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Cycling Group Rides: The Best Ways to Integrate Them Into Your Training

By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Group rides are an essential social hub for local cycling communities and play an important role in developing riders’ skills, savvy, and speed. CTS Coaches often incorporate group rides into athletes’ training plans – even if they have no plans to compete. The skills and situational awareness gained from riding in a group make riders more confident in all riding environments, whether that’s riding with a few friends or participating in a charity ride, gran fondo, or bike tour. The key is to understand the pros and cons of group rides and to integrate them into your training at the right time.

Pros of Group Rides for Cyclists

Skill Development

I love that Zwift and other indoor cycling systems are creating more social connections between cyclists, but to learn to bump shoulders, draft in a pack, or pull through in a tight pace line, you have to go to the local group ride.

When I say this to non-racers, they sometimes suggest they don’t need pack riding skills to participate in centuries, gran fondos, and cycling tours like Ride the Rockies. Even if you don’t intend to roll down the road within a pack of 40 riders, you’re going to be riding with and around others. For your safety and theirs, it’s important to be comfortable and confident when riders are next to or in front of you, sitting on your wheel, or passing you.

Variable and unpredictable intensity

In the real world, hard efforts do not come in distinct three-minute intervals, and you don’t always get time to sit up and spin easy to recover. One of the most beneficial aspects of group rides is the variability of intensity. Even in steady two-by-two pace line group rides, there are unpredictable pace changes. In race-style group rides, you have to respond to the surges whenever they happen.

As you’ll see in the comments section, there are cyclists who prefer to only ride with a handful of people they know, often because they don’t trust the skills or judgement of strangers in a large and potentially unruly group. That’s fine. Small groups like these tend to be very steady and orderly, which can be great for building aerobic endurance and sustainable power. They are not as great for keeping pack riding skills sharp, or for providing the variable intensity.

Higher Speed

Group rides are typically faster than your solo rides, which is beneficial from a skills standpoint. At higher speeds, your reaction time has to improve and your movements need to get smoother and lighter. Higher speeds expose deficiencies in your drafting skills, too. The consequences of drafting poorly at 15 mph are far lower than drafting poorly at 25 mph.

Higher speeds in the group ride are also beneficial for your fitness and performance. Compared to riding on your own, you hit climbs with a higher start speed, have to accelerate to a higher speed coming out of corners, and have to do what it takes to stay at a pace you’re not dictating.

Cons of Group Rides for Cyclists

Variability

The variability of group rides can be both an advantage and disadvantage. If you spend all your time at group rides you may miss out on some of the physiological adaptations that come from structured intervals. For instance, the specific 1:1 work:recovery ratio is part of what makes an individual VO2max workout more effective. And spacing out VO2 max-focused workouts optimally helps athletes accumulate enough time-at-intensity within a week or month to drive greater adaptation.

Too Hard or Too Easy

A group ride that leaves you wasted for two days can be a good thing, but not if it keeps you from accomplishing more focused training. I see this more in athletes who are already training at a challenging level. If I’m pushing you hard for a focused training block, then hard group rides can be enough to tip you over the edge. Instead of maintaining a steadier level of stress, you spike training stress and have to end the block early because you can’t recover well enough to continue. To use a NASCAR analogy, if I’m holding you just below redline for 10 laps I don’t want you punch it and blow the engine with two laps to go.


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Though more rare, group rides can also be too easy. For Time-Crunched Cyclists who can only get 6-8 hours of training in a week, spending two of those lightly spinning with the Coffee Shop Shuffle might not be the best use of that time. This is a more difficult argument to make, however, because that ride has other valuable benefits (social connections, community engagement, and just plain fun!) even if it’s slow. In the end, I’d rather see you ride than not, and if these group rides keep you on the bike then I’m all for it.

How to Best Incorporate Group Rides into Training

Overall, the pros of group rides outweigh the negatives. When you’re looking to integrate them into your training plan, here’s what I recommend:

Frequency

For most of the year I recommend doing one group ride per week. I like to add a second group ride per week (if available) after a longer block of endurance work to help sharpen up a rider’s skills and speed. That doesn’t mean every other ride needs to be solo. Riding with 1-3 buddies is something you can do more often, as long as you’re able to complete your own workouts.

Recovery

Depending on the length and/or intensity of the group ride, you may need a full recovery day before you’ll be ready for a high-quality interval workout. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to figure this out. Do the hard Tuesday Night World Championships and see how you perform the next day. If your numbers are down or your perceived exertion is way up relative to the actual effort, try moving that interval workout to Thursday next time.

Compatibility

When you’re in the middle of a focused block of training, like a 3-week period structured to focus on power at VO2 max or maximizing sustainable climbing power, it’s harder to incorporate group rides. On the other hand, during an endurance block group rides can provide an unstructured way to include a little fun and intensity. Because group rides are fun and engaging, I often have cyclists ride for an hour before and after the group ride, or ride to and from the group ride instead of driving.


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Comments 15

  1. This is an interesting topic. Based on my experience as a pro motocross racer when younger, now mtb and gravel racer, my opinion is the most dangerous ride is the weekly road group ride.

    Why? Crashes are at high speed with little or no safety gear and your hitting asphalt. Its the nature of the activity. And the larger the group, the more risk of the crash. I prefer groups where you attack on climbs, but moderate on flats and downhills. Avoid groups where they are looking for strava segments or guys wear those stupid bicycling beanie caps. Dead giveaway the group is full of tools. Just my thoughts.

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  3. I like group rides because the peer pressure oftentimes pushes me harder than I push myself on solo workouts. It’s no coincidence that my best five-minute efforts in the past year almost all came during hard pulls or while trying to hang on to the wheel in front of me on a group ride.

  4. I ride in two different groups and train alone (both indoors and out) and also mountain bike in a group. With the help of my coach, it all blends into a great training program. I find the unstated peer and self imposed pressure of pulling hard when it is your turn can really increase my power interval for that pull, followed by a pleasant recovery in the back while we glide along at a pace faster than I could recover alone. In a small group I can do that repeatedly. In the larger group there is more of a competitive feel and I take every opportunity to go fast and hard when I can, which mimics some aspects of a race. In both groups there tremendous peer pressure to ride safely even at a fast pace and we hold each other accountable for safety. My two crashes were both when I was solo and were entirely my fault, which changed my focus on safety. I am now accountable to my family to not get hurt and am very focused on safety while riding hard. I believe you can have your cake and eat it too when you combine group rides into your training plan.

  5. As for crash risk of group rides, having done group rides, and raced for 30 plus years, I think that overall you’re safer in a group than riding solo. Your risk of leaving some skin on the pavement is likely higher in a competitive group ride, but I firmly believe your risk of a catastrophic collision with a car is much less.

    And you can mitigate your risk of crashing in a group with good riding skills, and situational awareness. Keeping your eyes open, and up the road, as well as using your ears to hear things like coasting and free hubs clicking goes a long way. Also learn the riders around you and what to anticipate from them, and position yourself ahead of or we’ll behind the ones you learn to be sketchy.

    The skills you learn in a group are absolutely necessary to race, and will serve you well dealing with traffic, emergencies and unanticipated obstacles even if you never pin on. A number.

  6. I help to lead rides for our local club and we stress proper etiquette whenever we do our pre-ride talks. If leaders policy behavior appropriately (discouraging piracy and unsafe riding practices like passing on the right) most accidents can be avoided. We’re a “social” rather than a “competitive” group so that helps some, but the principles still hold true. Groups are usually safer when it comes to interactions with cars (drivers who might hassle a single cyclist generally tend to be more respectful to a group of them). There’s also the issue of dealing with mechanical problems. Much quicker to change flats or address other minor issues when you have help around. In a worst case scenario where someone does get hurt, having others around who can summon help is a major advantage as well.

    Bottom line–find a ride leader who knows what he/she is doing and you’ll usually be better off with other riders around.

  7. I related to and agree everything he said. Being just under 2 years experience in MTB it’s great hearing someone who understands me. I want more!

  8. Steve, crashing is the worst… but I would suggest another way of thinking. Take ownership of your own cycling skill and realize only you can prevent a crash, they are 99.9% always avoidable as your riding skills and group riding experience improves. If we all stop riding in a group because at one point we got caught up in a crash, there would be no group rides and we would be stuck riding with the same few riders. Please don’t cut yourself off of one of the best parts of cycling.

    1. Must respectfully disagree. There are many times that poor actions within a group lead to a crash you cannot avoid no matter how skilled/experienced you are. Plenty of examples of that even among elite professionals.
      I am NOT saying avoid all group rides. But be somewhat selective. I absolutely avoid some groups in my area which are notorious for crashes.

  9. maybe it’s my failing, but i have yet to do an interval on my own – either indoors or out – that will kick my ass like chasing off the back of a strong group (apparently my specialty 🙂 ).

  10. I agree with Tim’s comment. Brain dead also applies to those that can’t recognize dangers on the road i.e. potholes, trash, etc. In my case, I had just moved to a new city and joined a group ride of about 30 people. One idiot near the front decided to ride too close to traffic construction cones. He hit one causing it to fall behind him. The five riders behind him all went down. Four of us broke something. One shattered elbow and two surgeries later, I’m finally starting to get back on the bike, over a year and a half after the crash. I’m not going to ride in a group again unless I know all the riders and know they know how to ride safely.

  11. All true for training purposes. However I don’t do group rides with more than half a dozen people anymore because large groups tend to become brain dead in terms of common sense and traffic laws. There is no one in charge so no everyone ignores responsibility. They block the entire road for cars, blow through stop signs and even stop lights. We had a fatality in this area when a guy on a huge group ride was forced into oncoming traffic and hit a large truck head on. So, keep the groups small, follow laws and ride responsibly.

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