledge of group rides, how they can help protect you from the wind and thus go faster with less effort, or indeed the fact that people will actually talk to you. Instead, it just looked cool, and after I realised I could just about keep up, I decided I’d try to keep up for as long as I could.
This clearly took the group by surprise, not least because I was pretty small as a kid and they probably thought I was 8. And here was this tiny kid trying his best to keep up with these regular cyclists – well, they may not have thought much of me at the time, but they did allow me into the group for a short while and made me feel welcome. After a while, I realised I’d gone further than I’d originally intended going, so dropped out and came home. But the one thing I knew from that day on was that I wanted to ride in a group ride with other road cyclists.
That has now finally happened.
I spotted a group ride about a year ago when I was out running. They flew past me while I was training for the New York Marathon, and I noticed that a large number of them were riding Cervélo bikes, so figured they must be fairly useful, or alternatively they all had too much money. But I assumed the former. I figured out who they were and decided I’d try to join in on one of their rides.
This year has been pretty difficult trying to find the time to make that happen. The wife works every 2nd Saturday so that’s 50% of them out of the window already. On the ones she’s not working, there’s always been something to prevent me getting out on a group ride, and most of the time it’s stuff that is suddenly landed on me at short notice. This time, it was getting the fringe cut for one of our daughters. “Not this time”, I said. I was going out on my bike, and she’d have to wait 4 days. I’d waited all year.
Riding in a group was certainly a good experience. I’d checked out the group that I went to join beforehand, by looking at recent runs on Strava. They did three different runs, with the fastest out first, then a slower one. That’s all I could see, but it turned out there was an even slower one behind that. From looking at Strava, the fast one looked good for me, as they average from 16.5mph to 17.5mph. I might struggle to keep up towards the end if they average 17.5, but I thought that was preferable to the run behind it which seems to average less than 15mph.
When I turned up, however, it became clear that the first, fastest run was out of bounds for a first timer. Not to worry, I thought, not the end of the world. “How fast does the second run go at?”, I asked. “Averages about 18mph” I was told by the organiser. Really, I thought? That’s not what Strava told me. Still, I was willing to see what happened, so set off with the 2nd group, sticking to the back to see what happened.
There’s a range of different signals and shouts that people do on group rides. Due to the fact that the group is regularly bunched up, they tend to point out potholes to each other to give you a heads-up rather than clattering into them. This generally meant merely pointing to the ground. Fair enough. Then there was the shouts of “nose!” and “tail!” which meant there was a car coming towards us from either the front or the rear. This was more useful when on back roads which were thin and cars needed to squeeze past. Then there were signs where people put their arms behind their back and pointed left or right. This meant there was an obstruction coming up, such as a parked car or pedestrian on the road. This was very useful.
Once out on the road, I prepared myself for needing to get up to in excess of 20mph for cruising speed since they were going to average 18mph. This never happened. At first, I thought it was just because we were still inside the city, but once outside, it didn’t speed up. It didn’t take long before I was at the head of the group taking on the headwinds for the pack because it was becoming clear that 18mph was actually their average cruising speed, not their average speed. It’s a huge difference. If you average 18mph, then you are cruising well over 20mph because you clearly will have to slow down a lot for various reasons.
Going uphill was another surprise. I’ve generally compared myself to other riders on Strava, and although I have some KOMs, they tend to be flat segments where you’re hitting 30mph for the majority of the time, rather than up hills, and I figured I needed to do a lot of training to get to the point of being able to keep up with group rides. In actual fact, this also was not the case. I cruised up the hills passing the majority of other riders. I even managed to suffer a mechanical, had to stop to fix it, and then still made it to the top of the hill before some of the others.
Therefore, it was a comfortable ride from start to finish. My backside and lower back are getting more used to doing rides of 40+ miles, which wasn’t the case until recently, which is a major bonus as I have a big ride coming up in 6 weeks.