The Group Dynamic

“So I have this friend who might like to join the ride,” he said.

This is the sort of thing I hear regularly, and I always say, “All are welcome”

“Yeah, well, the thing is, he doesn’t have a road bike. He has sort of a hybrid-y, commuter thing he rides, but he’s pretty strong, and I just didn’t know whether you thought that was a bad idea or not.”

And I said, “All are welcome. If he can hang, he can hang.”

I haven’t been organizing this particular ride very long, maybe six months. We started as three, all dads from my kids’ school, lighting out at 6 a.m. on Saturdays., riding 40-60 miles, and trying to be home before the cartoons end and the coffee goes cold.

In the beginning it was very straight forward. The three of us were pretty equal and very laid back. We talked a lot and rode not very hard, except when we felt like it. You can imagine that this sort of thing is very appealing to men of a certain age, passionate enough to get out of bed at 6 a.m., but daddy-tired after a long week. In short order there were four of us, then five, then seven.

Very quickly a group ride takes on a culture and tone, and mostly guys know well enough to invite only those who are looking for that sort of a ride. Mostly.

What I learned a long time ago, from organizing group rides and pick up soccer games, is that you can’t try to control the group dynamic. Any attempt to mold and shape such a thing invariably leads to failure, frustration and less fun. Rather, these things have a very Darwinian arc, constantly evolving, adapting and producing newer, better groups. Mostly.

So this guys shows up on his commuter bike. Flat bars. Fenders. One inch tires. And we roll out from the coffee shop, and he’s hanging in just fine, but then it’s early. The group is rolling pretty hard. Maybe a few are testing the guy, seeing if he’s serious and if he’s going to make it.

It’s not until the hills come about 20 miles in that he starts to drop off the back. I go back and pace him a bit, give him some advice about climbing at his own pace, getting back on on the descents, following wheels as much as possible. He’s a nice guy. He’s listening. He’s suffering. I respect that.

He doesn’t fit in at all. We’re all in lycra with tippy-tappy shoes. We’re on race horses. He’s wearing baggies, like a mountain biker, and his bike is, at best, a trail pony. But I don’t like to tell people they can’t ride with us. I like to let them decide. Is it too hard for him? Is being paced back to the group and told how to ride embarrassing? Does he feel out of place? These are not my questions to answer. They’re his.

My job is to give him enough information to make an informed decision, and while I don’t really love dropping back on every incline to drag guys back into the fold, there is something rewarding about it. I’m repaying the guys who let me ride their wheels, who told me not to overlap wheels and taught me how to up-shift before climbing out of the saddle. This is the group dynamic. Circle of life. Hakuna Matata.

I try to see it this way: If I ride hard, on the front, I will enjoy myself. If I’m not strong, and I follow wheels, I will enjoy myself. And, if I play sweeper, and dangle off the back to keep the dots connected, I will enjoy myself. Even though I organize it, the ride is not mine. It belongs to the group. We’re better when we ride together, and it’s very gratifying to see new guys come in and integrate themselves, have fun. It’s one more smiling face, at the coffee shop, at 6 a.m.

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15 comments

  1. Nelson

    Great article. I’ve been both of those riders. I’ve sucked wind and wheel, but now I’m strong enough to pace people back (When needed) on our group rides. That is what I thing about when I have the opportunity to help someone in our group. weather its changing a flat, gearing suggestions or just giving someone a GU when they are getting ready to bonk I remember that someone helped me when I first started and giving back is a great feeling.

  2. Rod Diaz

    My cycling club had a weekly ride like that – then it started getting out of hand. Too many different levels of ability, group too large and unwieldy, different objectives (some trying to get a good controlled group ride, others felt it was the weekly world championship). This lead to crashes, frayed nerves, and flaring tempers.

    Long story short, a group of these riders split from the original and formed a separate ride on a similar route, just about 1/2 hour earlier. Definitely it is NOT a “come one, come all” ride. It is relatively controlled fast ride, strictly drops and no waiting (there will be attacks, but there are shortcuts to rejoin the group) and people know to invite only those with a similar mindset and skill level (it is not a “learn to ride” group, we have a separate ride for that). We have placed the the onus of those that invite new riders to make sure they can handle it.

    It is working better, and there are less frictions than there were. Probably is just going from a 40+ group to a 15 person pack that makes it more manageable. It has been much better with a more homogeneous group, for sure.

  3. mrg

    if it weren’t for the open minds of a few (thank you robot), i never would have come on to the road. I was the loner on a mtn. bike with baggies, but i kept up when going up. So yeah, if you can hang, you can hang.

    That said, the whole testosterone lycra circle jerk that is a group ride is very exclusive and intimidating. And dangerous too –for the entire group, as well as the newbie that doesn’t yet have the skills. It takes a long time to ride smooth in a pack.

    If you need a compelling tale, RIP Kevin Underwood – a great guy who paid the price of trying to be roadie too soon…. could have used a few more group rides under the wing, so to speak. See http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-575308.html

  4. Souleur

    if this guy hangs on a bike like that for 20miles w/a group like you have Robot, paybacks may be coming if he ever gets a decent bike…

    Be glad your the help he needs now, and not the ‘bikesnob’ up front drilling him

  5. LD

    great, well written article. nothing is more annoying than the local group ride (or club team) filled with a bunch of amateur racers acting like Pros (who by the way don’t act like Pros) being all exclusive and stuff. Wave, lend a tube, help a newbie out, pass along advice. I’ve ridden with TdF, Giro stage winners, Olympic medalists and Classics winners………..they do.

  6. Jim

    I really value the strong rider who is willing to drop back, hang out, teach. I also value the NooB who is willing to listen. We’re not trying to be bossy, most of us are trying to help, and trying to keep the NooB and ourselves safe.

    I also value the cagey beast Cat 1 who shows up on rides as a NooB to that ride, on a complete POS bike, sits in chatting to the struggling Freds, Herbs, and Alices, and when the ride gets tough works up to the front and then proceeds to absolutely beat the living crap out of everybody on the ride. That’s how real pros act. Anybody that can’t do that oughtta be a little cooler to the Freds, and help them overcome their Fred-dom. Because we’re all Freds to somebody.

  7. Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels

    Thank you for writing this and restoring some faith in my fellow roadies. There has been a proliferation of voices of late equating being Pro as snobby, elitist… well, basically being a dick. No doubt this makes the writers of these sites feel good about themselves, but it doesn’t do a lot to grow the sport.

    One of the reasons I like RKP is that you promote what it is to really be Pro: having the daring and legs to throw down a great attack, having the appreciation for traditions and style, but also having the class to not lord this over other people. Your writing shows you have the real love and joy for the sport. Bravo! Keep up the good work.

    1. Padraig

      Elliott: On behalf of everyone who has ever contributed to RKP, thank you. That’s a bit of praise that I won’t soon forget. I’m heartened that you see the distinction in our work and appreciate the effort we make to respect what it is to be PRO yet also see the value in cultivating new friends. It goes to the heart of why I wrote No-Drop Zone. When Robot wrote this (I enjoy the pleasure of reading everything just before you guys do because I have to match a photo to the post) I was blown away because it speaks so perfectly to how I see the role of group rides and the individual within the group rides.

  8. melbin_rider

    must admit, one of the best compliments i got recently was a friend of mine introducing me to a mate he’d brought along for the first time, by saying ‘this is the guy who taught me, if you need advice definitely speak to him’. i hadn’t realised that i had been able to ‘give back’ as it were, but it felt great. it was only a few years ago that i had the honor of falling over while completely stationary waiting at the lights near the back of the 100+ training pack, someone offering me a hand and noting ‘don’t worry mate, it’s happened to us all at some point’ and then being paced back into the group.


  9. Author
    Robot

    @ALL – Just a note of clarification: I am very willing to help a newcomer out. If this dude shows up every week for six weeks on the same bike and needs to be paced back to the group every time, I will not be the wheel he follows. More than happy to give a hand up, but Darwin also expects adaptation from weaker organisms, right?

  10. melbin_rider

    @robot – i think you mean if he shows up every week with the same ‘legs’ and needs to be paced back, then yeah at some point you gotta say it might be a mis-match.

  11. Pascal

    Our Wednesday night World’s has been evolving over the years. Some of us have gotten really strong and have hooked up with others of the same ilk. This discouraged some (sometimes, myself included) because we just couldn’t hang on. Especially early on in the season when some of us were getting over the winter months while others spent all winter training. So we decided to break up the group (As and Bs). The Bs leave 5 minutes early for our regular 45 k loop of the Gatineau Park. Eventually, the ‘A’s show up and pass. Sometimes,a B might feel brave enough to jump in with the passing ‘A’s and tries to hang on,knowing that his/her B-Team buddies will be there if/when he/she falls off.

    It makes for a great mix and gives some less experienced/fit riders a chance to ride with the big boys. This provides a window of opportunity for someone to build enough fitness and courage to someday graduate. Likewise, if an A is feeling a little low, there will be the slower crew to hang with and support/coach.

    It seems to work for us. We know our place in the pecking order and all have different goals, yet we all get to ride and post-ride together.

  12. Pingback: The Group Dynamic – RED KITE PRAYER | Life(Cycles)

  13. Ron

    Nice one! Good on ya for organizing a ride, for pacing the slower lad back, and for not kicking someone on a hybrid off your ride. Good man.

    I actually play soccer twice a week in a game that is by invitation only. The main guys have been playing together for over twenty years, most are in their late 40s and 50s, some in their 60s. At 30 I’m one of a handful of young guys, the others are my friends who invited me out. I do my best to respect them and their rules. They’re nice enough to let me play, though they are a crabby bunch considering they are just out there for fun.

    I used to do a Thursday night ride that I gave up on. The dudes are way too uptight, don’t have enough fun, and talk about HR monitors and power output after the ride, not where to go get a beer. Many of the guys acted as if they hardly knew me, even after a year of riding with them. I didn’t like that dynamic at all.

    Found a new Ths. ride and like it a lot better. Fast group ride, but no racing. It’s awesome to ride in a paceline where the entire group is simply trying to go as fast as possible, not splinter the group or win a sprint.

    Group riding can indeed be very funny. Some of my Sunday rides include a guy who is just kind of odd. He also acts as if he hardly knows me. It kind of sucks the life out of it for me because the other dudes are all cool and fun, but when this guy is out he makes things a bit awkward for me. I just try to ignore it.

    Oh, and my former Ths. night ride had a guy who’d show up on a touring bike with sandals and socks! Guy could actually hang for 3/4 of the ride. But, what bugged me was the fact that it was a very nice, custom tourer. He surely has the cash for a dedicated road steed. Oh well.

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