Even though the vast majority of triathlons still prohibit ‘drafting’ (using the riders in front of and around you to block the wind), learning how to ride within a group provides valuable and essential skills for every triathlete. By riding with other cyclists you’ll develop better awareness and handling skills on the bike, making you an all-around safer rider. A strong group can also help you make physiological breakthroughs by challenging your mental and physical limits. Also, group rides are just fun. Here are some tips on how to take advantage of the group rides in your area.
It can be intimidating to approach a new group ride, or even to pick which ride to join; if it’s too fast, you might end up 40 miles from home in the grips of a major bonk; too slow, and you’ll feel antsy or bored while missing the opportunity for a quality workout. It may take some time to explore your options and decide which groups and rides are the best match for you. Local bike shops are usually the best place to learn about group rides in your area. Chat with an employee and be sure to mention your experience and fitness level. You might find rides that even start and end from the shop. Some towns also have websites that post the ‘standing’ rides that take place in the area each week. Check Google (“group rides in your town”) or Strava to find a ride that fits your schedule and ability.
Organized group rides typically try to maintain a certain average pace. However, keep in mind that this speed can vary depending on weather, terrain, and the aggressiveness of the ride. As a general rule of thumb, look for a group that averages about 2mph faster than your ‘Zone 2’ pace, or the speed you can sustain with a comfortable, aerobic effort.
Joining a group ride can be a great way to explore new training roads. However, be sure to look over the planned route on a map, or bring a GPS unit or smartphone along in case you fall behind. You may even want to print out a ‘cue card’ for the ride, with notes about all the roads, turns, and distances along the way.
While most rides are meant to be steady and evenly paced (even the fast ones), some are intended to be ridden like a cycling road race – with attacks, surges, breakaways, and a general lack of mercy. Find out beforehand what kind of ride you’re joining, and if it’s labeled ‘race simulation’, don’t show up with tired legs. And if the ride is meant to be steady, don’t turn it into a race; you won’t make any friends by attacking the hills on a casual spin.
If you have a road bike, use it for all of your group rides. If you don’t have one, ask one of the other riders if it’s alright to join them on your TT bike. Make sure to stay out of your aerobars any time you are riding near other cyclists; instead, keep your hands on the basebar, where it’s easier to steer and brake.
Though it may feel reckless and mentally demanding at first, try to keep your front wheel within 1 foot of the rear wheel in front of you. This allows you to take full advantage of the drafting effect, and it helps keep the group together. Keep your eyes on the road ahead and pay attention to elevation changes and wind, which can quickly alter the speed of the riders ahead, and make adjustments accordingly.
Your visibility will be somewhat limited by the other riders around you, especially when you’re riding towards the back of a group. It can also be difficult to hear with the wind in your ears. Fortunately, hand signals (the same ones you learned in Driver’s Ed and thought you’d never use) can used to point out turns and road hazards. Make sure to point out turns, road hazards (such as potholes, gravel, and roadkill), and stop signs. A lot of new riders fret over which patches of gravel merit a ‘warning’, but when in doubt, call it out.
In addition to the physiological benefits and speed advantages group rides provide, they can serve as social meetups and networking events. Smile, introduce yourself, and don’t be shy – you’re all wearing spandex anyways. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how welcoming even the most competitive cyclists can be. I’ve seen friendships emerge between strangers as they struggle up perilous inclines in the pouring rain, and watched new business partnerships form through a sweaty, Gu stained handshake. I’ve even discerned budding romance on a ride, evidenced by flirtatious giggles between snot rockets and well-aimed spittle. There’s no telling who you’ll meet on a bike.
Will Krakow is a mathematician with a writing problem from Chapel Hill, NC. He qualified for the 2017 70.3 World Championships (but gave up his spot to attend Oktoberfest), owns a 12:09 beer mile PR, and has won the local group ride sprint exactly one time. In his spare time, he enjoys long runs on the beach and candlelit trainer sessions.