Sunday, October 20, 2013

Musings about Group Riding

I'm back, that is, I never really left. Blogging is therapeutic, but it takes time, and I've opted to ride, work and nap for the past couple years. After a while, a sense of redundancy starts to set in when you're just posting more photos of one of the most beautiful places on earth and one that presents seemingly endless opportunities for challenging rides. I earned the "Most Miles" award in a statewide (self-reported) bike challenge last year, and this year, with the challenge lasting from May through September, earned "Most Miles" and "Most Points" (the latter being perhaps the most useless piece of paper ever to avoid a recycling bin). These are beautiful awards, printing on a monochrome laser printer on generic certificate paper, fitted to the best $4 frames Walmart has to offer. Yes, a highly coveted award, to be sure. I rode just over 10,000 miles last year, and am coming up on 9,000 already this year. With the warmer winters and better cold riding gear, I'm commuting year-round. In fact, I haven't bothered to fix my truck, which broke down towards the end of last January. So, even though I've not been blogging, I've been riding more than ever. On to the musings.


A member of the Green Mountain Bicycle Club emailed a link to an article titled “The Lost Art of the Group Ride,” ( by Peter Wilbourn. I had read this article before, but it struck me that it was exactly the loss of this art that had subtly driven me away from organized rides this year. These words are my musings on why this occurred.

I ride a lot, but this year I found myself staying away from group rides and choosing to head out myself or riding privately with my wife on our tandem, instead of making the extra effort to meet up with one of the many GMBC rides. At first I didn't realize I was tending to steer clear of group rides, but after a while it became obvious. I think the primary reason arose from an incident on an early season group GMBC Saturday ride when, on a beautiful spring day, a rider who I knew well was bumped just hard enough by another cyclist to skip over the edge of the pavement, resulting in his going down hard enough to snap his clavicle. I had been directly behind him when he crashed and had stopped just short of his body in the road. As it turned out, I was the person on the group best suited to retrieve the rider's vehicle, pick him up at the hospital and take him home, as I had ridden, not driven to the ride start.

As we were chatting on the long ride to his home, he mentioned how he had planned to just go out on a nice ride by himself, but saw the club email and thought it would be fun to ride with a group again, and how he wished that he had just done the ride he had initially planned. This really stuck in my mind. I've been in lots of group rides and have witnessed plenty of crashes. Some have been downright funny, as when a rider went off the road on a descent for no apparent reason, rolled in the weeds and came up unhurt, spitting leaves. Others have just made me feel sick. Almost all of them could have been easily avoided, but one is not surprised when crashes occur in cycling. Still, this one stuck in my mind, and I found myself subconsciously finding reasons to ride by myself most of the season.

It's not really that I'm afraid of falling. If I was, I wouldn't commute in the winter. I tend to think anyone who regularly rides on the road has a healthy sense of bravery, or is a fool; I'm not sure which applies to me, since there are few people in Vermont who accumulate more road miles in a year than I. I do get pretty attached to my bikes though, and the classic steel bikes I like to ride are special to me and difficult or impossible to replace. Like the article states, there was a time when you needed to earn your way into a group ride, and it took a little bit of time (and the purchase of a set of wool shorts and jersey) for me to be accepted into the premiere local training ride in 1972 after purchasing my first real racing bike. A couple of months later, still a green 16-year old, I hadn't paid close enough attention to the ride briefing and attempted to continue straight on the regular route, while the bunch banked right all around me. I was bumped by a top rider and went down. I was banged up, but otherwise unhurt, but my beautiful new Schwinn Paramount wore a sickeningly deep dent in its paper-thin Reynolds 531 top tube. If I were a racer today, I'd be riding some plastic Giant, Specialized or Cannondale and I wouldn't care, but I'd really hate to see that happen to one of my classic, hand-made, steel frames.

Fast forward to the past decade when I was on a very large charity ride. It's typical in the caterpillar action of groups of riders of mixed ability and experience to find yourself a little too close to the wheel of the rider ahead, especially on the undulating roads of Vermont. (It's amazing to me how many riders blast along at 24 mph on the flats, yet slow way, way down on even light to moderate hills.) I was just thinking that I was getting too close to the guy ahead when he stood out of the saddle, throwing the bike back far enough that we crossed wheels and, as almost always happens when wheels touch that way, down I went. I am blessed with tough bones and I was merely banged up a bit, and my '74 Raleigh Pro was unscathed, but a female rider behind me hadn't been able to stop and she was a lot less lucky. I still have a sick feeling when I think about her having to suffer from a broken shoulder because I didn't read the group properly and give that extra bit of clearance that can make all the difference.

It's a real joy to ride in a group where everyone is a smooth, experienced rider. It's as if you are all connected by an invisible rope, a veritable train, accelerating and decelerating in unison. Insert even a single newbie and things usually change dramatically. Mr. Wilborn's article sums up much that can go wrong, but the effect is that the group not only becomes obnoxious and dangerous—it's just not fun anymore. You have to spend too much mental energy trying to smooth out the inchworm effect when you're anywhere behind the inexperienced riders. The first half of the ride can wipe you out as the group accelerates every time a newbie takes a pull, at least until he tires (often dropping off the back of the pack). Sure, we've all had times when we can't or don't want to hang onto a fast pace, and there is a real fitness benefit to riding with those faster than you, but it's a lot easier to stay with a fast group for a longer period of time when they are all riding as a peleton should. Group riding, especially in general club rides, is supposed to help you conserve energy so you can all go faster, not blow half the pack away.

I'm not going to imply that I'm some kind of fantastic rider who is a full wineglass on wheels, but I have been building my group riding skills for well over 40 years, and I think I've gotten pretty good at it. I feel a slight sense of personal failure when I have to use the brakes while the pack should be cruising along at a steady pace, but this can become unavoidable when shenanigans are going on in the front. I find myself trying to accelerate just a bit more slowly when a gap telegraphs back through the bunch, trying to read the terrain ahead so that I can close the break with a minimal change in speed, in order to buffer the disruption and protect the group behind as much as I can. When a small climb approaches, I hang back a little, to provide some slack to move into as the riders ahead slow, while providing a little extra room, should someone throw his bike back, suddenly. Even when I'm riding solo, I find myself trying to be especially smooth when getting out of the saddle, so that the speed of my bike remains constant through the action. I get a bit weary, though, of being the only one who seems to be trying to smooth out dysfunctional group dynamics.

It's so rare these days that one finds themselves in a smooth group when joining a random, open invitation ride. While it's a great opportunity for new riders to learn the mechanics and etiquette of pack riding, and a fantastic way to increase your own condition and skill, it can seem like too much effort and too much risk when you just want to go out for a nice ride. The problem is, people are not going to gain skill without good examples and practice, and it doesn't help when experienced riders are not there to provide guidance. With the majority of new cyclists showing up for club rides being male, and the inevitable, egotistic desire to be viewed as an expert after two years of riding a $7,000 bike, it is the natural desire of these folks to be seen as the teacher, rather than to seek wisdom. One tires of trying to make headway against this kind of attitude. I don't know if there's a true solution to this, but I suspect there are a lot of experienced riders who pretty much only ride with a select group of friends or by themselves, and I sure don't blame them.