Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sure, I Can Hold That Speed. So Why Was That Club Ride So Difficult??



Having been away for a spell, I have lots of email questions built up in my inbox. Here is another one that seemed apt considering we are well on our way to spring.

It is around this time of year that cycling clubs begin their annual schedule of group rides. Depending on the club, these can include anything from paceline training rides to brevet-style social jaunts, endurance rides, and 3-speed meet ups (see also: On Club Rides and Finding the Right One for You). Some hybrid of the formal training ride and the social ride seems like the most common style on offer. Typically, these rides will be divided into several groups, based on ability, with corresponding average speeds posted as a guide (i.e. Beginners' Group: 12mph, Intermediate Group: 15mph; Advanced/Fast Group: 18mph+). This way, cyclists who are considering joining for the first time can decide which group best suits their abilities.

It seems fairly straightforward. After all, most cyclists use computers nowadays, so we have a pretty good idea of what average speeds we are capable of doing. Join the group with the corresponding speed and it should be fine. However, what often happens (and I have experienced this myself!) is that the club ride feels far more difficult than expected, sometimes to the point that the first time out we just can’t hang on.

So… why?

A few readers have asked me this question over the years. And, having pondered the mysteries of this phenomenon myself after several rather humiliating club-ride initiations, here are some things I have noticed...

The Novelty of a Steady Pace
First of all, we all have our individual patterns of energy highs and lows. When we ride alone, we are able to make the best use of them. We speed up when we feel an energy burst, slow and rest when we hit a dip. In the end it averages out. By contrast, the club ride tends to proceed at a steady pace. And this in itself takes some practice. Being unable to take advantage of our natural energy rhythms can feel absolutely exhausting.

Rest Makes a Difference 
By the same token, when we ride alone,  or casually with a couple of friends, we probably also tend to take breaks whenever we feel like it. Tired in the middle of a ride? No worries. We get off the bike, walk around, eat a snack, maybe snap a photo. On club rides, there are usually no breaks (unless it's a super long ride with a lunch stop). A 30 mile training ride usually means 30 miles without stopping - which is a lot more demanding than a 30 mile ride with rest breaks.

What About Terrain?
Considering that terrain plays a role in the average speed we are able to put out, it helps to have a look at the route the club ride will be doing. If the route has more elevation gain than the routes you typically ride, you may not be able to hold your 'usual' average speed.

The Optimistic Self-Assessment   
Repeatedly psychological research shows that on the whole people tend to slightly overestimate their skills, abilities, favourable traits - even physical features such as height! - compared to what they actually are, despite the availability of correct data. It follows that we also tend to be overly optimistic about our average cycling speed - so that even when supplied with concrete evidence, such as cyclo-computer data, we might tend to cherry pick average speeds from our 'best' rides when deciding what speed we are capable of holding on a typical random day. Of course in the course of a club ride, held on a typical random day, the truth comes out!

...And is that a bad thing? Personally I think not, even if it does knock the ole self-esteem down a notch. After all, there is nothing quite like a few shattering club rides to turn one's aspirational average speed into their actual average speed!

On the other hand, structured, performance-oriented club rides really aren't for everyone. There is nothing wrong with going it alone or keeping it casual with a few close friends, sticking to one's natural energy rhythms, and taking plenty of breaks. It is useful to know there is a difference, is all.

I recall the first time I joined a club ride in Ireland. This particular ride was women's only, and it was funny, because the leaflet advertising it read something like 'This is a ladies' ride, not a beginner's ride!' I phoned the ride leader to clarify, and she said I should be comfortable holding 16-17mph. I was feeling good that summer. So I thought, well okay I can do that - especially in a group, where I'll be getting the benefit of drafting.

I lasted maybe two thirds of the ride. In fairness to this group, they didn't drop me; I peeled off voluntarily when we hit the meaty portion of a long climb and I just couldn't take the pace anymore. And as I hobble-pedaled defeatedly home in a stupor, I remember thinking 'Those girls must have gone faster just to mess with me!'

Later I looked over the ride stats on my computer. An average of 16.7mph (not counting my ride home), precisely as promised. They were, after all, ladies of their word.




30 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you did this post. I tried several times to join other cyclists for organised rides which I was assured weren't to be fast rides. I finished them all exhausted, depressed and having taken a massive hit to my self esteem. These were, by the way, 9 mph average speed rides. I ride alone now, and I love to ride my bike, and I sometimes ride 30 or 40 miles. Only, I ride slowly - proper slowly!

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  2. >"If the route has more elevation gain than the routes you typically ride, you may not be able to hold your 'usual' average speed."

    Interesting. In my experience, the speed usually refers to a sort of expected level-ground no-wind pace. Hills tend to mean that the actual average speed of the ride will be lower; an "18-20mph" ride on flat ground might actually go 18-20mph, but through rolling hills would be considerably slower, so an "18-20mph" ride would be appropriate regardless of the terrain.

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  3. This is such a fascinating topic, I wish you would expand on all your points further and perhaps consider pitching this to a cycling magazine. This is an experience I have had many times and it is why club rides do not do it for me. I am by far not a beginner but find myself too slow for the so-called "intermediate" groups!

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  4. Poor non Specialized Koala... :(

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    1. Yes, I was wondering what you had against Specialized. You know, it's not the bike, it's the riders....

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    2. It was meant as a thunderbolt (= fast!) vs flower (= smell the flowers) sort of thing, not as a bicycle brand logo. But I cannot rule out subconscious forces at play.

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  5. The point about breaks is one reason why some people find audaxes (brevets, randonees) hard when they start. They're told "You don't need to go fast, you just need to keep going." Which is true; an average of 14km/h (or even less) is really not fast. And they know they can do 100km in one ride and they know they're okay on hills, but still it's draining. The reason being that there are breaks and those breaks very quickly knock your average speed down substantially; so the more tired you are, the more breaks you need, and the more breaks you need, the more you need to ride beyond your pace to make the time limit... Ironically it's those who are used to shorter but faster rides who often cope better at first (until the distances increase), because their speed allows them more rest time.

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    1. That was certainly the case for me. Doing my first timed 100K after two years of leisurely 100Ks was an eye opener!

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  6. Love the illustration, those animals make for hilariously unlikely cycling companions!

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    1. I don't know, I think the Lynx totally makes sense as the ride leader - pacing the group : )

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    2. I can only imagine the wind resistance resulting from those floppy bunny ears. Love your doodles, by the way.

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  7. I found sitting in a group, without having to do all the work on the front made me appear to be a lot faster...

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    1. Because I get surges of energy which I am not clever enough to hide, I am always put in the front when I go out on club rides. Need to learn how to subtly and quietly sit in the back!

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    2. When you feel that surge of energy coming on go to the back of the group. Then sit up and coast 20 seconds. Chase back in. Repeat until you are happy to do a steady pace.

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  8. A few months ago I started riding with a social group, average rides 12-20 miles easy pace, around town. No problem I thought I frequently ride 30+ miles!! But, somehow I still seem to get more of a work out on these rides then on my normal rides? surprising, but as you say I am not traveling at MY pace. That is part of it the other more surprising thing is that this slower pace is sometimes harder; because we are in a group, we stop more & longer for traffic controls (stop signs mostly) that frankly I would barely slow down for. All this starting and stopping saps your momentum and adds a workout factor that I don't get on my own. - Masmojo

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  9. Performance oriented group rides also tend to be very "surgey", especially when there is a breadth of ability within the "projected pace band" because as people hit their limit, they start opening gaps and require others to momentarily work very hard to stay in contact and not be dropped. These short, intense efforts are *very* taxing even if the overall speed is not that fast. That's why people attack a lot during races, not so much because you think you can break away, but to force others to chase and expend more energy. Furthermore, training for these kinds of efforts is really, really unpleasant, so people who ride alone a lot or casually with friends almost never experience them.

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  10. If you're interested in pursuing club rides, where speed is a criteria, first go out and do a ride on your own. Make it a fifteen mile ride, non-stop, and push yourself to the limit. Do it again. Look at your average speed. You may be surprised at how slow it is compared to your expectation. No worry, with a group you may survive the same ride with a bit of energy to spare. Riding with the appropriate group, with appropriate goals, makes the energy grow.

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  11. I've been riding for longer than most people have been alive, and have joined innumerable group rides over the years. The attraction was the comeraderie, the fact that group riding is good training (for the very reasons noted in the post), and because it just seemed the normal thing to do. Long ago I learned the importance of constantly working to "smooth the line," or even out the pace to avoid the bunch & stretch that otherwise happens, and which can defeat the energy advantage the group might otherwise afford.

    Over the years, as my own group riding skills have improved, I've become less tolerant of those people who don't have them, and find that I, perhaps selfishly, would prefer to ride by myself than to stay in a group with a few of these folks mucking up the pace. A few years ago, I watched a couple of crashes occur that were the result of inexperienced riders breaking with good practice, causing other riders to pay a heavy price. There's also the desire to just ride, instead of showing off, as so many people who are establishing themselves in the sport seem to do. I would generally rather ride long than hard.

    It seems these days less and less appealing to me to join these open group rides. I enjoy riding my own pace and picking my own routes enough that I find I gravitate towards just doing my own thing. I enjoy group rides that involve only experienced riders, but I've been avoiding the evening and weekend rides that must start at parking lots, since most of these cyclists never ride without driving their bikes somewhere first.

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  12. If group rides are to happen at all they simply must occur at a relatively smooth and steady pace. When twenty individuals show up to a group ride with twenty different agendas and twenty different sets of expectations there is no group activity, there is simply chaos. Plenty of group rides look like a pack of kittens, puppies, and squirrels chasing each other along the pavement. Those rides are very difficult. Anyone trying to participate in those rides will end up exhausted. Anyone even thinking about "individual patterns of energy highs and lows" would be best off riding alone.

    There is an even more basic reason for a steady pace. Accelerations consume far more energy than maintaining a constant speed. Accelerating and decelerating above and below a target pace while hoping to hit an average squanders enormous amounts of energy. After enough years and enough miles pretty much all cyclists realize the benefits of a steady pace and it becomes second nature. The way to make best use of those natural highs and lows is to ignore them and be a cyclist. If you are happy pedalling along at a slow and variable pace you don't care about any of this. Once the word "speed" is part of your vocabulary then you pay attention to Newton's Laws of Motion. They are as inflexible as the Law of Gravity. You may stand like Cuchulain and fight with the tide if you wish but you won't escape physics. Every variation in pace on any ride comes with a high price in wasted effort.

    There is mental energy consumed in coping with many moving cyclists in the immediate vicinity. Some riders never adjust to that. The way to limit the energy given over to coping with a lot of moving objects on different vectors is to get all in the group doing the same thing. When the group is flowing smooth and steady, and the riders are confident in that smooth, steady, single effort, the mental energy required is nil. There may even be energy freed up because you don't have to think about navigation or obstacles or what pace shall I do now. You don't have to do anything but pedal. For some of us doing nothing but pedalling is liberating, it feels like flying. For others, for those who must always be in charge, it is impossible and oppressive. The latter should avoid group rides. And if you didn't like the last group ride try another one. Some rides really are all about herding kittens and squirrels. A good ride should feel surprisingly easy and it should feel that way immediately.

    Velouria, about that ladies ride. The one where you expected the benefit of a draft. There is no draft at 16mph. At least none that could be located without sensitive instruments. Drafting begins above 20mph and doesn't much matter below 25.

    To see what a good group ride looks like try viewing the 1955 British Transport short film Cyclists Special. It's been linked here often before and is still up on YouTube. I've shown that film to people who tell me the action sequences have to be carefully rehearsed with stunt men, or that we are watching a precision drill team. No, those are very ordinary cyclists. Every group ride I did in the 1960s and 1970s was like that. Some rides were notably even better.

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    1. >"Velouria, about that ladies ride. The one where you expected the benefit of a draft. There is no draft at 16mph. At least none that could be located without sensitive instruments. Drafting begins above 20mph and doesn't much matter below 25."

      By 16mph there's already a noticeable effect on thresholds. Heck, drafting is a big part of why people bunch up even in on-foot races; if you're a strong runner doing a race of a few kilometers, staying close behind someone is like slashing a meter or two off each lap. Doesn't sound huge, but when people start to kick in the last 400m in a close field, being that much more fresh makes a significant difference in the final standings.

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  13. There's a local slow ride I do when the life schedule has been too hectic and a fast ride would just be draining. These guys are not beginners but they ride slowly. The joke is they propel the bike solely with their mouths. They are all sparkling conversationalists. When the weather is ideal they might average 12. Sometimes the ride has to be shortened because the pace is 5mph.

    Then there are beginner rides. I have been shanghaied, coerced and cajoled into leading those. Riders show up with no brakes. One working brake is sufficient for a very slow ride on flat terrain. Two sketchy brakes might be OK. No brakes at all does not work. So before the ride starts there are a lot of adjustments and repairs. Some would be participants will not wait, some want to continue and get a complete overhaul. Some get angry with the dictatorial leader who thinks we need brakes. After all we have helmets - who needs brakes if we have helmets?

    Then the ride starts and it is quickly clear half the group will only use Flintstone brakes. Someone just paid $500 for a fitting (to do rides at 8mph?) the saddle is 6 inches higher than it was and the Flintstone brakes no longer work. Someone's gears won't shift and it is because the rear wheel is loose in the frame. Modern bikes have vertical drops not because it makes perfect rando fender lines easier, it is so the wheels don't fall out. No one on the beginner or intermediate ride has any notion how a quick release works. Many shop mechanics have no idea how a quick release works.

    So the ride starts and my computer says we never exceed 10mph, average much less. In five minutes the ride is already spread out over a half mile of road. The back markers never really did have any intention of riding with the group. Everyone present is physically healthy, they could do the speed if they wanted. But they won't. Why are they here?

    At the rest stop the twenty pounds of tools I brought along get a complete workout. One rider paid hundreds just yesterday for a complete overhaul. The shop cleaned it and nothing else. They assumed that bike was only resuming a normal career as a garage ornament. I will hear from the shop owner soon. The opinion of that shop owner no longer matters to me.

    A ride billed as 20 miles in two hours ends up being three hours and twenty minutes. Not counting forty minutes of repair work before starting. Half the riders are complaining about the ferocious pace. The other half are boasting about the huge accomplishment. On average exactly one person will thank me for fixing their bike. Others will admit they have never had a working bike before.

    Leading rides is interesting. Highly recommended. You will learn something.

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  14. "I would never be a member of any Club, that would have me as a member" - Groucho Marx

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  15. Are you currently a club rider? If so what is your group like? If not, why?

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    1. Nope. I go through periods when I want to be and I go out with clubs once in a while, but it hasn't stuck. Mostly it's because I haven't found a club here that I fit with. I mean, unless you are in it purely for race training, which obviously I am not, I do think you need to feel some sort of group bond to ride with a club and it just hasn't happened here. The distance plays into it as well; to ride with most clubs I would have to drive my bike to the start and that's not something I enjoy.

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  16. Yes, it's a chain lynx.

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  17. There have been a few comments here about ride leaders. This role can not be understated. They provide, well, leadership in any context. As mentioned above, in a beginner group they provide basic skills and maintenance help to get people on the right track to be able to successfully accomplish the ride. At the faster end, training rides need a "patron" who is respected by the other riders who can dictate how the ride will unfold (steady, race pace, race simulation et al) and can act as the enforcer when people are not with the program. Without someone to act as the glue even groups as small as 4 or 5 riders can get very disorganized and cause frustration.

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  18. Being more of an introvert I'm not interested in group rides (not to mention the clothing required) but after reading this post I became curious about what they have to say about their rides. It was easy to find a list of groups in my area and read their descriptions of the rides and expectations. They all seemed to echo similar themes, especially for beginners -- Be conservative. Chose a ride easier and shorter than you think you can ultimately handle. You will not enjoy struggling to keep up with a ride that is too fast for you nor will the group enjoy waiting for you. And if one has any questions to be sure and contact the group leader ahead of time. All seems simple and clear. Come to think of it I'm having a hard time thinking of any activity I enjoy doing on my own that has not been more difficult or problematic when done in with others. Playing music, drawing, sports, all of which I seem to have a higher estimation of my ability to blend in and contribute than I actually exhibit. Perhaps that's a reason to do them for some. Happy cycling.

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  19. Riders of similar ability meet by chance on the road and a temporary group develops which is quite functional given the self-selecting nature of these encounters. Of late this is the only kind of group ride I care to do.

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