Most people find long rides considerably more enjoyable with company – be that rolling out with the local cycling club at 9am, or arranging a rendezvous with a more select group at a time that suits you.
The sign of a good group ride is the troop piling into a café stop after anywhere between 30 and 100 miles, smiling in shared exhaustion and chatting over hot coffee and warm cake.
A ride that has been less than perfectly executed usually results in cold glares, a missing rider (dropped somewhere along the route or ridden off in a huff) and a severely reduced chance of a repeat meeting.
Here are some tips for ride leaders, and ride partakers, to ensure that everyone involved has a great time and comes back for more..
1) Agree distance and speed before the ride
Let’s start at the very beginning. Before you go anywhere, it’s best to make sure everyone knows what sort of ride this is going to be.
The person leading the ride needs to state the proposed distance, give an idea of what sort of elevation those joining in can expect to enjoy, and the anticipated average speed.
These three stats do need to be at least based loosely on the truth. It’s ok to chuck a couple of extra hills in there, but don’t advertise a 20 mile flat ride at 15 miles and hour and then wonder why there’s mutiny in the ranks 50 miles in after the 10 minute ascent of a small local mountain.
2) It's not a race (unless it is)
Long weekend rides are for totting up the miles, races are for proving your fitness. Unless otherwise agreed, put away your competitive spirit for another day.
You can opt to let the ride break up on the hills, as long as everyone waits at the top (see point 7). However, if you and your ride buddies are after a short and tough workout, opting for a fast paced session comprised of laps of a small circuit, or riding hill repeats is a great way of making the ride inclusive - those that struggle to keep up can simply ride a few less laps or reps.
It is a universal law that the ride will always leave around 5 minutes after the proposed time. It’s best to stick with this tradition, because the chances are someone will be racing to the ride start location with -4 minutes to spare having spent all morning searching for their right arm warmer or suffered a puncture on the way.
Try your best to make sure you’re on time and ready to ride, though. No one wants to become known as Holding Everyone Up Harriet.
4) Bring the essentials
That means a spare inner tube, ideally patches, tyre levers, a hand pump, Co2, food and drink. You won't be popular if you get a flat and don't have your own spare tube.
In winter, it's also common courtesy to fit mudguards to your bike, so as not to provide the rider behind with a complementary mud-facial.
5) Hand signals
Group rides work best when everyone communicates. That doesn’t just mean having a good chinwag about whatever was on TV last night – it means ensuring riders behind know when there are holes in the road, and everyone is made aware of approaching cars.
There are agreed hand signals used by road cyclists to herald various hazards and intentions, and it’s good practice to make sure you know these before heading out for a group ride.
Having joined a newish ride lately, I’ve picked up a new method of making other riders aware of cars, too. The traditional call is ‘Car Up’ for a car ahead, and ‘Car Back’ for a vehicle behind. However, this can get confused with ‘Car Up’ and ‘Car Down’, sometimes referring to a car driving past the peloton from the front or rear. My new ride buddies prefer ‘Car Front’ and ‘Car Back’ – a lot simpler, in my opinion.
Regardless, make sure everyone on the ride knows the calls you intend to use – you can shout ‘Pink Muffin’, as long as you all know what it means (though other road users might think you’re a bit odd).
6) Group etiquette
Riding together means those further back will benefit from the lovely shape their buddies cut through the air in front of them. In other words, drafting off each other makes riding easier or faster (depending on the pace of the front riders).
Before setting off, make sure everyone is comfortable riding in a pack. If it’s new to you, check out this guide. They key rules are to ensure you leave enough distance if you’re not confident, never overlap another rider's wheel, and not to brake suddenly. The rest you’ll pick up as you go!
Fact: hills separate riders. This is natural, and will always happen unless you’ve got a group of rather fit riders, all keeping an identical pace below their ability level.
There is absolutely no problem with this, as long as everyone re-groups and is respectful. Allowing faster riders to smash the hills means that they get a great interval workout, and it also serves a dual purpose of slowing them down on the flats as the effort saps their excess watts.
Before a notable incline or descent, make sure you agree that you’ll all meet at the top should you separate, and then stick with it. Remember that the first riders will have had a little longer to recover than the last, so give slower riders a minute or so to re-coup and have a drink.
If you’re aware that one rider is really struggling, try to have someone hold back and ride with them on tougher hills, if they want it – but don’t hang next to their back wheel like a bird of prey, it won’t be appreciated!
If you are the weakest rider, try not to feel like everyone has been waiting for you for ages – in reality it’s probably been a minute or two. Don't panic!
8) Wait at Junctions
Groups move a lot quicker than a few individuals. Therefore, when you come to a junction, make sure the riders at the front check that the entire group has made the crossing. If some riders are still waiting, those in front should pedal softly until they re-join.
There is nothing more disheartening than watching a group ride disappear as you wait your turn to cross a road. Especially if they're moving fast, or you were already at the back for a reason!
9) Be encouraging (or encouraged)
There will always be a rider who is having a bad day, or just not able to hold the same pace as everyone else comfortably.
Being that rider is pretty tough – not only physically, but mentally too. If it’s you, try not to get disheartened. Most people in the group will have been in your position at least once, and the chances are they’re happy to take a breather after the hills or long sections of headwind, should you lose contact with the group. Just accept you’re having a tough day on the bike.
Even the most level headed person in the world can get huffy when tired. However, the absolute worst thing you can do is become moody with everyone – it won’t help your case. Chances are, they’re more than happy to wait for you, but that won’t be the case if you turn sour!
If you’re one of the stronger riders, the characteristics you need to adopt are 1) encouraging 2) non-patronising. Offer your rear wheel for a break where you can, and advice where it seems desired, but if it’s clear that the struggling rider is unable to talk/really in the hurt box, do try to refrain from nattering away at 150 words a minute, and asking questions!
Thinking of joining a group ride near you? Here are six tips for your first club ride.