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The Noob’s Guide to the First Group/Club Ride: What To Do If You Drop Off the Back

Cycling with a group for the first time can be intimidating.  If you’re clumsy on a bike it can be down-right scary (and it should be).  Not only do you have to keep up to take advantage of the draft, you’ve got traffic and the route (that you probably won’t know) to deal with.  For most, starting with a no-drop, slow group is advisable.

My first club ride was different, it was a baptism by fire.  Zero knowledge of the route.  I’d never really ridden with another cyclist, let alone a group of them (a group of four or five friends did a couple of Olympic length Tri’s together but that was just for fun and there’s no drafting anyway).  I had no idea if I was fast enough or not…and did I mention that I had no clue about where I was cycling (or how to get back if I got lost)?  Oh, and this was with the advanced, everybody gets dropped group.  Pretty much the worst case scenario.

Now, before you get to thinking, “man, he’s stupid” – a sentiment I’d have agreed with waiting in line to start, I was invited to join the group by the owner of our local bike shop.  I’d passed his shop countless times on my daily training rides and had talked with him about my average speed solo amongst other cycling intricacies – so I took him on his word that I was ready.

So there I was at the starting line – April 4th, 2012.  I had my iPhone with the Endomondo tracking app (in my back pocket), two bottles of water and my bike, riding with a group of 20-30 guys (and a few girls) that I’d never even met before, and Matt (the aforementioned owner of the local shop).  We started out easy enough, maybe 19 mph and my confidence was buoyed…  I could hold that all day.  Then we hit the second mile and things picked up.  By the fifth mile we were upwards of 22 mph and I was hanging on okay and took my turns at the front.  On the seventh mile we were up to 25 and then they put the hammer down, up to 28 on the flat (that’s 45 km/h) and I was off the back.

Worst case scenario.  Off the back and I’ve got no clue where I am.

First, even though I was only eight miles in, turning around and heading back would have done me no good.  I had absolutely no idea how to retrace my path.  Second, I could have pulled out my phone and started looking for a way back but I really wanted to finish my ride.  In my world you don’t show up for a 33 mile ride and cut that in half.  What I did instead was not panic.  There were only twelve cyclists left when I peeled off the back – out of somewhere between 20&30 that started.  This is the best lesson I learned on my first group ride – don’t be the first off the back.

I could have slowed way down and waited for some of the others to catch up, that’s an option.  Instead, I saw another rider drop off just ahead of me, maybe a half-mile up.  I wanted to ride with someone at least as fast as me so I caught my breath (figuring the other guy would have to as well) and started hammering to catch him.  It took a mile or two but I reeled him in and we rode in together.

If you’re in a no-drop group then you won’t have to worry, either someone will help you back or they’ll fall back and ride with you but when you’re out with the big dogs, it’s every man, woman or child for themselves.  If you’re the first off the back and you don’t know where you are, it’s best to have a GPS tracking system on so you can either retrace your path back or find another way.

Happy cycling!