Now that Boulder has been getting some good outdoor biking weather, I've had my first few group rides for the year. After a couple rides with others, it led me to think about how group rides can be good or bad for athletes depending on how they use them. As an athlete and a coach I want to make sure my athletes, as well as, I get the most out of each bike ride. Sometimes the dynamics of larger groups hinders athletes from getting what they need from a weekend ride.
Personally, I prefer biking in smaller groups of 2-4 riders. I really don't like when groups get much over 6 people. The major reasons for this are safety and group dynamics. If you have a small group of people you know, it's easier to know how the others ride, as well as, communicate about how you want the ride to progress. Safety is obvious, the more people, the better the chances of someone causing an accident. If you have good riders, you can keep a nice single or double pace line. The larger the group, the more people and moving parts are involved, making the chances of something going wrong go up. Along these same lines, each person you add to a ride increases the number of stops along a ride. I personally like to stop only once every 2-3 hours each ride. Of course there's an occasional need for an extra “nature” stop or flat tire, but again each person you add, adds the chances of extra stops for these reasons.
For me the main reason I like smaller groups are the group dynamics. With a few people, you can communicate before or during the ride easier to make sure everyone has the same or similar goals for the ride. If I have a base or endurance ride, I don't want someone to be hammering on the front because they want to get a tempo effort out of the ride. On the flip side, if I have efforts I need to execute during a ride, I want to make sure everyone else knows what I'm doing. I'm not just being a jerk, trying to ride off the front and drop everyone, rather I have a specific goal wattage I want to hold for a period of time. With a few riders, you can more easily communicate these items. The more people you add, the more agendas you add to the ride. It makes it harder for you to stick to your plan and needs.
Even if you have your plan, the bigger the ride, the easier it is for you to get tempted into strying from your plan to stick with your group. There's always someone who wants to hammer up the hills. Do you have the discipline to let yourself get dropped if your goal is an easier endurance ride, or are you going to let your ego get the better of you and try to keep up? I can pretty much guarantee that you are going to try to keep up rather than stick to your plan. Again, the more people, the better chance of this happening.
I used to ride with a big group when I lived in Austin. There was one strong rider who didn't have as much free time as the rest of us on the weekend. So rather than go really long, like 5 hours, he had only 2 hours each weekend. So he wanted to get the most out of his time. We'd show up to the ride and for the first hour, he would hammer at the front. Often times, 10 minutes into a 100 mile ride, we'd be at or above our race paces because of one rider's agenda on the ride. These are the situations I now try to avoid.
Another phenomenon that occurs with larger groups is what I call pace-creep. This is a gradual increase of pace over time. Why does this happen? If you have one or two people at the front of a group, they're setting the pace. When it's time for them to move to the back, the next person/people move up. Because of macho egos we often see in cycling groups, those next leaders don't want to be the guys who let the pace drop because they don't want to appear weaker. So they try to ride the same pace or maybe a little faster. This continues as the group rotates leaders until its way too hard of a tempo. It takes disciplined riders without egos to slow the pace down. With a smaller group of people it's easier to say “hey guys, why are we riding so fast? Lets ease up a bit.”
This pace creep often causes athletes to ride too hard for the first half of longer rides. On my old riding in Austin, guys would hammer to keep up on the first part of the ride. Then the second half, they'd almost always fade and bonk. I believe that on longer rides, it's almost always better to ride the second half harder and stronger. Again, the idea is to create an overload in your body. Its better to push the end when you're tired to get those gains you need for your next race. This is instead of riding the first 30 mile hard and limp home the last 30 miles at a snails pace. Which way of riding do you think is better to prepare you for your next Ironman? The larger the group, the harder it is to be disciplined in this way or to control the pace to meet these kinds of riding goals.
My style of bike training is riding either base/endurance which is pretty easy or very hard race-pace efforts, not much in between. I've found the bigger the ride, the more the group pulls you towards the middle “junk” zone of kind-of hard riding. Its hard enough to make you tired by the end of the ride, but not hard enough to create an overload in your body to really improve. So the ride really doesn't serve it's purpose in your overall training picture.
I'm not against group rides, but I want to make sure they meet my and my athletes goals. As long as you understand some of these pitfalls of group riding, you can better use them to fit your athletic needs