“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.
Some years ago I was sitting in an editorial meeting for a magazine when the topic turned to lifestyle and how to portray the roadie lifestyle in a magazine. It quickly devolved into a debate about just what the roadie lifestyle was. What was the bullseye at the center of the roadie lifestyle. Was it the double century crowd? Was it racing? Was it bike commuting?
In the 1990s, there weren’t that many people who were passionate about bike commuting or the prospect of a social revolution based on the concept of the bicycle as primary transportation. Fortunately, that has changed. But back then, the idea of making commuting the centerpiece of a magazine’s editorial mission seemed like suicide to me. Similarly, the fact that some double centuries may only get two or three dozen entrants makes them outliers even-wise and not a donkey you want to pin your tail on. Even centuries don’t typify the riding life of most riders; after all, they may only do two or three in a year. Racing? Most of the people I ride with don’t have a racing license anymore.
My opinion is the same now as it was then: The center of the bullseye of the roadie lifestyle is the group ride. If you hope to reach cyclists with a lifestyle publication in print or on the web and you don’t get what a peloton is, you’ve already lost the battle.
As the day-in-day-out social nexus of the riding community anywhere I’ve ever lived, group rides do more for cyclists than provide a great way to train. They offer the community a valuable way for riders to get to know each other and form bonds beyond the sweat that drips off them. I could never live some place that had no group rides.
So this week’s FGR is a bit different, a bit more literal, as it were. Tell us about the group rides where you live. Are they year round? How many riders show up in-season vs. out-of-season. Does it slow down in the off-season? Does it have a killer name? Is it the same course each week, or do you switch it up? How long? How fast? And finally, are there so many riders and rides where you are that you have a menu to choose from come Saturday morning?
You never know what might turn into a feature for someone.
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.