Spring is upon us! The days are getting longer, the flowers are blooming and the weather is getting nicer by the day. That means it’s time to tune up the legs on some club rides! Cycling teams, clubs, and bicycles shops typically start their season of club rides sometime around March, though many here in Colorado run year round, weather permitting. Club rides are typically held once weekly and they are excellent opportunities to socialize with other cyclists, test your fitness level against members of local teams and have a great time riding. Club rides also provide the opportunity to discover new routes, learn new techniques, see new gear and improve bike handling skills.
Joining a club ride can be a little scary. If you’re a beginner you might be afraid that your fitness level won’t be up to par or that you won’t be able to handle your bike around others. Experienced cyclists might shy away from group rides because they doubt they have anything to gain from the experience or perhaps feel too far separated from the shared cycling culture to be had there.
When a friend dragged me to my first group ride I fit into the second category. Or so I thought, over the following summer of club rides I learned a ton about riding my bike, honed my skills and improved my fitness level massively. Once I got out and tried riding with a group I was hooked.
For me, club rides are synonymous with training. For the most part, I choose club rides that are racing-oriented with fast pace riding, a tight group and plenty of challenging accelerations. That said, I have also spent some good time in a fixie club that focused on racing from brewery to brewery on track bikes. My point is, there’s a club ride for everyone. You just have to know what to look for.
Type of Ride
To start, you definitely want to know whether it’s a road ride, mountain bike ride, fixie ride, etc… From there you have to tease out the nuance. Within the realm of road cycling alone, there is quite a bit you need to be aware of.
First off, do you want a training ride or a social ride?
A training ride is going to be all about speed and riding skills. You’ll be expected to ride in a paceline, your front wheel 6 inches or so off the person in front of you. You should plan on taking ZERO breaks. If the training ride is 50 miles, plan on pedaling all 50 miles without stepping off the bike.
A social ride is going to be much less rigidly conducted, though not in all cases a whole lot slower. Social rides might route through more scenic areas, they often include a stop or two and sometimes even a coffee or food break.
I always like to look at a rides route before I join. Do they ride a lot on two-lane highways, or are they mostly on paths? Another consideration is that many “road” rides now include dirt or gravel sections. This can be an unwelcome surprise to some, showing up to a ride that has 20 miles of dirt with 23mm road tires sucks, so it’s worth checking.
Another thing to check on is the elevation profile. I once joined a club ride in the Boulder area when visiting a buddy, we thought it would be a fairly relaxed ride given the stated pace. Turns out that the ride was almost entirely climbing and holding with the group was brutal. With Strava and other cycling forums today most club rides post the route so it’s easy to see an elevation profile and know what you’re getting into.
Speed & Ability
Speed is the most important thing to look at when finding the right club ride for you. Usually, rides will state what average speed the riders are expected to maintain. Typically average speed ranges are; beginner 12-14 mph, intermediate 14-17 mph, advanced/race-pace will be 18mph+. If an exact average speed isn’t listed, sometimes rides simply state they are for beginners/fun/fast/advanced, guestimate based on the categories above. If it’s a fun ride, you should probably expect the ride to be slower, if the description says race-pace, you should expect to be riding fast.
Many cyclists overestimate their average speed. It’s important to be honest with yourself. If you ride a flat path, take a break every 10 miles and hit an 18 mph moving average speed, you do not belong in an 18 mph group ride. I’ve known cyclists who swore to me they have 20 mph average speeds when riding on their own, who got dropped off the back of 16 mph club rides in the first 10 miles after suffering a half-hour of suffering.
When you add in hills and take no breaks maintaining a high average speed gets a lot more difficult. Be realistic and the ride will be much more enjoyable.
Some club rides are no-drop; the fastest cyclists in the group will be asked to control their speed to keep slower riders from dropping off the back of the group. On other rides, cyclists of different abilities might break up into several groups as the pace naturally splits them up. There may or may not be designated places to regroup along the route.
Then there are rides where everyone is out for themselves, to the extent that the goal of the fastest rider is to break the group and separate themselves off the front. The rides can be very similar to racing. On these rides, it is possible for slower riders to get abandoned entirely so that they have to complete the ride on their own.
I’ve been on club ride where slower riders have been dropped in the first 100 yards. These rides can be great for training, but not so great for socializing or seeing the friendlier side of fellow cyclists. If you want to make sure you won’t be out on the road pedaling alone during your “group ride” look for rides that state they are “no drop.” If you’re ok with getting dropped, make sure you know the route or at least how to get home or back to your car.
Depending on where you live, there might be a lot of group rides to choose from so you can get picky. There are club rides for women, seniors, masters, youth, fat tire bikes, fixies, beer drinkers, etc…
Most group rides will require you to wear a helmet, for insurance reasons, so if you want to be part of the group bring one.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Not sure what you should wear, what kind of bike will be best, where you’ll be riding, etc… Just ask the ride organizer.
Have fun. Whether it’s a race-pace ride or a social ride, there’s no reason to stress out about riding with others. If you get dropped, who cares, huck it home at your own pace and don’t worry about it.
As cycling continues to grow in popularity, there are more options for club rides than ever. I highly recommend you check a couple rides in your area out. You might be surprised to discover that you enjoy riding with other cyclists and learn something in the process.