Cycling in a group of experienced cyclists, especially with those who race often, is something to behold. It’s not always perfect but there’s a certain flow to it where, if you can find the proper distance behind the person In front of you, the group will darn-near pull you down the road. At the very least, you’ll be cruising a lot faster than you would be able to ride under solo conditions. Where this can get messy is when an inexperienced cyclist is introduced to the mix. I’ve seen the result firsthand and can say it would be comical, if it weren’t so dangerous, to watch a group of people working together with a common goal, go from a machine to a mishmash of solo guys just trying to get down the road without hitting the asphalt… When you consider, at 25 mph, you’re traveling better than 36 feet (about 12 meters) in a second, a lot can go wrong when you’ve only got a few inches to a foot between your front wheel and the person in front of you. I can tell you, my hands were just a little sweaty my first few times riding with the big dogs.
The other day while my wife and I were out riding with my buddies Mike and Brad, Mike and I got to talking a bit about riding in our club, about missing the road bikes. We’re pretty much relegated to the mountain bikes lately and at the speeds we’re traveling, drafting simply doesn’t make any sense so we have a good chance to ride side-by-side and really talk. It turns out Mike has a little bit of fear about riding with the main group (I, of course, figured I was the only one) and it sounded like his was much deeper than mine, the way he described it.
I’ve often struggled with how to work the fear involved in group cycling into a post but there are too many heads on that Hydra, especially for noobs. Fear of not hydrating properly (done it), fear of bonking or not fueling properly (been there too), fear of getting lost (yup), fear of crashing and being left in a ditch (not this one), fear of getting dropped way out in the middle of nowhere (indeed I have been) and the fear of the massive crash (not me but a few of my friends have experienced this).
There’s really only one night a week that we’re dealing with speeds in excess of 25 mph for an extended period of time and, honestly, that’s the only ride I get nervous in anymore because we’ve got a big group and we get a rookie or someone who has been riding for a time but is simply horrible on their bike who shows up from time to time. Still, I can’t deny, flying down the road like that can be spooky when you take into account the ramifications of even a small mechanical problem (a chain breaking for example).
I don’t know of any hard and fast rules on this but there are a few things I do to keep from getting the willies when we mount up.
First, I am a firm believer in keeping tabs on the thoughts that blow through my gray matter between my ears. Every now and again, a thought breezes in between my ears and I realize just how hurt I could get if there was a crash, I have to push those thoughts out of my head immediately. Honestly, I simply refuse to think about it. If I entertained those thoughts, hell I don’t know how I could keep from driving myself nuts.
Second, when I decided I wanted to try riding with the club I went next-level to get ready for it. I practiced holding a line on the white line on the side of the road for a month and I became comfortable with doing so while I was tired out. Early on I’d watch guys start making mistakes as they became tired. Holding a poor line, weaving, braking too hard… On one of my first organized rides with a few of the guys from the club, we picked up a horse who would sit at the front for miles at a time. He was awesome for exactly 75 miles of that century until he petered out. First, he almost took me out, then he did take my buddy Phill out at a rest stop in a parking lot – he was too tired to brake properly and his cleat slipped on the asphalt… he ran right into Phill’s rear wheel and taco’ed it. Folks, I learned an excellent lesson right there in that parking lot… Watch for people getting too tired to cycle well and either drop them or stay back so if they mess up, you make sure you’ve got an out at all times.
Third, I learned (at the suggestion of one of our most experienced cyclists) how to look ahead several riders instead of concentrating on the back wheel directly in front of me. Eventually I learned how to judge where I was in relation to the next wheel just by the cyclist in front of me, not his wheel.
Fourth, I know who I’m riding with. No, I don’t know the names of all of the guys I ride with, there’s upwards of 40 in the height of the season on a nice night, but I know almost everyone’s bike. The guy on the Fuji (Greg, a Cat 3), S-Works Tarmac (McMike) and so forth. If I see a bike I don’t know, I pay a little more attention to that rider at the beginning of the ride. How do they handle their bike, can they ride in a straight line, etc. I also look at the shape of their bike, if the drivetrain is dirty or worse, the bike is squeaky, I know to keep a sharp eye on them and to keep my distance. We who put in the hard work to get fast and ride well respect our machines. Those who don’t, won’t, and if they don’t respect their investment chances are they won’t respect those around them either. I mentioned earlier that a broken chain can cause an accident. In fact I have a friend who stopped his bicycle at 20 mph with his face because a guy’s chain broke in front of him… well, a dirty drivetrain puts additional stress on that chain, right? If someone can’t even take the time to clean up their bike, what’s the chance he’s going to go to the trouble of checking the chain for wear and changing it when necessary? If they won’t clean the cassette, how are they going to see that the teeth are worn? Ladies and gentlemen, these things may not be a big deal when you’re talking about the Saturday afternoon Ice Cream Social where the mood is light and the tempo is easy. When you’re going to be pushing 30, noticing these things can save your life.
Finally, I look at the statistical chance of getting crashed. Over the last ten to fifteen thousand miles we’ve ridden together we haven’t had one crash. We’ve had plenty of near misses but no actual wrecks. In the vast majority of the miles I ride with other folks, I ride with good, experienced cyclists (and now I am one of them). Those experienced cyclists know when to put the hammer down to drop a wayward cyclist if they present a clear danger to the group. This may seem a little rude, hell it is, but when you get to the level where you’re north of 20 mph all of the time, you have to have a certain desire to not back down, to stick it out. Well, sometimes the group decides that they’ll find out if you’re really fit enough to stick around by taking the pace up to 30 mph. It is what it is.
Preparation will go a long way to easing one’s fears. From there, riding with competent cyclists and looking out for the new people in the group will all but eliminate most fear. Every once in a while though, you simply have to deal with a stray thought… or pick a slower, more comfortable group to ride with. Whatever puts a smile on your face and keeps you fit, it’s all good. Think ahead, learn to ride smart and well, pay attention, eat your Wheaties, and say a quick prayer if you’re so inclined. Then hope for the best.
Oh, and watch the sprint finish.
On the bright side, keeping my fear in check helps me to enjoy one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of pushing the pedals. The fast group is just no place for a nervous person, to borrow a phrase from Mickey Redmond.
Or choose a slower ride.