How to Group Ride Like a Pro
How To Ride In A Group Of Cyclists: Key Tips For Smooth Cycling | 2023
By Chris Carmichael • CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer
Group rides are growing! Cyclists around the country are meeting outside bike shops and coffee houses for their Saturday morning club rides. Sometimes it’s a road ride, other times it’s on gravel or mixed surface ride. There might be some new riders at the group ride or on your cycling team. If you’re new to group riding or want to make the new folks feel more welcome, it’s important to remember good group ride etiquette.
Point OUT hazards
Flat tires suck for everyone, especially when you’re in a group that stops to wait for the affected rider. Minimize flats by physically pointing to the holes, glass, and random car parts. This hand signal needs to travel all the way back, so pass it on so the people behind you get the message. Different groups have different habits, but personally I reserve audible warnings for really dangerous situations.
If you run over debris, use your hand (preferably with gloves on) to brush the surface of your tire. On the front tire obviously do it in front of the fork. For the rear tire, hook your thumb on the seatstay and use your fingertips to brush the tire directly in front of the stays. Hooking your thumb prevents you from getting your hand jammed between your rear tire and the seat tube. Trust me, that’s an experience you don’t want to have.
Be proactive around safety and pacing
Nobody likes being barked at constantly, and certainly not during a nice group ride. But there are some times when it’s good to speak up. The riders at the back should let the group know when they need to single up to better share the road with cars, or when there is a particularly large vehicle coming around (like a dump truck).
The riders in about the 3rd row of a double paceline are in a good position to call for an adjustment to the pace. At this point in the group you can tell if the riders around you are struggling with the speed or the wind direction. Riders in the first and second rows can sometimes misjudge their pace and position relative to the rest of the group.
And of course, it’s everybody’s responsibility to watch out for potential bicycle-car collisions. If you see something, say something!
Stay off the brakes
You’re going to need to make minor speed adjustments in a group ride, and you want to do this with air resistance rather than braking whenever possible. That means sitting up a bit and/or moving out into the wind a little to slow down, or tucking into the draft and pedaling a bit more to speed up. When you tap the brakes, you slow more abruptly and that signals the rider behind you to tap his brakes, and so on. Obviously there are times when you need to and should use the brakes, but try to make minor speed adjustments without braking to avoid a herky-jerky riding experience for everyone around you.
Pull longer, not harder
If you’re feeling like superwoman or you’re the fast rider of the group, don’t ramp up the speed when you get to the front. It’s not nice and it makes the pace uncomfortably hard for your friends. Instead, ride the group’s pace and stay at the front longer. You’ll get the training you want and give the rest of the group some extra time in the draft.
Pull shorter, not slower
If you don’t have the fitness to take a long pull at the group’s pace, you should still rotate through like everyone else, but just pull off quickly. There’s no rule that says you have to take a pull equal to the rider before you. The rule is that you need to pull at the group’s pace. Don’t slow down, because then everyone stacks up behind you. For a smoother experience for everyone, keep it short and pull off.
Pace the climbs for the middle of the group
When the pack hits rolling hills it can be hard to keep the group together, especially when “that guy” drills it on the front. When drafting is less of a help to the riders in the middle and rear of the group ride, it’s important for the riders at the front to consider everyone when establishing the climbing pace.
On social group rides it’s typical to wait at the top of longer climbs. To minimize the frequency of these softpedal periods or stoppages, try to set a pace that’s comfortable for the middle of the group. This may mean it’s a bit easy for the fast riders at the front and pretty challenging for some folks at the back, but this pacing strategy is good for keeping the group together over the majority of hills.
Learn how to blow your nose
True story: In one of my first pro races in Europe I was riding along, middle of the pack, and I turned my head and hocked a lugie… right onto the legendary Francesco Moser’s thigh. A chorus of Italian curse words erupted around me and I slunk my way to the back of the pack for a while like I was in time-out. If it’s time to spit or blow a snot rocket, do it when you’re at the back of the group. If you have to do it around other people, aim down to the road not out to the side. Put your head down a bit and expectorate under your arm, almost as it you’re aiming for the end of your handlebar.
Shift as you stand up
When you stand up to pedal your weight shifts and your cadence almost always slows. This can result in what’s known as a “kickback”, where your rear wheel seems to kick backwards toward or into the front wheel of the rider behind you. It not only freaks people out, but if you end up tapping or overlapping wheels it can cause a crash. To avoid this, shift up once or twice into a harder gear as you rise from the saddle. With your full bodyweight over the pedal you can push a bigger gear at lower cadence and maintain your speed without causing a kickback.
… pull so hard you drop yourself
Social group rides tend to wait for dropped riders, which is great. However, try not to make them wait for you because you were riding like an idiot. If you take monster pulls at the front and then get dropped, you’re not making any friends. Learn to gauge your efforts and keep something in the tank to make sure you can latch onto the back of the group and stay on a wheel.
… show up late and unprepared
We’ve all been late to a group ride at some point, and we’ve all forgotten something important (like food) before. It happens, but it shouldn’t happen often. Be on time and be self-sufficient. This includes tools, a tube and a pump. I don’t care if you have tubeless tires and sealant, or if you prefer CO2 cartridges. When the sealant doesn’t seal and you’re out of CO2, a tube and a pump will get you going in minutes. We’re all nice people and we’ll give you a tube or some food if you need it. Just try not to need it.
… half-wheel your friends
The right way to ride in a double paceline is handlebar-to-handlebar, not half a wheel ahead of the rider next to you. Half-wheeling pisses people off, especially when you accelerate to maintain the half-wheel advantage despite your partner’s attempt to pull even with you. It also messes up the spacing for everyone in the paceline behind you.
… sprint away from stops
When the light turns green, gradually build the speed back up to where it’s supposed to be. Don’t be that rider who does a standing start sprint at every traffic light. Depending on the size of the group, the folks at the back won’t even start moving until you’re 50 meters down the road, and then they’re going to be maxxed out trying to get on a wheel.
… run stop signs and red lights
Just don’t do it. Besides being unsafe, against the law, and damaging to our collective reputation, it’s also disrespectful to all the groups who are working hard to convince communities to improve cycling infrastructure and enhance cyclists’ safety.
As of 2023, there are 10 States and the District of Columbia where cyclists can legally treat stop signs as yield signs. Originally known as the “Idaho Stop” because Idaho passed the first such law in 1982, the following nine states have passed similar laws between 2017 and 2022: Delaware, Arkansas, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Utah, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia. In Idaho, Arkansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma, cyclists can legally treat red lights as stop signs, too.
However, even in places where Stop as Yield and/or Red as Stop are legal, it’s important that you don’t…
… Get The Whole Group in Trouble or in Danger
When you decide to join a group ride, it’s like joining the Musketeers: all for one and one for all. For safety and efficiency, the whole group needs to move with one mind. This is most important when you are at the front. Can the whole group make it through the green traffic light? Is there enough space in traffic for the whole group to turn left? Though everyone has to be responsible for himself or herself, try not to make riders at the back have to decide between a dangerous situation and staying with the group.
At some point on some group ride, a car will pass too closely or some unhappy person will yell at the group from a car. Escalating these situations can be dangerous, and during a group ride you are potentially endangering more than just yourself and involving other people in a situation they may not want to deal with. Individual cyclists and groups should absolutely defend the right to safely share the road. Just remember that how you do that will reflect on the entire group. Be an adult, even when others are not. In the case of traffic stops, one hothead can get everybody ticketed instead of getting on with the ride.
In the long run most of these habits become second nature, and the longer you ride with the same group of people on a team or local club ride, the more you will be able to anticipate how the whole group is going to behave and the more comfortable you’ll be riding close together in a nice, tight pack or pace line.
Have fun out there!