By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Fear of riding in a group has been a recurring theme in conversations I’ve had with cyclists this summer. Some are new cyclists who took up riding during the height of the pandemic, but there are also the experienced cyclists who have concerns about the indoor riders who have developed more power than handling skills. Then there are the gravel and gran fondo riders who have anxiety about fast, aggressive mass starts. Riding in a group is one of my greatest joys in cycling, and helping riders become comfortable and confident in a group is one of my favorite parts of coaching. If you are fearful or anxious about cycling in a group, here are steps you can take to reduce or eliminate those fears.
Improve your solo cycling skills
The first step to being confident in a group is to have confidence in your own handling skills. If you struggle with cornering, braking, descending, riding a straight line, and reaching for a water bottle or into your jersey pockets when you are riding on your own, those situations are going to be even more intimidating when you’re surrounded by other riders. People seem to think cycling skills develop automatically because most adults learned to ride bicycles as children. I encourage cyclists to think about it in terms of skiing or golf, two sports where taking lessons is the norm. Whether it’s a clinic or private lessons with a coach, or instruction from a more experienced cyclist, make learning solo skills a deliberate activity.
Learn to bump into another rider
If you are terrified that touching another cyclist will cause you to crash, riding in a group is going to be very uncomfortable. There’s typically very little contact between riders in a group (pro cycling notwithstanding); you just need to learn how to respond when it occasionally happens. The best way to do this is on a grassy field so falling over is more comical than painful. Find a buddy or a handful of riders and practice riding side by side and bumping elbows and handlebars, rubbing shoulders, and leaning on each other. This is also a good time to ride behind someone and purposely overlap wheels (put the side of your front wheel against the side of their rear wheel). To recover, steer into the rider’s rear wheel as you gradually slow down.
Start with a buddy
Many riders get scared away from group rides because their first experience is jumping in with a large group of strangers. A less intimidating path is to start with a riding buddy, a single rider you can ride next to, in front of, and behind. The goal is to ride close together, not just in the general vicinity of each other. Ride shoulder to shoulder and bar to bar. Take corners two-wide, alternating between the inside and outside position. Close the distance between your front wheel and your buddy’s rear wheel, and when you’re the leading rider practice being steady and predictable and pointing out debris or potholes.
Pick the right group ride for you
Group rides come in various shapes, sizes, and levels of idiocy. Some are very civil, no-drop social rides. Some are fast but stick to a very organized two-by-two pace line, whereas others are a free-form pack. In some parts of the country, there may be business park rides that are run as one-hour group rides on a small circuit. The no-drop social ride is a good place to start, but many cyclists quickly grow to want a harder effort with less stopping. If they are available in your area, I encourage beginners to progress to the two-by-two groups or business park circuits. In the former you can get comfortable following wheels, riding side-by-side, and maintaining your position. The latter can be a good introduction to free-form group rides because if you come out the back or need a break you can wait for the group to come around again and jump back in. If free-form pack rides are the only options, ask around to discern the character of the different groups. Some are more welcoming to new riders and others are a bunch of hammerheads who blow through stop signs.
Tips from within the group
Once you’re in the group ride, there are a number of skills and techniques you can use to stay safe and have fun. There are also some group ride etiquette recommendations and more advanced skills to keep in mind. Because we’re talking about fear and anxiety here, though, here are some tips specifically about easing fears of cycling in groups:
- Have an exit strategy
Even after 50 years of riding in groups there are times when I make sure I have an exit strategy, meaning I put myself in a position where I can quickly steer out of the group something happens ahead of me. This means staying on the side of the group so there’s open space to one side and being careful not to overlap the wheel ahead me.
- Look past the riders immediately in front of you
The farther ahead you can focus, the more you can anticipate changes in pace and direction and position yourself accordingly. If you’re not looking past the backside in front of you, your fate depends on that rider and your reaction time, and that’s not a good scenario. As you get more comfortable in the pack you’ll scan the whole group around you more than you focus your vision on any one rider or point ahead of you.
- Be prepared for potholes
Ideally, riders ahead of you will communicate about potholes and debris on the road before you hit them, but that doesn’t always happen and you have to be prepared to hit stuff you can’t or don’t have time to avoid. Swerving to avoid holes often causes more problems than dealing with the unpleasant jolt from riding through them. This is obviously not always true (which is why communication is so important), but if you’re in a situation where you see an unavoidable hole or crack at the last second, you can try to bunny hop it or at least unweight the bike, bend your knees and elbows to absorb the bump, and look forward (instead of down). Keep a secure grip on the bars and press forward with your arms. Your momentum is going in a straight line forward and you don’t want the bump to steer your front wheel off that line. It’s a bit of a balance; you have to keep your arms loose enough to absorb the jolt but firm enough to hold your line.
Don’t give in to peer pressure
In the process of getting comfortable and confident cycling in groups you’re going to need to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone. But do that on your own terms. It can be easy to get in over your head if you feel pressured to follow the wheels ahead of you at a speed or skill level you’re not ready for. A lot of crashes happen when a rider is working too hard to maintain a position he or she shouldn’t be fighting for. Backing off the wheel ahead of you sucks and letting a gap open might annoy the riders behind you, but it sure beats hitting the deck. Plus, if you let go of the wheel before you’re totally spent, you’ll have a better chance of getting back in the draft before getting spit out the back.
Group rides are one of the best things about cycling. There might be a lot to think about when you first start, but very soon those behaviors will become second nature and you’ll have a great time meeting new and old friends as the miles tick by.