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Group riding is a wonderful experience. Whilst those solo rides are good training – in that they keep you permanently ‘on the front’ and you are relatively unconstrained with someone else’s route, pace or road manners, there is simply no substitute for the buzz of working the pace line – or even just shooting the breeze with like-minded folk.
If you have never joined a group ride, I would heartily encourage you to do so. Not only will you find your pace improving – as you work to keep with stronger riders – but you will improve your skills and also simply make new friends. You’ll also have someone to share the experience with over coffee and cake afterwards.
But, before you go out on your first group ride, it will really help (both you and others) if you have a general awareness of the unwritten rules of the ride. Generally speaking, cyclists are a sociable bunch. It’s unlikely a group will turn you away if you
ask politely to ride with them. However, if you want to be invited back, adherence to group etiquette is an absolute must.
This guide is a general rule of thumb – but it will stand you in good stead. Different groups will have their own peculiarities – but applying some common-sense and trying to stay within this set of guidelines will be a solid start. It will give you the appearance of someone who knows what they are doing and not simply an ‘all the gear and no idea’ kind of hanger-on. But, most importantly, it will keep you and others safe.
Firstly, be honest –
This is probably the most important piece of advice that I can give you. You know what pace you can comfortably run (and this can vary day-by-day). Be honest about that with both others and yourself. There is little point turning up to your local Tuesday evening Chain Gang if you regularly struggle with a 12 MPH average – conversely, you won’t win kudos by putting yourself in the ‘social’ group of a club ride if you are an aspiring semi-pro!
Well organised groups keep an eye out for everyone and, generally, make allowances for the pace of the slowest rider. If you are just marginally off the pace, they really won’t mind you riding in the wheels or even backing off a notch or two to let you get back on. And by working to keep the pace, you’ll soon be running with the pack (that’s how most of us improved). However, if you force them to stop dead every couple of miles to let you catch up; then that’s a different ball game. Should this happen, you will most likely be provided with a convenient and early ‘out’, which should be taken. This could simply take the form of someone asking, “how are you coping with this pace?”. If you’ve spent the last few miles blowing out of your arse, the answer to that is not, “yeah, I’m fine!”, it is actually, “To be honest guys, it’s a bit hot for me. I’m going to bale here – maybe do a few miles with you next week?”
Trust me on this – no one will think any the less of you for getting out whilst you can because they will all have been there themselves at some point. But, if you doggedly stick with it, there will be one of two possible outcomes – neither of which will win you any friends. The first of these is that you will find yourself in over your head, miles from home and in a situation where one of the pack may even need to relay you home. Alternatively (and, if you’ve really tried their patience) they may simply disappear over the horizon; never to be seen again. If you’re half way round an 80 mile training ride on roads you don’t know, that’s not a good situation!
Credibility is a hard-won thing. Honesty and hard work – gradually upping your game to stay with the group – will sooner or later win you an approving, “You should be riding with us now mate”. Over ambition and ignorance will probably earn you a well-deserved, “We’re off now – see ya!”
Be predictable –
This applies not only to your riding but to your whole approach. Firstly, if you have arranged to meet at a certain time then that is the time that you meet. Inevitably, we all get punctures, get delayed in traffic or attacked by the Ginerbread Man just as we are about to leave the house. Make sure that you have a mobile number for at least one of the other riders so that if any of these situations arise, you can put them in the picture. Most groups will give a few minutes leeway and, if they’ve not heard, simply depart without you – the ride begins when the ride begins.
Equally, should you awake to discover that the forecasted 20 degrees and bright sunshine have, in fact, panned-out as 10 degrees and drizzle, a simple text message to ask, “Are we still riding today?” is basic common sense. Simply assuming that, “no one would take a bike out in this” and jumping back in bed will soon earn you a reputation. Equally, it’s really not funny to be the only rider at the meet point as rain of biblical proportions does it’s best to take the paint off of your frame.
Be aware -
Assuming that you’ve found a group that you are comfortable with (and who are comfortable with you) you can begin to focus on road craft. This is not a race; there is not a team car with a raft of spare bikes and a doctor following you - safety is paramount. It only takes a moment’s absent mindedness to see you rubbing a wheel and taking someone down. At best, this could result in several thousand pounds worth of damage – at worst, it could result in serious injury. Ride within your limits and with a margin for error available at all times – should you need it.
Whatever the circumstance, headphones are unacceptable. You are not a team rider; you do not have a radio pack tucked into your bib shorts. If you really need Whitney Houston’s greatest hits to get you ‘in the zone’ then maybe you’re better suited to spin classes.
Pay attention to other riders; anticipate hazards and be ready. This is closely linked to the next rule…..
Never (whatever the circumstance) overlap a wheel –
By overlap, I mean getting your front wheel into a position where it is alongside someone else’s rear. Bikes do not (or should not) have mirrors. The rider in front will not know that you are there until they swerve to avoid a pothole – striking your front wheel and taking you both out.
The correct position for your front wheel is directly behind the wheel that it is following. Again, remember that this is not a race – you do not need to be millimetres away – and a gap of six inches will still see you getting the draft whilst also allowing a margin for error.
Equally, stay seated – especially on climbs. It’s a fact that as soon as you stand, the bike will move backwards by a few inches. If another rider is in your wheel, that can be a recipe for disaster. If you’re struggling, let others through before you get out of the seat.
you have riders behind, do the decent thing and let them know about hazards you have spotted that they may not have seen. It helps if you understand some basic hand signals (beyond the simple left and right indications):
Finger pointed directly downward – Marks the position of a pothole or other obstruction in the road. It is possible that you may not be able to remove a hand to indicate the hazard. In this case, simply shouting, “Hole’ works equally as well
Hand held downwards to the side and waving – Indicates the presence of gravel, broken glass or some other substance on the road surface that may represent a hazard
Arm bent behind the back with fingers pointing – Indicates that the rider is moving in the indicated direction to avoid a hazard (such as walkers, runners, parked cars etc.)
Arm waved slowly to one side - The rider is slowing
As useful as they are, however, hand signals are only part of the communication picture. Don’t forget that you have a voice. Common voice communications are:
“Car up” / “Car back” – Does exactly what it says on the tin – warns the group of an approaching vehicle (up – approaching from the front ; back – approaching from behind)
“Clear” – No, this is not done to imitate a scene from Casualty – it is shouted on the approach to a junction after you have established that the road you are now joining is free from approaching traffic and that following riders may clear the junction without stopping. Take care to only shout this If the road is, indeed, clear.
“Stop” – Again, shouted at the approach to a junction. Indicates the opposite of, “clear”. However funny you think it is, DO NOT use this simply to stop following riders and allow yourself to make a break – this will render you a twat of the highest order
“Be quick!” – Again, this is another junction prompt. It means that a single rider may safely get through if they negotiate the junction quickly and efficiently
“Water”, “Ice”, “Shit” etc. – Indicates the presence of one of these on the road surface
“Passing Left” / “Passing right” – Used when passing another rider. They may not be expecting you to suddenly come alongside and this simple prompt could stop them changing line directly into you. NEVER come alongside another rider without warning them – especially on the left, when they may be forced across into you by passing traffic
“Morning” / “Afternoon” – A simple pleasantry when passing other riders never hurts
Treat horse riders with respect –
Horses are brilliant creatures; they are both strong and intelligent and, therein, lays the danger. Whilst you can control every action of your machine through controlled inputs, the brain in the head of a horse adds a degree of unpredictability, which can take even the most experienced rider by surprise.
When approaching a horse and rider, use the waved arm to indicate to the pack that you are slowing and then the arm behind back to indicate that you are changing line.
Approach horses at walking pace, acknowledge the rider with a simple, “Hello” and keep your pedals turning slowly to minimise any freewheel noise. Once passed, gently pick up the pace again.
You may consider that slowing down like this is ruining your average speed and, God forbid that this should happen half way through a Strava segment. But, conversely, it’s worth it to simply avoid half a ton of horse and rider landing on you. Equally, the reduction in pace and work back up to speed is all good interval training!!!
Mudguards are for other riders; not just for you –
You may consider it sacrilegious to fit mudguards to your lithe road bike but have you ever had the misfortune to ride behind someone without them on a wet day? Believe me, it’s not good!! Be a good citizen – when the heavens open, clip on the guards – you backside and your fellow riders will be eternally in your debt!
Be prepared –
Do not rely on others to solve your problems. Your jersey pocket should contain:
One spare inner tube – at the very least. Two is wise (I’ve actually had the misfortune to need three in one ride)
Puncture repair kit – Why, you may ask, given that I have a pocket of spare tubes, would I need a puncture kit? Simple – if your luck is really bad and you’ve used your last spare tube, the repair kit will get you home. Glueless patches are so portable that you won’t even know they are there!
Co2 Inflator or micro pump – No good having a fixed tube if you can’t inflate it. A Co2 inflator will have you rolling again in seconds. Micro pumps do the trick but take more time and some may not even get the tyre fully up to pressure (leaving you vulnerable to further punctures). But, they are a good stand by
Cartridges for your Co2 inflator - Need I say more!
Mobile phone – Preferably with the number of another member of the group stored in it. If you become separated (through simply getting dropped or through a mechanical failure) this will be a lifeline. It’s also handy for running your favourite sports tracker – such as Strava or Endomondo!
Cash / Credit or Debit Card – To allow for those unforeseen circumstances and also to cover the cost of the inevitable ‘tiffin’ stop! At the risk of sounding slightly morbid, should you be incapacitated, the cards are a useful form of ID that the emergency services can use to contact your other half
Energy Gels / bars / bananas etc. – A long ride requires fuel. If you are riding at a pace (as you will with some groups ) you need to ensure that you are fed and hydrated. You wouldn’t go out without a bottle in your cage (would you!) So, don’t go out without fuel in your pocket.
Admittedly, that sounds a long list but in practice, these items will all fit comfortably into the rear pockets of most jerseys.
But, preparedness does not stop at the jersey pocket. Tyre pressures should be checked before every ride and it never hurts to give each wheel a spin whilst looking for flints and rogue bits of glass embedded in them. Two minutes fishing these out with a small screwdriver can save you and the group fifteen minutes by the roadside later.
Take a turn –
It may only be 30 seconds, but it will be appreciated. Taking your turn on the front will make you stronger and earn you respect. Even if your pace is slower than the group average, there will still be moments when everyone else feels the need to back off – this is your moment to shine and, if done with commitment, demonstrates that you are not just along for the ride.
Bodily fluids / gasses should only be passed when on the back! –
We all enjoy the simple pleasure of a well-formed snot rocket, or the harmonious elegance of a well-executed fart. But, in company, these acts are best performed as a solo act – when there is no one directly behind to share in them!
A sense of humour is non-optional –
As I have said countless times throughout this piece, remember that you are not a racer. It’s true that you need to be mindful that group riding is as much about getting a workout as it is about socialising but shooting the guy next to you the ‘Lance’ stare as you stamp on the pedals and bury him really is a strategy for another day. Work hard. Enjoy the company of your riding buddies, do your turn and enjoy. Most importantly be prepared for some light-hearted banter and don’t take it personally. It’s hard at times; I know – but, as with any group, cyclists like to have a laugh. Take it for what it is – a chance to unwind after the stresses of the week and be yourself with a few mates for a few hours every Sunday.
As a list of ‘rules’ that probably all seems pretty intimidating. But, when you boil it down, it can be summarised in two simple words; good manners!
A lot of this comes naturally as soon as you become a regular fixture in a group. But, by trying to live by these standards from the outset, you’ll probably find that you become a ‘fixture’ sooner, rather than later.
Now, go find a group, get out, obey the rules and add a new dimension to your Sunday ride.