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.