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Ask questions before signing on for a group bike ride

Published Feb. 5, 2015

Bicycle group riding can be fun, demanding, inspiring and a little nerve-racking. But it also can be safer than riding solo.

There are a lot of good reasons to try it, but before you do, think about which kind of group is right for you.

Some of the folks I ride with chatter like they're in their living rooms. They enjoy the camaraderie and seem to look forward most to the cappuccino at the end of the ride.

They like to ride in a double line, where allowable, and speeds may be a little slower. There usually isn't a rotating paceline, a formation in which riders take turns in the lead position. The group stays together in a compact unit, cutting wind resistance for all but the leader — which is why the position rotates.

If the social aspect is most important to you, find a group whose purpose is principally just that.

I started riding with groups to meet folks but soon found that they challenged me in a way I couldn't do on my own. Trying to keep up eventually got me in better shape. I'm also inspired by cycling with riders older and faster than me. It makes me think that even at 66, I can get faster, stronger and maybe live a little longer.

I ride with groups, sometimes pretty large ones, most days, but another reason has surfaced: my better half. She thinks it's safer, given that a large group of cyclists in bright Lycra, often with flashing lights, is more visible than the lone rider. I think my wife is right. Besides, motorists know that if something happens, there are witnesses.

Before you ride with a group, find out a little about it. Many in the group may have been riding together for years. They have a routine and a mutual understanding. I've seen even experienced riders jump in and start leading a group without knowing what it's all about. They're usually reined in pretty quickly, but not before rubbing people the wrong way.

Ask how far the group is going and the pace. Are there any sprint zones? Does the group split during the ride toward two different destinations or routes? Do they do pacelines? Do they ride single- or double-file?

Most groups I know are welcoming to newcomers, and make sure you don't get dropped. But tell someone if you're struggling.

It's best at first to ride toward the back and observe the group dynamics, hand signals and the riders' demeanors before you decide to take your turn pulling at the front. It was weeks before I did.

About the nerve-racking part: I often hear from new riders intimidated by group rides. April van Vlaardingen, 44, has been riding for a year but was hesitant at first to try a group.

"It made me nervous," the St. Petersburg woman said. "I thought you had to be a good rider to go with the club groups."

She started out by following her husband John's wheel and gained the confidence to try club group rides. Once she did, she found riders willing to encourage her and provide useful tips. She has progressed to the 20 mph Saturday group rides as she sets her sights on a goal of 4,000 miles this year.

One thing van Vlaardingen learned was that with group riding there is an element of trust. You're better off behind an experienced, predictable rider — and they're not always one and the same. There are riders I avoid if I find myself on their wheel. They may pedal, then coast, making their speed inconsistent. Or they have a tendency to move side to side without checking over their shoulder first. But when you find a "good" wheel, you can be more confident that barring a panic stop situation, that rider won't cause an accident.

And there are the goodwill ambassadors, such as Steve Gronemeyer, Mike Farrell and Jeff Brooks, who helped van Vlaardingen. Carl Flanagan is another. He recently retired after 37 years as a Navy SEAL. Yet, "I remember how uncomfortable I was and how little help I got when I started riding with a group," he said. "They'd yell at me."

Flanagan sounds like a youth pastor when teaching group riding techniques roughly once a month during the Saturday rides of the St. Pete Bike Club. "I try to make them feel connected to one another, and nobody gets left behind." He leads a slow rotating paceline in which each rider is out front for only a few seconds and then rotates to the back of the pack.

Riding in a supervised, controlled, slow paceline is a great way to learn the techniques necessary to have a fun, perhaps inspiring, and definitely safer ride.

That's why it's important to ask around or drop an email to your local club and ask about group ride training. In addition to Flanagan's session, SPBC's Wanna Bees group and the Suncoast Cycling Club also train new riders. We'll discuss exactly what they teach in the next column.

Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He blogs at bobgriendling.com. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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