Monday, September 29, 2008

Why, sometimes, 15 mph isn't so bad...

I choose to "group ride" because I love the feeling of 4, 8, 15 or 40 bikes moving together as one vehicle - turning corners, climbing hills, and maintaining a pace as one unit despite the strongest or weakest rider.

Below is a passage that makes a great case for group riding. Sometimes you read something that moves you...this passage reminds me of why I ride, the rider I strive to become and why I choose to ride with those that I do...

From "Tales from the Bike Shop," by Maynard Hershon:

Our Rides

There was a time when our club rides lost cohesion, when they routinely turned into ragged hammer-sessions. No one liked that kind of disorder or benefited from it, not even the guys who regularly dropped the rest of the group.

It seemed that when we had two or three cycling "elder statesmen" in our number the rides stuck together better, out of respect for those guys, I guess. Most people thought those men knew how things should be done, so riders would follow their example. They'd form double pacelines where there was enough shoulder, and single, disciplined lines where there wasn't.

When the respected riders came along, our group started at a gentle warm-up pace, then gradually picked up momentum. Sometimes we'd drop a rider or two on a climb, then pause so the stragglers could catch. When strong but undisciplined young men surged off the front, the group would let them go. Soon those guys learned that peer approval came from a quiet display of pack-riding skills, not head-down, big gear showboating.

During the rides, you could see those group values in action, but it was hard to talk about them off the bike. You'd hear questions like "Isn't the hard solo effort the better workout?" and, "Isn't this ride going the speed of the slowest participant?" and, "Shouldn't I go hard if I'm feeling extra good today?" Questions like those are hard to answer.

A new rider could go to the shop where he traded and get answers to all sorts of cycling questions. He could become technically sophisticated simply by asking questions at the parts counter. He could find out how long the chain should be on a derailleur bicycle, how to wash wool clothing, and how to join a bike club. Someone knowledgeable could tell him about pedal cadence and position on the bike.

He would still not have a clue about negotiating fast downhill corners elbow to elbow in a pack.

At the chaotic time I mentioned, our looked-up-to riders were temporarily absent. One quit riding to work on his new house, and another left to race in the east. Our rides quickly deteriorated. Maybe a guy or two would slip through a light just before it turned red, then look back and see the distance "gained," and decide to try and stay away.

And maybe then a couple of other guys would give chase, and two or three more would take off after them. That would generally be enough to string out the whole group and ruin the ride. The people who hadn't chased or who hadn't even felt warmed up yet got discouraged at the sudden disappearance of their training ride. The escapees rode hard but raggedly and learned nothing. The chasers who caught learned nothing, and the chasers who didn't catch gave up in disgust and oxygen debt.

Numbers at the start of the runs began to dwindle. People started to speak disparagingly of "the ride." Separate smaller groups sprung up, leaving 15 minutes earlier or later, or doing the ride route backwards. I heard the grumbling and saw the rides, which had gone on for years, falling apart.

I caught Bob right after closing at his shop. He nodded his head as I told him about our problems, as if he'd heard stories like them before. He said he'd do what he could.

Next morning Bob turned out in front of the shop for the ride. He counted the guys: only six.

"Six," Bob said. "We start with six; we finish with six."

That ride was a dream. We rode in a double line mostly, at the most even pace you could imagine. Twice, a guy rolled off the back on long uphill grades. Each time, Bob dropped back and towed him up to the group. Clearly, Bob was stronger than anyone else on the ride, but he used his strength to hold the ride together, not tear it apart.

The following day was better yet. One man brought a friend who had decided to give our rides another chance. That made seven. Bob counted but said nothing. The seven of us finished together.

At one point, the friend got dropped badly on a climb. Bob rolled back to him, put a hand on the back of the man's saddle, and pushed him up to the pack. Nobody'd ever helped the guy before. He raved about Bob. He said it was the first time he'd ever finished a training ride with the bunch.

The guy's gratitude and amazement touched me. I thought about how, in team sports, the casual observer gets impressed by the solo "hero" effort. The true aficionado prizes the unselfish labor of the team player, the athlete whose good day brings everyone up.

Sure enough, word got around about our remodeled rides. Numbers rose rapidly as we regained dropouts and added first timers. Bob spent most of his time with the new riders, explaining about smooth lines in corners and warning them about overlapping wheels.

One day a week he led us in pack intervals. Another day we'd sprint for city limit signs, then immediately reform into our accustomed double paceline - elbow to elbow, six-inch gaps, friends.

Bob rode with us until he felt sure the discipline had taken. Normally he preferred to ride after he closed his store in the evening or very early in the morning. When our racer returned from his campaign in the east, he happily dropped right into our training routine. He told us, his second day back, that some of the places where he'd stayed had crummy rides.

"It was every man for himself," he said, "nothing like this."


  1. I read this some time ago, but had forgotten (obviously). Sometimes I need to be gently reminded of these things. It is a great sentiment. Thank you.

  2. I wish I could ride with you guys...maybe our schedules will coincide one day, and maybe I'll get a bike that would warrant me actually riding with you all...