Your Guide to Group Bike Rides

Almost 10-years ago I started cycling primarily for triathlon but I had a coach who encouraged us to train by doing group bike rides throughout the week.

I was fairly new to riding a road bike with anything other than my cushy seat and on designated bike trails. I had a new entry level road bike, which was the most expensive bike I had ever purchased and the first bike I had purchased at a bike shop rather than a Walmart. I was new to riding in cycling shoes with clips rather than flat pedals and was just learning about the miracle that is cycling shorts.

At the time, I had just moved to Georgia and was living with my parents in a suburb outside of the city. I had gone on a couple of group rides with my triathlon team so I was feeling pretty confident. I looked for some local group rides during the week and found one at a local bike shop.

It was a disaster. I made so many mistakes on that first group ride. At some point, halfway through the ride, I found myself in the middle of nowhere, all by myself. Had it not been for my triathlon team, I might have retired my bike for good that day.

Since that ride, I’ve typically had great group rides with clubs or teams that I’ve been a part of but have also had a handful of other bad group rides. Rides where I was either way out of my league or where I felt like I was the unwanted guest at an exclusive party.

If you’re trying to find your first group ride, ask around. Some rides are definitely more conducive to new riders than others. And if you end up on the wrong group ride, don’t let that stop you. Sometimes it’s the make up of the people who show up to a particular event and sometimes it’s the culture of the group.

Group rides also tend to have their own inside lingo. To help you navigate your first few group rides, here’s my breakdown on the lingo and some key tips:

Start Time…also called ‘Wheels Down’

If the ride says 6:30, it’s probably going to be pulling out of the parking lot at 6:30. The start time is typically the departure time. You’ll want to arrive 15-20 minutes early to go to the bathroom, fill up your water bottles, get your bike set up and meet the ride leaders.

If you’re riding gravel or trails there may be a parking fee. Make sure you give yourself enough time to find the parking box and pay the fee. I’ve seen lots of tickets issued during rides.

No Drop

A no drop ride means that no one in the group will be dropped. It doesn’t mean that everyone will ride at the same pace. I’ve had two types of experiences in a no drop ride. First, everyone meets at key turns or intersections. Second, there’s a sweeper or group leader who rides with the slower riders. I actually prefer the latter. There have been a few group rides where I was significantly slower than the front of pack riders but we would all meet up at a key turn. By the time I caught up, they had been resting for 2-3 minutes and were ready to take off again. I felt like I was working really hard to keep up but never got any rest.

Sweepers

When a group ride has sweepers, it means they’ll have designated riders who either ride with the back of the pack or they will continue to ride back and forth within the pack to make sure that everyone is accounted for. This isn’t only for slower riders, it’s also in case someone has a mechanical issues and needs help.

SAG (Support and Gear)

Sag support is typically available on longer rides and will be done from a car. The car typically sits at key turns and has water, snacks, and mechanical supplies.

Pace groups

Often a ride will say, ‘this ride goes at a 14-16 mph pace’ or ‘we will break up into 2-3 pace groups’. Make sure you can keep that pace. If it’s a large group ride, it’s easy to get spread out within a pace group. When in doubt, go out with the slower group on your first few rides.

Another tip to understand paces is to find out how long the ride typically takes. If it’s a weeknight ride and they typically cover 20-22 miles leaving at 6:30 and returning around 8, then you know they’re going to be hitting a fairly strong pace.

Gravel and mountain biking rides are typically at a much slower pace than road riding. So if you’ve been riding road and are switching to gravel, don’t discount a ride pace that says it’s a 10-11 mph pace. That can still be a challenging pace on gravel.

Self Supported

Every ride is self supported. Don’t ever count on anyone else for your mechanical, hydration, or nutrition needs. I made a rookie mistake last year when I decided to ride in a big local event with my friend. Even though the event offered a 50 and 80-mile option, we were doing the 25-mile option. I only took one bottle of water because it was 25 miles with 2 SAG stops along the way. I actually remember thinking, ‘I should take my extra bottle, just in case’ but decided that would be silly.

Turns out the volunteer accidentally sent all of the riders on the 25-mile loop out on the 50-mile loop. Once we realized it, about 15-miles in, we tried to redirect ourselves to the course. We were on a much more challenging route and there were no SAG stops. Always, always, always be prepared to fully support yourself on a ride.

What I take on pretty much every ride:

  • 2 bottles of water

  • Some type of snack or at the very least a gel

  • Tire changing kit

  • Credit card/phone/$5.00 cash (in case I hit a store that only takes cash)

  • Cue Sheets or downloaded gpx file

Cue Sheets

Cue sheets are the maps that show you where you’re going on a group ride. Most rides have cue sheets or GPS files that you can download. It’s always good to take a cue sheet JUST IN CASE you lose the group. If you are riding in the country or on gravel roads, you may not have cell service.

Before you head out on a group ride, make sure you know your limits. Some groups really aren’t for beginners. They have no interest and will actually be kind of annoyed to have you there. Typically if you ask around, people will be pretty upfront about the type of group that it is.

Try to find a group that has sweepers or at least someone who likes riding with newbies. My friend Nicole takes newbies out every Saturday with Atlanta Triathlon Club. She’s been riding for years but she goes at the pace of whoever the slowest newbie is. She gives a course overview and stops to teach people along the way. It is a fantastic experience for new riders and there are groups like this out there.

Make sure you arrive early and introduce yourself to the ride leaders. Don’t be afraid to say that you’re new and you’re not even sure what your pace might be. They often don’t want to insult you by assuming you aren’t a seasoned vet.

Finally, it’s okay to bail. If you’re getting a bad vibe before the ride starts or you get two miles in and realize that this is gong to be bad news for you, turn around.

It may take a few attempts to find a group that you really enjoy riding with. As I write this article, and recall some of my experiences in my first year on a bike, I’m kind of shocked that I still ride. Pushing through was worth it and looking back, some of my best memories on a bike are from group rides.

If you find a group that you love, tell us about it in the comments!