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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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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