I saw an online question posed, “When is a group ride too big.” The answer I would give is that it is not the size of the group that is the issue, it is the makeup of the group and their collective bike riding experience and skills.
A group of 20 or even 30 professional riders, or even top experienced amateurs, might not be too big, whereas a group of six complete novices might be.
I stopped riding with my local group, because the experienced guys are just too fast for me, and the slower group has just enough people in the mix that don’t have a clue about the basic group riding skills. At best it makes the group not fun to ride with, and at worst, downright dangerous.
Probably the single most important thing in group riding is the ability to ‘Follow a Wheel.’ To draft effectively a rider must maintain a distance of no more than 18 inches from the rider ahead. Once the gap opens up to half a bike length then the following rider has no benefit from drafting.
The ideal minimum distance to follow a wheel is 6 to 8 inches. Many do not have the confidence or the skill to ride that close, so they leave a bike length, or two, or three, between each rider, as a result a group of 20 or so is strung out over a quarter of a mile, making it impossible for cars to pass the whole group without cutting in front of someone somewhere.
Others are trying to get from the back to the front of this long strung out line, the result being that there are riders two abreast in several places. Okay, so it is legal for a cyclist to pass another cyclist, but to an outsider it just appears to be an unorganized rabble all over the road. Which is pretty much what it is.
Then if the group does manage to form something that resembles a pace line, there is the rider who can’t ride smoothly, and is constantly pedal, pedal, coast. Pedal, pedal, coast. Or worse still is constantly on the brakes.
A newcomer should aim to maintain a gap of about 12 inches to start with. That way the distance can fluctuate from 6 inches to 18 inches. Try to avoid using the brakes to regulate speed, if one should find themselves getting too close to the wheel they are following, ease off on the pedaling, and pull off to one side or the other. That way the rider pulls out of the lead rider's slipstream and catches a little head wind that it will slow him down, naturally and gently.
Applying the brakes will slow the rider too quickly, and he will start to yoyo on and off. Braking opens a gap, the rider then sprints to catch up, finds himself running into the rider ahead, then has to use the brakes again and the whole cycle starts over.
This also becomes uncomfortable and dangerous for others following. Even a gentle touch of the brakes, and with the delay in reaction before the rider behind realizes what is happening. He has to slam on his brakes a little harder, and the whole effect gets magnified as it goes from one rider to the next. Often the result is someone runs into the rider ahead and brings down several riders behind him.
Don’t even stop pedaling and freewheel. This can be annoying for the following rider, better to just ease of the pressure, and keep the pedals turning at slightly less revs, just partially freewheeling.
Try to avoid overlapping the wheel in front, but if a rider should find the gap between wheels getting to be 6 inches or less, just pull off slightly to one side. Better that wheels overlap briefly than to have them actually touch.
Don’t panic, don’t use the brakes, just ease off on the pedals and let the wind the rider is catching slow him gently so he can drop back in behind the leader. The rider next in line will follow not even aware that the rider ahead changed his line slightly.
Smoothness is the key to riding in a pace line. That includes smoothness when going to the front to take your turn. Don’t sprint through and increase the speed. Gaps will open up, and cause a chain reaction down the pace line in the same way braking did, with each rider having to sprint harder and harder to close the gap ahead.
Cycling is one of the few athletic activities where one can socialize while participating. But in order to socialize one must ride in a group. With more and more new people coming into the sport all the time the situation will get worse before it gets better.
What are your pet peeves with inexperienced riders on group rides?