Ride Leader (Part I): What The Heck Does That REALLY Mean?

You show up for your local group ride and someone is designated as the ‘Ride Leader’.  You look around and make sure you see who that is; hey, they are the leader, right?  Just as there is SO much ignorance, ambiguity, and a wide range of perspectives about group ride etiquette, the same holds true for this elusive term called Ride Leader.  Honestly, have you ever really thought about what that is suppose to mean or IMG_3154what level of expectation you should have and receive from the Ride Leader?  My guess is it goes out one ear as fast as it entered the other.

After several conversations with cyclists, their collective perspective is that they really didn’t know what this term meant.  Their collective assumption was that the Ride Leader would make sure no one got lost and (not with all the responses) that no one would be left dropped off the back by themselves.  In a way I was surprised at these responses but in a way I wasn’t surprised.  It is amazing at how low a level of expectation cyclists set for group rides and that this seems to be the norm and acceptable perspective across the board.  Only a very rare few group rides have clear and articulated rules and expectations…and those are the ones that cyclists tend to flock to in huge numbers.  Hmmm….wonder why that is?  OK, that was rhetorical.

I am not the all-end-all authority on anything cycling but I HAVE logged over 210,000 miles on a bike and I have ridden in ALL levels of group rides with all levels of cyclists and I’ve been a cycling coach for 13 years.  I have ridden in rides where there were no rules at all to those with very rigid, organized rules.  Trust me, these two extremes have only two things in common; bicycles and those that ride them.  Everything else is about polar opposite as you can imagine.  I also use to race motorcycles and though you may think why in the heck did I mention this but there are direct correlations in SO many ways.   I say all this to say that I may not be the final authority but I have a level of experience that I bring to the table that is most certainly not very common.

That said, I am going to share with you what I have instituted in my annual Atlanta Winter Bike League DSC02112series and the role of my Ride Leaders.  From my perspective, if you really want a very successful group ride, then I would recommend the same approach I have done with my Ride Leaders (RL).  Ready?

First off, every one of my RL’s volunteered to help, which is a huge blessing.  Next, I spent 2-3 hours conducting a ‘riding interview’ so to speak, as I wanted to make sure they understood (from my perspective) what a RL really is and what is expected of them.  Once they agreed, then we covered countless topics where we stopped, talked about them and the thought process behind them, and then jumped on our bikes and literally practiced those topics.  We did this stop-start process until we addressed and practiced each topic.  For the RL’s I trained for my 2015-2016 WBL series, I even had a few of them tell me they would have paid to get this type of in-depth coaching and how it has changed their whole perspective of riding in a group…especially as a RL.

When you are riding a bike, the last thing you or anyone else should do, is to do anything sudden.  I think we all understand the consequences of that.  When you ride in close proximity to other cyclists, you and everyone just can’t afford those ‘knee-jerk’ reactions.  Way too many unnecessary crashes are the result.  As I was telling one cyclist on a group ride this past weekend, cyclists ride their bikes like they drive.  The natural tendency when drivers see ANY sign of danger, etc. is to slam on their brakes.  Statistics clearly show that doing this, not only causes them to lose control of their vehicles but also tends to result in far worse scenarios.  If drivers learn to just take their foot off the gas pedal and coast (so to speak), the majority of the time they would never have to hit their brakes at all.  I’ve lived in Atlanta since 1981 and I’ve been driving this way ever since.  Rarely, do I have to slam my brakes but I have lost count how many crashes I avoided.  Bottom line, grabbing your brake levers is NOT or SHOULD NOT be your first response.

That relates to the pace that is set; notice I did not say the ‘speed’ that is set.  Pace is the level of effort that you are pedaling at any given point; it has NOTHING to do with speed.  If we removed the entire conversation and mindset of ‘speed’ from group rides, then they would function FAR more efficiently.  Pace is like having a power meter on your bike and riding so that you continue to pedal (AND SHIFT) so that you maintain that same watts output 100% of the time.  This means you have to be very cognizant of how much effort you are using at any given time when pedaling, so if you begin to go down a slight descent then you will need to shift up to a harder gear to avoid your effort level dropping and your cadence increasing.  The opposite is true when you start to go up.  In reality, I see on every ride where those up front will either, 1. coast downhill (because they just surged up the hill) or 2. they will continue to pedal but never continue to shift up to harder gears to maintain the same effort level…or watts if you are using a power meter.  If you are in a group and going downhill and having to hit your brakes (to keep from running into those in front of you) then you can bet that whoever up front is doing either on or both of the 2 scenarios I just described.

In GA, cyclists are legally allowed to ride 2-abreast or single file per HB 101 (3-Ft Law).  If you obtain an event permit, that is the Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 1.39.56 PMonly time a group can legally take up the entire lane.  The excuse of a ‘big’ group ride to take up the entire lane is NOT acceptable or legal; it’s just wrong.  Our Atlanta WBL has drawn consistently 100+ cyclists and you will never see anything but 2-abreast.  If your group ride doesn’t ride legally, then demand it from the organizers.

The thing I’ve found with double pace lines (or 2-abreast) is most folks aren’t comfortable with riding close to others for any length of time; I get that.  Here is what I share at every Ride Mtg at our WBL that I have found to be the single most effective tool to combat this fear/hesitation head on; braking straight.  Instead of cyclists swerving side-to-side when they get to close to the wheel in front of them, they should continue to pedal but apply their brakes at the same time.  Now, you become consistently safe by eliminating that swerving and you experience riding in a straight line 100% of the time.  If you are following someone who can’t hold a straight line then either find a wheel who does or YOU ride straight.  This way, you become consistent for the cyclist following you.

I’m not just talking about riding straight, I’m also talking about holding you line when the road curves, etc.  Simply, this means if you are on the outside line (closest to edge of the road) and you are riding 2 feet from the edge, then you need to maintain that same 2 feet 100% of the time.  Don’t go into a right turn and move out way left; you will run into your riding partner.  Be consistent and predictably safe…for you and everyone else.

As I said before, you never do anything sudden on a bike…unless this is your LAST option!!!  If you are pulling at the front, then it’s your responsibility to look ahead for any hazards, etc.  Don’t go to sleep and then at the last minute yell out something and suddenly swerve your bike.  If you see a hazard coming, both you and your partner should gradually change your lines (together) around the hazard and then gradually move back into your normal positions…meaning riding to the right side of the road.

Also, if you are riding on the inside pace line (closer to the middle of the road) then you have a unique responsibility that your partner to your right doesn’t; you need to look for hazards in their line and then begin to move gradually as you approach them by giving your partner room to safely maneuver around it. If you don’t, then you box your partner in with almost no room for error.

This post is getting a bit too long so I’ll continue this subject as PART II for my next post.  I’ll cover rotating, mindset, stopping and starting and a few more.

I hope you really take time to digest these topics and then implement them in your group riding…especially if you are riding at the front.  I literally wrote a book about this called ‘It’s NOT About Speed: The Lost Art of Group Riding.  It’s an e-Book but covers every aspect of group riding, including leading.  It goes into more detail and has embedded video to help further illustrate several dynamics.

Coach Robert….


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