To Group Ride or Not to Group Ride
Group rides are plentiful, and can easily be found in most locations across the country. While the social aspect and often a tough workout found in a group ride are fundamental attractions of the sport, they are not always the best fit for your training goals. Let’s look at breaking down a typical group ride and see where and when they work best within your training plan…
One of the most splendid attractions of road cycling that distinguishes it from other cycling disciplines is the feel of rolling down the road in a big collective pack. In some places during the summer months, you can not only attend rides on a daily basis, but you’ll even have the choice of different levels of rides. We at AthletiCamps are frequently asked whether our athletes should join a specific group ride or not. The fact that athletes ask this question indicates they are trying to understand the role group rides play in their overall training program, and this is a great issue to ponder.
Group Ride Anatomy
A typical group ride can consist of any number of riders (I’ve been on some as small as 3 and as large as 150!), and usually lasts between 2-4 hours. The three factors determining the type of ride you have are: the experience level of the riders, the geography of your area and how many rest stops there will be along the route. These factors can combine to create remarkably different rides.
While the terrain and duration may differ, one thing that’s almost universal across all group rides is the psychological factor. Namely, there’s always someone in the group who is feeling frisky or is just more aggressive (or in better shape), and will attack the group at one or more points in the ride. Of course, when one attacks, the whole group will try to follow. It is this final reality, of attempting to match the accelerations of a group which can determine whether a group ride will be helpful to your training.
It’s important to distinguish between two types of group rides. One type I’ll call a group training ride – where the riders have some type of coordination and are working on specific goals together; e.g., a ride your race team might put together. These training rides that have a specific goal are usually quite beneficial.
The other type is the much more common club ride, which is the focus of this article. In the club ride, it is usually not known who and how many riders will show up on any given day, and this creates a randomness and lack of focus that can be a challenge.
Races vs. Club Rides. First and foremost, it’s important to understand that group rides are not races. A lot of time we will hear them referred to as “race rides”, but they do not have an official start and finish line, riders don’t pay to enter and there are no prizes. And most importantly, there are no official categories. You can have many different levels from professionals to Cat 5s, as well as a wide range of ages all riding together. Commonly, lower level riders get pushed to their limits early in the ride, and then get dropped from the group.
Opportunities. Club rides do offer lower category and masters racers an opportunity to see first hand how a top level cyclist performs on the bike and gives them a chance to learn from more experienced/stronger riders. It can also give you a direct experience with top level riders that cannot be gotten merely from watching them race. This was especially useful for me when I began competing here in the Sacramento, CA. area. We have a long-standing ride called the River Ride that has been going on since the 1970s. The ride would consistently have some of the best riders in the country attend either because they lived here or were visiting the area. Being able to directly watch and ask questions of them was invaluable. I still utilize a lot of what I learned on those rides today with the athletes I work with at camps and in my coaching.
Harder is not better. When training for peak performances during the racing season, athletes must have a balanced program and specific plans to improve and achieve their goals. One of the most important ingredients in your program should be working on improving your aerobic capacity, which is your ability to process oxygen and thus produce more wattage at threshold. This process requires an immense amount of work, dedication and time, and is done largely at a medium level of exertion. Doing too many club rides can take away from working on this all-important ingredient, because club ride pace is generally either too easy or too hard (and usually both during the course of a given ride). This extreme aspect of group rides can interfere with you doing the medium endurance work that is so critical towards developing your aerobic capacity.
Using discipline during group rides. As we have noted, working on aerobic capacity is a vital component of a balanced training program. When taking part in a club ride in the hills, try this valuable tip. As the group approaches a climb, slowly increase your pace and allow the group’s speed to take you to the proper intensity level (around your anaerobic threshold). At that point, pretend you are on the hill by yourself and ride the hill at the intensity that best benefits you at that time of the season. In other words, don’t let the group’s pace destroy you! This requires discipline, because it’s easy to want to go harder and harder. As that time approaches when you need to get into your own rhythm, think about the fact that this is ONLY training and you want to save your big efforts for when it counts during real races. This leads us to the next important point.
Bike racing requires an athlete to give 100% during races. We’ve all been in suffering mode and know that to do well in the sport requires tolerating a lot of pain for periods of time. Another potential problem with doing too many club rides is that all the suffering becomes a blur. You suffer during the week a couple times; you suffer during the weekends on group rides or races. Your race efforts don’t become special, when you are motivated to give 100% towards winning.
Bridging the gap from training to racing. Club rides don’t allow you to gauge what you are capable of accomplishing in a race, mainly because of having different levels of riders and not being a true race situation (i.e. traffic lights, stop signs and regroups). One of the most important aspects of being successful in bike racing is each athlete truly understanding what their bodies are capable of doing, both physically and mentally, at any given time or situation. A good training program will allow you to link both physical and mental capabilities to your race efforts. One of the greatest things a coach likes to hear is one of their athletes come back from a successful race effort and say that something they were able to accomplish in the races “was just like all those efforts we did on that specific hill in training.”
It’s all about improvement. A good training program allows you to track improvement, which because of the nature of group rides, is very difficult to do. With the popularity of power meters and software to track performance, athletes can readily track progress when they do a structured workout. Since group rides vary so much from time to time (because of the random nature of who shows up on a ride), it is much harder (although still possible) to understand whether you’re improving over time. I like my athletes to have two different sets of goals; one that addresses improvement in training in the form of increasing their watts per kilo at threshold, and the other to have realistic competition goals. They are separate entities that eventually link together and are dependent on each other.
So what’s the bottom line? As always, it depends on many factors, mainly because each athlete’s fitness level and goals are unique. In general, the earlier you are in your race preparation, the more you should avoid unstructured group rides. One of the primary reasons for training is to prepare your body for racing.
As we end this season and enter the winter months, you must make a decision about how to spend your (likely) limited training time. If a rider neglects working on specific aspects of that preparation (e.g. aerobic capacity) during the off-season, they will enter the next race season unprepared. The early races may then have a negative effect on the athlete and will thus cost them more valuable training time. This could set-up a season of disappointment.
If you feel you have prepared sufficiently with your training program, you can effectively use occasional unstructured group rides before the season begins to sharpen both your pack skills and aspects of your fitness as a springboard into the races that count. If you are fortunate enough to be a member of a group/team that does group training, so long as your goals match those of the training ride, then go for it!
Ride Strong! Ride Safe!
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com