When is a Cycling Group Ride Appropriate
For many riders, group rides are what they live for. The camaraderie, the enjoyment of going fast in a pack, beating your friends up a climb or for the town line sprint, and the post ride get together. These are all fun and exciting ways to enjoy riding your bicycle, but it isn’t always the best training.
Before you say, “But I don’t want to train and lose my love for riding”, read on.
This post is for cyclists looking to optimize the time that they spend on the bike, and get faster, while still having fun.
One of our first rules with any athlete is that the process of getting faster has to be fun. You will not succeed and make long term gains if you aren’t having fun doing it. We all have a ton of other things going on in life, so for the 99% of us that aren’t making a living by riding a bike, it has to be fun.
Sure, VO2Max intervals aren’t exactly fun, but the feeling of achievement and excitement when you finish and conquer them sure are!!
So, without digging into every aspect of why interval training is beneficial, let’s take a look at why you shouldn’t be doing a group ride, and when you should be doing a group ride.
Cycling Group Rides
Whether you want to believe it or not, most group rides of 5 or more people consist of two states: coasting and hammering. Many riders get excited and want to pull so hard to show that 1) I’ve been training! And 2) Look How Strong I Am. They then peel off, and let the next rider take over.
Then you coast coast coast until it is time to do it again.
A Sprint Line ahead! Hammer to the finish, coast and recover.
A KOM ahead! Hammer to the top, coast down.
Even if the group is more controlled and riding at a tempo pace, you’re only working a portion of the time, and I’d bet that when you come home, 30% of your ride is in Zone 1, coasting, junk miles.
So let’s pause here and say this: we get it, big group rides with friends are fun, but they aren’t training.
BUT GROUP RIDES ARE HARD. Aren’t I getting faster?
The first time you ride in a group, you’ll really start to see how hard you can push yourself when you are chasing someone else! It’s extremely hard to push yourself to your absolute max when you’re training alone, but unfortunately the pushes and surges that are created in group rides rarely transfer over to what you should be training.
You will come home tired and exhausted, but you didn’t train specifically enough for your upcoming event (unless you’re riding the same route that the event will be on, with similar competition), and you didn’t focus on your weaknesses that you want to improve. You’ll get really good at that group ride, and then eventually stagnate, since it’s the same efforts over and over again.
Small Group Rides
Small groups of 4 or more are much more productive because you can have a say in the pace. You’re either pulling, or only one rider back, so if needed, you can leave a little space in between and not catch much draft. This greatly increases your chances of actually pedaling the bike. Putting out watts into the pedals is part of building your aerobic engine, and cycling is an aerobic sport, all the way down to short sprint races.
You can all have the same game plan of “riding endurance” or “vo2maxing the climbs”, whatever the group’s goal is for the day. Make sure this group’s plan lines up with your training plan. If it does, the small group ride can be quite productive.
Below is what a solid tempo ride should look like. The rider gets out of the city, stays on the gas, and heads home. Bravo!
Below is what a garbage ride looks like: tons of coasting in zone 1, way too much hammering (the yellow portions above the green dotted line), and lots of wasted time.
Again, we get it, the 2nd ride may have been fun, but we are teaching you to optimize your time on the bike if you want to get faster.
When You Should Group Ride
Group rides will teach you how to handle your bike in packs, and many cyclists don’t ride within big groups on a regular basis. If you don’t, attending a gran fondo or charity ride can be very intimidating. The more you ride with people and eventually get used to the feeling of someone bumping you, the safer you become as a cyclist and the more events you’ll want to participate in.
The world of Zwift, TrainerRoad, and e-sports in general have created a platform for more and more individuals to get involved in the sport of cycling. That being said, riding inside on a trainer is much different than riding outside! If you ride indoors, once you go outside, it will feel very different and you might have a tough time “holding your line” (riding in a straight line). You want to master this before jumping into a group ride, or others will surely bark at you, for everyone’s safety.
The staccato of a group ride is very different than riding alone, because you need to respond to the surges of other riders, and they may come when you aren’t expecting it. Working on this type of random acceleration and just digging as HARD as you can is extremely beneficial to newer riders.
HOWEVER, once you have done this over and over again, you reach a peak of making gains from this. Once you’ve done these types of rides, you’re not responding to more and more of these; random surges won’t increase your repeatability to do these over and over again. Rather, do some Tabata style intervals; workout below.
Warm up 20m
2 sets of 20 x (30s FULL GAS, 30s recover)
Just go over and over again... Recover 5m between sets.
Time Trial Practice
If you know that you are going to be one of the stronger riders at this group ride, you REALLY should be avoiding it. Or, try to drill it off the front, so that 5 or 6 riders are leading a chase that might actually catch you.
This type of ride will teach you to:
keep the biking moving fast over the rolling sections. A group will naturally go faster than you over these, so you’ll get great practice hitting the suprathreshold and having to fall directly back in 100% FTP, or you’ll soon be caught
You’ll learn to stop staring at your power meter and you might just set a new PR; RIDE THIS RIDE BY FEEL. FREAKING GO FOR IT. Don’t ease up because your HR is high; that is the lamest reason in the book to stop. HR monitors aren’t accurate all the time and there’s tons of variability to them. Test your legs on these group rides. If you blow up, at least you’ll learn something and that piece of knowledge makes you stronger
Testing the peloton...the longer you stay out there, the group loses motivation. It is a great skill to be able to see this from down the road. As you get tired, you need to learn how to stop being a carrot in their eyes. This is a soft skill for sure, but sometimes you can just tell, “If I get over this next climb / roller / whatever and they haven’t closed in on me, their motivation will be toast”
If you’re 3 weeks out from a big omnium or long road or gravel race, there is a ton of opportunity to use a group ride to add on a lot of Training Stress, or TSS. This assumes that you don’t go on a group ride that is explained above where you are just sitting around and coasting. You must be pedaling and using the other riders to push you harder than you would be able to at the end of a long training ride.
Riding With Stronger Riders
Riding with people that are stronger than you is a real treat. You can learn things from them such as how to handle a bike, watch how they pedal in different situations, how do they corner, what do they eat, when do they drink, etc etc.
You will dig harder than you normally would in order to keep up! They will really push you when you get tired. These types of rides will make you stronger, just as hard races do.
If you can ride with stronger riders, go for it! If you get dropped ASAP on a drop ride, maybe they’re a little too strong. Ride with people where you can at least make it 60% of the ride, or one where they regroup at the top of climbs or after “hot zones”. Otherwise, have a game plan for what you’ll do with the remaining time. Tip: it’s not Zone 1.
Make sure you don’t do the same hard ride over and over again, or you’ll find yourself only improving on the durations of the few hard sections. It’s amazing how fast we adapt and then stagnate if we do it over and over again.
Group rides are fun, but rarely do they help you become a faster cyclist or better prepared for your events coming up because they don’t focus on your specific weaknesses.
They most likely are just making you tired, because anaerobic efforts do just that: make you tired; not faster.
If you limit your group rides to 1x for every two weeks, you’ll get faster. If you need to go every week, make it part of your long ride on the weekend.
Dial in your training during the week so you drop everyone on the weekend.
Now, doesn’t that sound fun?