I'm not sure if this is purely because I'm becoming more aware of it, but there seems to be a decline in general group riding abilities this cycling season. I've spent most of this year training relatively hard for the Assault on Mount Mitchell, and the organized rides that I was participating in had a major emphasis on good group work. What I've noticed on several of my regular group rides is that many folks are not doing some basic things that make group rides fun, enjoyable, and most of all safe. I think they can be broken down to a set of 5 "Be's".
I believe that a group ride technically starts before you leave to go to the meet up point. If I'm going to a new ride, I treat the prep work like an event. Do your homework. Before going out to a group ride, try to get as much information about the ride as possible. Ask the ride organizer about the planned route and expected strength of the group (speed and effort required). Print out a cue sheet if applicable. Be aware of the elevation of the ride and know if there are climbs what amount of effort that you'll need to keep up. Note if the ride is going to have a planned store stop, and if the organizer is planning on the ride having hard stop regroup points. What additional equipment is required for the ride (like lights)?
Before the ride even starts, there are things I do to make sure that I am effective and safe on a group ride. Make sure you have everything you need. Water bottles, food, spare tubes, air pump (or cartridges). Make sure your chain is lubed and is functioning properly beforehand. Don't hope (or expect) that others on the ride are going to be able to (or want to) help you with mechanical issues. If your bicycle requires special equipment, longer than standard stem tubes for example, make sure you have the proper supplies. No one wants to be stuck on the side of the road waiting to hopefully get picked up by someone else on the ride. Make sure if you have a cell phone that you have it charged, just in case. Keep your emergency contact information (including insurance information) on you, just in case.
|Make sure you have what you need to ride.|
This is the point where the ride actually is starting. Many group organizers have multiple leaders to help them with keeping the size of the groups reasonable. The organizer may give some basic instructions at the start of the ride, but the ride leaders are the ones that you are entrusting to keep you safe and have everyone return back to the start point. Listen to what the organizers and leaders have to say. If there are special instructions, make sure to pay attention and be aware of the situation. Typically the leaders are well versed in the routes, and they know where the technical portions of the ride may be. You are trusting your health and safety to the people around you, as the people around you are trusting you with their own health and safety.
|Are you listening to the group instructions?|
Once the ride starts, make sure to pay attention to the instructions being called out. Turn, traffic, and road hazard information can be displayed as hand signals as well as spoken commands. I've found many groups have their own vocabulary ("Passing" vs "Comming around" for vehicles passing is one I've personally noticed). Make sure that regardless of the communication, you are paying attention and being aware. Make sure that notifications are making it through the entire group. There is no need to have "car back" shouted 24 times, but there is a need for everyone in the group to know that there is a car that may wish to pass behind you. I personally make a small exception on this with hand signals if I feel like the conditions require me to have both hands on the handlebars at a given time. Personally I'd rather have to eat a pot hole than have the person in front of me wipe out trying to point it out to me.
On the ride, be aware of the conditions in the group. One of the big issues here is keeping yourself in the proper location in the ride. On a typical ride, the group is either single file or side by side. In both of these situations you should be sure to be directly behind the person in front of you, with an appropriate level of gap between the back of their rear tire and yours. This is called "keeping your line". There is no reason to have your front tire overlapping the rear tire of the person in front of you for any length of time, and there's really no reason for you to be spaced in between two lines.
|Riding side by side|
The amount of gap that you have between you and the person in front of you should be enough for you to properly handle any sudden changes. Most of us are used to the "2 car length" rule while driving. In cycling this gap is not nearly as large, as you are attempting to use the slipstream of the person in front of you to reduce the amount of effort it takes to keep up an extended effort. There is up to a 30% increase in pedaling efficiency to be gained by being in the slipstream of the person in front of you. Keeping a distance where you are comfortable with the reaction times need while still getting the benefit of the reduced wind resistance to me is something that varies from group to group, and can often change during a group ride depending on conditions. I attempt to allow the gap to grow if I know there is a downhill section followed by a climb. This is where the group will "accordion" or "rubber band": that is, where the front of the group will slow down significantly while the back of the group is still accelerating to the bottom of the descent. These situations can be a breeding ground for dangerous interactions as folks attempt to maintain effort on the climb.
This one I think goes hand in hand with being alert. In general, you shouldn't be participating in actions that are detrimental to the safety of yourself or the group. The last time I checked, no one in any of my local group rides were named Cadel Evans, Ted King, George Hincapie or Eddie Merckx. Not letting someone in does nothing to improve your status in the group. Passing someone by crossing the middle of the road (and thus riding in the oncoming lane), weaving through the middle of the pack, or jumping onto the shoulder is not going to earn you points for a fictitious green jersey. Flying downhill at 40mph to climb the next hill at 4mph isn't going to get you a KOM. Rolling through stop signs/lights/traffic intersections doesn't get you a stuffed animal. These random people have entrusted you with their health and safety in the hopes of an enjoyable ride.
|As proof - I am NOT Ted King.|
Bad behavior likewise shouldn't be handled by a non-ride leader cussing out a group member, or attempting to retaliate. I have actually heard "the next time someone passes me on the left after I finish pulling I'm going to wreck them" on a ride. NO ONE should be riding with this attitude, let alone in a pack of other cyclists. Reacting negatively to others behaving badly does several things, the very least of them is make what is supposed to be a recreational activity for fun into an un-enjoyable experience for everyone around you. It may cause other riders in the group to likewise react, at best ruining their ride.
In a law of averages, mechanical issues happen. Someone is going to have a flat tire. Chains can give out and break. It's going to happen on a group ride every so often. You hope that if the previous topics are done by everyone that the chances of a true mechanical issue are slim, but things happen with moving parts. It's a terrible feeling to get into the "hammer down" section of a ride just to hear someone yell "mechanical! soft pedal!". Just as bad of a feeling is when you are the one that has the mechanical issue, watching the rest of the group that you are with pedal off into the sunset. If you have taken good precautions, you hope that you have everything that you need for most minor repairs, and you are skilled enough to quickly change that flat and be back up and running. Most minor issues take less than 10 minutes to fix, and you can be on your way again.
|No one wants to watch the group ride away|
One of the listed responsibilities that ride leaders typically take on is making sure that the person with a mechanical issue has what they need and can get back on the road. This puts a lot of pressure on the group leader as they have a responsibility to the people around them beyond just making sure that everyone stays safe. The ultimate goal is for everyone to make it back to the meeting spot and safely head home. People often make excuses for not waiting on a mechanical, and the most common is "some folks have to get home". The simple fact is that everyone has to get home at some point, but these people have determined that their departure time is important enough to leave someone stranded by the side of the road. You make the assumption that they, along with any good Samaritans that happen to actually stop, can make the repairs and assist them getting back. You make the assumption that if the people that stop cannot make the repairs, the person is able to either walk back to the starting point, or someone else is available to help get them back to the starting point. Personally I hope that when the time comes that I have a mechanical issue, as I've had in the past, people are willing to stop and help get me back on the road, or at least not just leave me.
The ultimate goal for me as I go out to ride is to challenge myself and have a good time. I've only been riding for a short time comparatively but the landscape of group rides is very diverse. Everyone rides for their own goals, and their own reasons, with their own skill sets. My take away from all of this continues to be to learn the nature of rides, and determine the rides that fit my abilities and personality. The extreme end to many of the situations above is that someone does not return from the ride. This is a condition that I would hope no one would want to participate in. To that end, each individual has to do their part to make the group experience smart, safe, challenging, and fun. When others in the group start putting themselves first, and acting poorly, the group becomes a dangerous place to be. I've taken the stand that I will do the things that I know are proper in the hopes that others will likewise look at their own actions and adjust what they are doing as well.