Group Ride Math

When I tell you I have a graduate degree in English, I’m not so much stating a fact as a failing. An MFA in poetry suggests that the diplomate can string together a grammatically sensible sentence, true, but more importantly, it lets you know his or her math skills are as hard to find as sea lion unafraid of Great White Sharks.

When I say my math skills are basic, I mean they are as useful as basic cable. My abilities don’t include any of the useful or interesting stuff. As a result, I have to practice. A lot.

I use group rides to work through common problems I encounter at the bank, grocery store and in billing publishers for work I completed weeks or even months ago—in truth, I’m usually not too sure.

Believe it or not, there are lots of essential math problems I’ve brushed up on while sitting in the peloton. Let’s take odd numbers, for example. If I’m in a double-rotating, double paceline and after my pull I go to the back, an even number of riders will ensure that I’ve got company to chat with. An odd number means I’m riding along with ample silence to work through other math problems.

If a group is shrinking, then subtraction is at work. The key here is to assess how I feel. If I feel good, then my number is not likely to come after the minus sign. And if I feel good, then the smart move is to let someone else do the work of shedding the dead wood.

I use logarithms any time I want to do long, slow distance. I’ve learned that for each person who joins an easy ride, the odds that the ride will go faster than Zone 2 increases ten-fold. Two riders plus me means I’m 100 times more likely to go too hard than if I ride by myself.

The associative and distributive properties both taught me that it doesn’t matter who is actually at the front of the ride. The speed of the ride is determined by the fitness of the fastest riders present. They don’t even need to be at the front to make a ride faster. This point is most easily illustrated by having a pro show up for your local training ride. Said pro can sit at the back of the field and enjoy a rest day. Nonetheless, every Cat. 4 present will do the entire ride in Zone 5.

Understanding how to perform a squared function is handy, if depressing. While I can pedal on flat ground for a period of time at 28 mph, my ability to lift my pace to 29 mph depends not on how well I can do math, but on my body’s ability to increase wattage at an exponential rate. It’s like the difference in volume between a car horn and a Who concert. You may think the boat horn in that Hummer is loud, but just wait until the opening power chord of Baba O’Riley. I may be able to sustain 28 for minutes while managing 30 for only seconds. Knowing my exponents can help me keep a leash on my ego; it may roam, but not far.

The most important property I apply to cycling in general, and group rides in specific, comes from fractions. It is the property of the least common denominator. Socially, it gets used to explain all sorts of social ills, like what draws boys to gangs. It’s Darwin for the 21st century.

In my experience, the LCD is a measure of the amount of work the weakest rider will have to muster (kilojoules) to stay with a group. Unlike in societies, the weakest rider does not automatically slow a group down. While some groups may choose to slow to keep everyone together, the fastest groups prefer just to get smaller—the herd is safer if it sheds a member or two periodically.

During those fastest rides I find myself looking around, assessing the look of other riders present. I do a careful calculus (yes, more math!) weighing how that rider has performed in the last three weeks versus how they actually look at that moment. What I want to know is that minimum kilojoule number. It’s like buying a car; the sticker might say $36,000, but if you only need to spend $32,000, why would you spend more?

And ultimately, what I want is a difference, a delta. I want to know that my number is bigger than that other number. So long as I’m strong enough to stay with the lead group, I don’t really need anything more these days. Racing is part of my past; I just want to see the big move go and get home with something left. Whatever keeps the needle from pointing to ‘E’ is called the remainder.

And we know all the terms for what happens when the tank is empty. Bankers don’t understand the term ‘bonk,’ but they know all about overdrawn. I’ve made plenty of entries in training diaries that would have been more accurately described by a number in parentheses. And just as with a bad check, what I spent I owed someone else.

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  1. randomactsofcycling

    My own simple math revolves around four gulps an hour to empty my bidons. Devour a bottle in less than an hour, I’m doing OK (my Polar reminds me to drink every 15 minutes). Conversely if I have water left over it means I’ve got a mouthful of Deda Newton and not the time to drink.

    1. Author

      Randomactsofcycling: The Deda Newton—I’ve never had that one. How’s it taste compared to the fig Newton?

      Dave1949: Wow, thanks. I’m so bad at this stuff it is a relief to know someone thinks I got it right.

      Pope: I always knew I’d wind up a teacher’s cautionary tale.

  2. Gary

    Great post! Love the bit about the speed of the group proportionate to the fitness of the fastest riders present. There was this practice race I used to do in Denver, CO – it was a 5K loop in an office park. This race would attract all kinds, we got riders from the Mercury team (remember them?), lots of super-fast local teams and even Jonathan Vaughters showed up on occasion (decked out in Credit Agricole green and white). Well, if Jonathan showed up, I always knew I was in for it. It’s like everyone was aiming to impress. He would just sit in the pack and let everyone else kill themselves up front but the speed would be dauntingly fast.

    As an aside, Vaughters is skinny!!! I tried “drafting” off of him once; I felt like a grapefruit seeking shelter behind a toothpick…


  3. James

    I used to lament riding by myself all of the time. But now you have shown me that it’s OK to ride alone! Since I’m a math idiot the only figuring I have to do while riding alone is whether or not I’ll make it home or not. Since I have always made it home I don’t really worry about it too much! I’m am now petrified of group rides if I have to bring math into the equation! I can barely add without a calculator!

  4. Norm of Brooklyn

    Nicely summed!

    I’m into drumming and always thinking about rhythm. Getting through tough climbs, intervals, etc. I sometimes distract myself from the pain (or boredom, if just working on my pedalstroke) by laying a syncopated beat over my cadence –helps keep it even and interesting to boot.

    1. Author

      Norm: We would have a lot to talk about my friend. I was a drummer for many years. My problem is that when I start thinking about rhythms, I start pedaling boxes. But I do love thinking about the syncopated rhythms of the different pedals strokes, or the interplay of my heart with my pedal stroke.

      Lachlan: It’s such a relief to know that I’m not the only guy who doesn’t have the good sense to back down before blowing like Bastille Day fireworks. The funny part is when I pull off in what I think is early enough to allow me to get back in, only to discover otherwise.

  5. Lachlan

    haha, “will do the entire ride in zone 5.” Yep.
    I especially love when a chain gang gets to the point where all the older/slower/part-time riders, myself included, start doing their turns at the front at 110% until they blow, then peel off and get dropped like a stone never to be seen again :o)

  6. Neil Browne

    As a fellow English degree graduate I also know the frustration of carrying the one into the ten’s column. For whatever reason I have mastered the math of a group ride. Great post!

  7. dacrizzow

    now i don’t feel alone. BTW my wife’s group ride math is for every person besides myself on the ride will add 30 minutes to the time i said i would be home.

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  9. Norm of Brooklyn

    Hey Padraig –interesting about the drum beats creating boxed pedal strokes. Perhaps using brushes, instead of sticks, would help round the stroke?

  10. Janet D.

    The Catholic school mentions, the monk-like solitary hours in the saddle, now the beauty of poetry taken to extraordinary levels with the admission of the MFA – Padraig you are clearly on a quest for God! It’s OK, it’s a good ride!

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