Why That Club Ride Felt So Difficult

Here’s a question that popped up in my inbox regarding club rides:

“I use a computer on my rides and I have a pretty good idea of what my average speed is when riding. I joined a club ride with the same stated average pace and it kicked my ass. I was dropped at mile 5. What the hell happened?”

Holding a Steady Pace is Hard

Holding a steady pace sucks
Holding a steady pace sucks

Above is a picture of my pace over a recent 16-mile ride. You can see that, although I maintained a respectable average speed of 18.8mph, my speed was all over the place.

We all have our own patterns of highs and lows when riding. When you ride alone, you can make the best of the time you feel great and coast when you feel beat up. If your butt is tired you can stand up and take it easy. If you need a drink you can let up the heat for a minute, catch your breath and gulp away.

Then once you’re good to go you give it 110% for a few minutes. Herein lies the rub.

When you’re riding in the midst of the club ride paceline such niceties do not exist. Need a drink? Suck it up and learn how to drink while pedaling. Need a break? Too bad, you’re dropped. The club ride will proceed at the stated pace regardless of how your butt feels.

The rhythm can be tough. Riding 16mph half the time and 20mph the other half feels a lot different than riding 18mph straight through.

There’s No Rest for the Weary

Be honest with yourself, when’s the last time you went out for a ride, maintained a decent pace and didn’t get off the bike once? When we ride by ourselves or casually with a friend or two, we tend to take breaks. Tired, need some food or a coffee? We get off the bike, walk around, eat a snack, and snap a photo for Instagram.

Most modern cycling computers calculate moving (as in time stopped doesn’t count against it) average speed, not average speed for the entire duration of the ride. This is an important distinction.

On club ride, there are no breaks (usually). A 40-mile training ride means you’re going to be sitting on your saddle, clipped into your pedals for 40 miles without stopping. That’s a whole different ballgame than a 40-mile ride with two 10 minute, off the bike breaks.

The Route and Terrain Are Different

I once went on a “road cycling” club ride that unbeknownst to me included a 15-mile dirt section with about 2,500 feet of climbing. The combination of not being on the pavement and the absurd elevation gain just about sent me to the hospital. Needless to say, route and terrain matter. Holding 16mph over a steep climb on dirt roads is a whole hell of a lot more difficult than holding 20mph on flat pavement.

To Thine Own Self Be True

People overestimate their skills and abilities, even in light of factual data painting a different picture. It’s human nature. It follows, that we also tend to be overly optimistic about our average cycling speed. Even when given concrete evidence of average speed with a cycle computer, most cyclists will cherry pick their best and pick a club ride from that. Worse, many will think “Oh, I can do 17mph on my own, I bet I can up my game and hang with the 18mph group no problem!”

If you choose the best ride from which to determine your average pace and then choose a club ride based off of it, you’re in for a bad time. The truth hurts.

Honestly, though, this is a mistake most cyclist probably have to live through once. Getting a little ego check can only make you a better cyclist. As long as you have the spine to keep riding and not simply hang up the bike altogether. All it takes is hanging off the back of a few mind-altering, tunnel vision, tasting metal on your tongue club rides before your aspirational average speed becomes your actual average speed.

Repeat with me: “There is no shame in getting dropped.” Get dropped early and by a large margin? Drop to a slower group next weekend. Get dropped in the last miles? Keep training and come back weekend after weekend until you’re the one leading the pace.