Friday, June 26, 2009

Training - How NOT To Do A Group Ride

I should apologize.

Actually, I did, to the guys that organize the ride. See, the other evening, I changed my ride goals from that of a reasonable, cooperative rider to the Group Ride's worst nightmare: The Pace Shifter.

Let me explain.

There's a no-drop ride on Mondays, one that varies in route but is ultimately meant to be a reasonably paced ride. Because of the local geography, it must go over a climb or two. Other than those inevitable bumps, the terrain makes for a generally pleasant ride, easy to monitor, easy to control.

After the bumps, or any time we get to a reasonable regroup point, the ride usually regroups. Any place works - big intersections with parking lots to the side, a quiet intersection where we can just sit, or even a flat bit of road at the top of a particularly difficult climb. The ride organizer is good about doing this, and if things get too bad, i.e. the pace differential causes some impatience, he'll even tell the group to go ahead, and he rides with the slowest folks.

Of course, with any group, we all had to be a bit more conscious about things like traffic, mechanicals, things like that. That particular evening, I had an additional responsibility - a guest rider from the West Coast, riding on my Giant TCR (my now-primary back up bike). I had to keep him from getting lost, make sure he didn't get dropped, and all those good things one ought to do when introducing a new rider to a group.

That day I rode in a larger group numbering in the 20s. We definitely had to be conscious of other road traffic, careful not to obstruct or otherwise impede faster traffic.

With the latter in mind, when we turned onto a long, straight stretch of road, I increased the pace a bit. The previous time we'd ridden this bit of road, the group took advantage of the 1.5 bike wide shoulder and the slow pace by doubling up. Since only one rider could ride in the shoulder comfortably, the other ended up in the busy and fast "main" lane. By keeping the pace a bit higher, and stringing out the group, I hoped to keep things single file.

My ploy succeeded - the whole group strung out nicely, single file, West Coast behind me, not obstructing any traffic. I kept pulling around a bend.

Then looked up.

Long steady climb. No respite. Smaller shoulder. And cars rolling by regularly. Every time I looked to pull off I saw cars coming up, so I tried to maintain some reasonable pace. I knew I was digging myself into a hole aerobically, and I just hoped I could make it off the lead before I blew.

Finally I could pull off. I looked back and surveyed the others. The group had predictably disintegrated on the lower sections of the climb, but everyone seemed to have found their pace, their group, and things looked fine. If we sat up at the top and stopped for just a minute or two, we'd be together.

That's a big "If".

I let some others take the pace (I'm technically not a ride leader). I eased, expecting everyone to stop somewhere shortly after the climb, but as driveway after driveway passed, I realized that the riders in front were just soft pedaling, rolling along at a very easy 17 or 18 mph. Instead of waiting, the riders at the front simply kept pedaling.

So what's the big deal?

Now, it may seem like it should be easy to catch someone going, say, 17 or 18 mph. Pros latch back on after flats or crashes while the field's averaging 28 mph, so it's got to be pretty easy to get back on to someone going 10 mph slower.


Well... there's the pros and there are the mortals. And for mortals, it's not so easy.

If you've ever been in that "dropped" situation, you'll know that it's nigh near impossible to bridge up to a soft-pedaling group. Look at the factors working against you:

1. To catch a waiting group (soft pedaling, not stopped) in any kind of expedited fashion, you'll need to move along at 25 or more mph.

2. You were dropped to begin with so you're already way behind the aerobic curve. It may be a struggle to maintain 18 mph for the first minute or two of the chase.

3. A long hill may leave you a minute or two behind. For the furthest groups, perhaps 3 or 4 minutes (I've typically been in those groups so I speak from experience).

Taking a best-case scenario for the group, let's say the group plodded along at 15 mph after it crested the climb. You arrive at the top of the hill 2 minutes after the front group, climbing at or above your threshold.

You're cooked.

You're also about a half mile behind the group. They've been riding away from the top of the hill for 2 minutes at 15 mph before you got there, and they're covering a mile every 4 minutes.

Even if you miraculously recover, enabling you to suddenly average 25 mph, you'll need to chase for three minutes to bridge up to them. If you can only go 22 mph, it'll take you longer - like over 4 minutes. And if you needed a minute to recover, add another minute or two to those times.

(Math folks and those who have done the SATs recently, feel free to pipe up on the math because every time I check it, it seems wrong.)

This means that if the group doesn't wait, and they go really, really slow, it'll be a good 4 or 5 or 6 minutes before everyone's back together again. And when the group is together, those coming up from the back will be totally shattered. The next rise or hill will simply repeat the scenario and magnify the problem.

From my own experience I know that when I explode, I do it 100%. Usually I'm plodding along at 4 or 5 mph on the hill and 15 or 17 mph on the flats. This means that if the group is just soft-pedaling, I rarely see it again before the ride ends.

On the other hand, a short regrouping stop, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 minutes, lets the faster riders recover a bit, take a sip of water, adjust whatever, and even circle back and help encourage or pace the riders in difficulty. A nice way of building group spirit.

Anyway, on this particular ride I stayed within myself, refusing to push myself over the edge to respond to the guys attacking one another. And, as the grade finally let off, I found myself on their wheels.

I eased pretty hard, intending to wait for the others. When I realized that I really didn't know where I was (we didn't go up the hill the last time we went this way), I decided to stop waiting. I hurried and caught back on to the soft-pedaling lead riders.

Ultimately a bunch of riders made it back, chasing furiously for 4 or 5 minutes, and our group swelled to maybe 15 or more riders.

But we'd left behind a good 8 or 10 riders, including the ride organizer (who stays with the slowest of the group).

I petitioned to stop at the next intersection in a large, usually deserted parking lot. It's a normal regroupment point, used almost every time we pass through the area. Incredibly, the riders zoomed right past it, and only when I protested somewhat vociferously did the group reluctantly pull over, 100 yards past the lot.

I had stopped in the lot, expecting the group to stop with me, but when I saw them pull over, I had to be satisfied for the moment.

We waited for a few minutes. I circled a few times, sat for a while, and circled a bit more. I put a foot down again, looking down the road for the straggling group. I glanced up the road, where the rest of the group waited, and...

Saw a few riders disappearing down the road.


I looked. No more riders. Just the three straggling ones. Accelerating. And I realized that the group had left without me. They didn't even have one guy holler or ride over or anything to tell me that they had decided to go.

Not knowing exactly where I was, and with a guest on the ride from the West Coast (following everyone else around and up ahead with the others), I immediately jumped on my bike and took off after the impatient group.

I chased furiously for a few minutes, dying a thousand deaths. I hadn't done the math from above, but I knew that I had to go really, really hard to catch them.

Luckily they stayed in sight. Slowly but surely I reeled them in, finally latching on after a few redoubled efforts. My bewildered guest sitting at the back, wondering where I was, wondering what us East Coasters meant by "no-drop".

I decided that if I caught on, I'd carry out a mission of destruction.

Finally, a mile or two later, I latched onto the back. I immediately thought about my plans for the group. Although definitely not the strongest, especially on the hills, I knew that I could leverage my racing "pain threshold", understanding of speed, as well as a bit of self-belief to bluff all but the best riders there. I wanted to use power hills and narrow false flats to shred the group.

I wanted to become The Pace Shifter.

I sat at the back, recovering, and let the group start to attack itself. Guys would roll off the front, others would join, then the rest would chase. I sat in, waiting for the right moment.

Then I saw my opening. We were approaching, appropriately enough, Hatchet Hill Road, a road with a trio of short rises, the first one just like the one at Bethel.

I bridged a small gap to the front 4 or 5, sat on until the hill, and then drilled it.


My West Coast guest stayed on, he being much more fit than me (he's a runner and triathlete as well as a cyclist). Two other riders, nice ones both, eventually made it back, but I kept my body floored, forcing the issue. A matching couple, by far the strongest of the group, easily stayed with me. A couple more tagged on, making for a reasonable 8 or 10 riders.

I had already planned my next move. A sharp uphill turn would take us into a small village, with narrow roads, another hard turn, all on a long, grinding false flat. The last time I rode this bit with the group I'd been at the back, got slightly gapped on the first turn, and ended up exploding trying to bridge back up. I knew that if I could reverse the positions, I could throw down a world of hurt on the guys behind me.

Therefore I hit the front just as we set up for the hard turn. I took the turn relatively fast.

And drilled it.

Again, my West Coast guest stuck to my wheel like glue. I pushed hard, trying to get that demoralizing gap, and rolled hard through the next turn.

On the long grinder of a false flat, the matching couple bridged. Actually, they went right by me, and I had to bury myself to keep them within shouting distance.

As the road started heading down hill, the couple waited. I bridged to them, West Coast on my wheel. At some point another guy, a nice one, showed up too. Good company.

The pace eased.

I saw one of the non-waiting culprits trying to bridge, maybe 50 meters back.

I immediately went to the front, did a long, hard pull. West Coast, just trying to keep things rolling, pulled through. So did the other nice guy. And then the couple pulled through as well.

The non-waiter, the elastic between him and us stretched to the breaking point, still didn't give up.

I drilled it up another slight rise, turned onto the main road back to the shop, and kept the pace up. As we hit a series of short, grindy rises, all of us taking even pulls, we finally popped the last guy off.

A mile or two later, mission accomplished, I eased pretty hard. So did everyone else - the last 20 or so minutes had been hard and relentless, at least to me. I'd been strained to the max to hang on, but as soon as I found myself out of the red zone, I'd gone to the front again.

Merciless. Relentless. Mean.

After we finished I waited for the ride organizer. Apologized for my lack of civilty, my incredibly poor group riding methods. Explained to him why I rode the way I did.

He laughed. He understood, at least at some level. He didn't know what actually happened because he wasn't there, but in the end, it was okay.

We'll have to make sure folks know exactly what "regrouping" means, "no-drop", things like that. Make it clear what the procedure will be if someone flats, or someone less fit gets shelled early on each climb. Hey, I am that person a lot of the time, so I understand.

I got in my car, tired, and started on my way home.

Next week, another group ride. I hope it goes better.


Giles said...

I decided that if I caught on, I'd carry out a mission of destruction.

awesome. I love a good smartly-executed mission of destruction.

broerie said...

yeah, sometimes testosterone kicks and and group rides end up a whole other way than originally planned.

It happens...and when I'm in the fast group, I love it!