by Fred Matheny
Cycling is social because riding with a group is a long-standing tradition in the sport. But cycling alone is fun, too, and many riders live in areas where riding companions are scarce.
Should you ride solo, in a group or with a training partner? Each has its advantages.
SOLO RIDES. You can set your own pace and don’t have to wait for companions who are slower or have punctured. The ride starts when you want it to, not when the last member of the group finally shows up. You build strength riding in the wind by yourself. You develop the self-reliance skills of bike repair and route finding. And solo riding can be safer because one cyclist takes up less room on the road and is less likely to irritate motorists.
GROUP RIDES. Friends can encourage you to get out, even if the weather is harsh or your motivation has waned. Group riding teaches you to be comfortable in pacelines and when bumping elbows. You can ride faster than when alone. If you have an accident or serious mechanical problem, friends are right there to help. One popular approach: Ride alone on weekdays when you’re pressed for time and need things to happen on your schedule. On weekends, ride with a group.
What if you live where there are no other cyclists? You can still meet most training objectives when riding solo. You won’t hone pack skills or sprint tactics, but power, speed and climbing ability can still be developed.
ONE-PARTNER RIDES. If you don’t have a full-fledged pack to ride with, there may be another like-minded rider in your area.
Training with a buddy is extremely effective, and it makes rides more fun. You can take turns pulling for a natural interval session. Trade the front every 1-3 minutes. You each go hard against the wind, then recover in the draft. Such training makes the miles fly by.
Look for training partners at work or ask at your local bike shop or cycling club. Don’t forget your significant other! Riding with someone you care for can make the quest for fitness even more meaningful.
Can you get a decent workout when riding with a slower cyclist? You bet. Use your beater bike or even a knobby-tire mountain bike. You’ll exert more effort at lower speeds. Or, use a low gear the whole ride regardless of terrain and work on your spin. On climbs, ride to the top, then circle back to join your friend and ride up again at his (or her) pace.
TIP! Get a tandem. Nothing beats a twicer if you want to get good workouts and still ride often with a person that’s slower or less fit. On the front, you can push as hard as you want. On the back, your partner only has to keep his (or her) legs going around. He doesn’t have to exert to keep up, yet he can’t be dropped. Tandem riding is a fun change of pace besides being a great workout. It helps keep cycling varied and interesting.
If you ride with a friend, maybe you’ve wondered when it’s OK to ride side-by-side. Generally, it’s safe and legal if you aren’t obstructing traffic. On a road without a wide shoulder, switch to single file when an overtaking vehicle gets within 300 feet or so.
Be predictable and safe by riding a straight line. If you tend to wobble and wander, practice this skill on a low-traffic road by riding with your wheels on the white line along the edge. You’ll find that it’s easier if you look ahead 30 feet rather than directly in front of your wheel. You need to keep your eyes up in a paceline, too.
When you’re leading the line, remember that you’re the eyes and ears of the whole group. It’s your responsibility to warn or obstacles in the road as well as turns and stops. Watch for ve- hicles at intersections.
Beware of a common mistake—getting excited and going too fast because you’re pulling the group. Notice your speed while you’re in second place. As you take the front, maintain that speed. The former leader should slow to drop back so you don’t have to accelerate.
Limit your time at the front to the group’s average, or less. Pull off and let someone else share the work.
When dropping back, stay close to the line. This enhances the group’s draft. Don’t wander dangerously into the middle of the lane. Accelerate smoothly as the last rider in line comes alongside so you can move behind his wheel without a gap opening.
The last rider in a paceline is responsible for calling out “car back!” when there’s an overtaking vehicle. This is especially important on narrow roads when the group is in a double paceline (2 abreast). Riders need time to single out and reduce the effect on traffic.
Never make an abrupt or abnormal move in a paceline. Smooth, steady and predictable are the bywords. Ride relaxed, especially in arms and shoulders. Elbows will get bumped. If they’re relaxed, they’ll absorb nudges without affecting bike control.
EXAMPLE! John Allis, a national road champion in the 1970s, was a stickler for relaxed arms. On training rides, he’d unexpectedly grab a newcomer’s elbow and shake it, holding on to keep the rider from losing control. The victims of this not-so-subtle tactic weren’t likely to forget the importance of relaxed arms— once their hearts stopped pounding.
Finally, don’t let your front wheel overlap a rear wheel. If that bike swerves, the contact will usually knock you down. Drop back a bit more on climbs. The rider just ahead might stand and decelerate slightly—in effect, moving backward toward your wheel.
CAUTION! If you have aero bars on your bike for comfort and speed on long rides, remember that they aren’t to be used in pacelines. It’s dangerous to ride close to others when stretched out on aero bars. Your steering precision isn’t as great and your hands are far from the brake levers. Either remove aero bars for group rides or promise not to use them.
Solo Training Objectives in a Group
Groups go at a certain speed—and it may not be the speed that meets your training objectives.
If you scheduled an easy spin and the guys blast out of the parking lot in the big ring, you’ll be unable to keep your intensity down if you want to stick with them. But when you’re ready for a hard ride and everyone else is spinning to the coffee shop, it’s easy to become frustrated.
For this reason, you may need different companions on different days. It depends on what you want to accomplish. If you ride with the local hammers twice a week and spin with the social cyclists on other days that might be the right mix.
But even if you end up in a group with objectives far different from yours, you can still come close to meeting your goals. Let’s look at 3 situations.
1. The group is going too hard.
SIT IN. Stay at the back of the pack and let cyclists who rotate off the front drop in ahead of you. Leave just enough gap to let the rider slide in while you keep the draft. Tell the others what you’re doing so there won’t be any mix-ups and crashes.
DROP OUT. Ride in the shelter of the pack during the warm up miles and on the flats when it’s easy to keep up. When the group turns toward the hills and the intensity rises, drop off and ride solo at your own pace.
GET HELP. Let stronger riders push you up hills. A helping hand on the small of the back or the rear of the saddle makes a hill much easier. And pushing you helps stronger riders get a better workout.
2. The group is going too slow.
TIP! Before using some of these tactics, tell the group what you’re doing. Otherwise, it could be confusing and annoying. You won’t be welcome if it looks like you’re merely showboating.
BE THE MOTOR. Stay at the front and tow the group. The others will be doing about 15-20% less work than you—a big equalizer.
TAKE LONGER PULLS. If you aren’t appreciably stronger than everyone but simply want a hard workout, take pulls that are 2-3 times longer. You’ll get more work and less recuperation.
PUSH WILLING RIDERS. Not everyone appreciates being pushed up hills. But if you find a willing pushee, it’s a great way to build some strength on an otherwise easy ride.
RIDE A HEAVY BIKE. If everyone else is on their sub-17-pound superbikes and you show up on a 30-pound beater with fenders and wide tires, you’ll have to work significantly harder to match their speed, especially up hills.
FLEE AND COME BACK. Sprint out of a slow group, then wait for them to catch up as you recover. Or work a hill hard, ride several hundred yards down the other side, U- turn and ride back to the top to meet the group coming over.
PLAY GAMES. In a paceline moving at moderate speed, attack from the rear and get as much lead as possible in about 20 seconds. When this time elapses, the first person in the paceline gives the signal and everyone works together to reel you in. Even if you’re much stronger than others in the group, they’ll make it hard for you to stay away by sharing the chase.
ATTACK. When the group gets to a longer hill, attack in a small gear with a very high cadence. When you’ve gained about 200 yards, shift to a bigger gear, stand and pedal at 50 rpm to work on strength. When you’re caught, attack again in a small gear.
Using techniques like these with a willing bunch, you can meet your training goals and still enjoy the group aspects of cycling.