A Group for Every Skill Level

The following article was written by a club member who has had the experience of moving between many ride groups. It does a great job of explaining the considerations when making the leap to a higher group.

ScottHi, my name is Scott P. I'm 58 years old and this is my 6th year as a member of the Oakville Cycling Club (OCC.) I started in the club riding with Group 1 (there was no Rec group when I joined the club.) Technically, my first ride was with Group 2 (G2) where I quickly had my butt handed to me. I then dropped down and rode with G1 for that year, which was a better fit for me. Over the years, I've moved up ride groups as my cycling and fitness has improved. This year, I have been riding with G5 quite a bit. 

I want to start by saying how lucky we are to be members of the Oakville Cycling Club. OCC is not a racing club. Our jerseys say, "Everyone Rides," and that philosophy supports the wide range of ride groups that allows everyone to find a spot where they feel comfortable. I've ridden in smaller groups/clubs before and the wider range of skills in each group makes rides feel less like one group and more like a collection of individuals. It’s nice to be able to ride each week with other cyclists of similar skill. I am appreciative of the executive and other volunteers who help make this club great. Without the significant effort of these few people, we wouldn’t have what we have. A great big THANK YOU to all OCC volunteers!   

One of the most frequent conversations I have with OCC members goes something like this. I ask, "What group do you ride with?", and they respond, "I currently ride with Group n, but I'm thinking of trying Group n+1."  I think the desire to move up a group in the club is quite common and that's great. However, I think it's a mistake for members to believe that they will be validated or fulfilled as cyclists if they move up to a higher-level group. The real goal should be to maximize the enjoyment of your club rides. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us that "the journey is the destination." I have enjoyed each of the groups I have ridden with in the club, and I would have been happy to ride with any of them forever. At the same time, I've moved up ride groups four times since joining the club, which I figure probably makes me one of the more experienced group jumpers in the club. Given my experience on this subject, I hoped it might be interesting to share a few of my observations on moving up ride groups within OCC.         

Moving Forward

When I joined the club, the riders in the higher groups looked impossibly fit and professional to me.  In fact, the G5 riders still intimidate me – have you seen their legs?!! For me, I was quite content in G1. I enjoyed the company of the other riders and I was enjoying following the leaders while riding in the middle of the pack. Then one day we were going up one of the longer climbs and it felt as though we were moving a little too slowly. I thought that I might be able to go a little faster, so I picked up my cadence and surprised myself by getting to the top of the hill first, quite a distance ahead of the others. The ride leader remarked that I "flew up the hill."  I'm not going to lie, that felt nice. Over the next few rides, the ride leaders suggested I might want to try moving up to G2. I eventually joined G2, and I couldn't have been happier with the new group. The rides were again challenging but fun. Eventually, I once again started to feel that I wanted to ride a little faster, and the cycle began again. I've never moved up groups simply for the "glory" of moving up. I did it because I was experiencing some frustration at the current group speeds, and I was receiving feedback from ride leaders that it was time to move forward.         

Do you want to move up? You don't have to move up if you don't want to. There are lots of great reasons to not move up. However, if you are a strong rider, and you don't want to move up, please respect the average ride speeds for your current group. I get that it's fun to be a stronger rider, but It's not fair to blow your current group apart by riding too fast. Either keep within the posted ride speeds or move up – those are your only choices. 

What I've Learned

First off, here are a few general observations about moving up groups within OCC:

  1. Cycling skill and fitness of riders improves at each group level.  As you move up groups, the rides generally become more about fitness and performance and less about camaraderie and enjoying a fun bike ride.       
  2. Higher level groups spend more time riding and less time stopped, which means you have less time to fully recover. G4 & G5 typically only stop when required. You need to be able to recover while riding in the pack with these higher groups.      
  3. The percentage of time spent under hard effort increases as you move up groups.  As Greg Lemond said, "It doesn't get any easier, you just get faster." Moving up a group is sometimes just a question of how hard you feel like working on each ride.  
  4. Moving up a group won't necessarily make you happier or more fulfilled. In fact, when you first move up, you may be questioning your decision as you are now riding with better cyclists and you may find yourself at the back of the pack. For me, the transition period was often a point of above average self-doubt (I always carry around a large dose of self-doubt with me – any psychologists out there?) and self-loathing (help!)      
  5. When you ride with a higher group, the faster speeds on the flats are exhilarating, and the faster speeds on the climbs are tough. 
  6. When any ride group splits into two groups based on size, the first group usually rides faster. If you are new to the group, or not one of the faster riders, don't go with the first group unless you are sure you can handle the pace. If you are at all unsure, go with the second group.    
  7. In the higher ride groups, you will be expected to take your turn pulling at the front. Therefore, get some practice riding at the front in your current group if you're not already doing that. Riding at the front of the group is a different experience than riding in the pack. At the front, you are doing all the work to break the wind. You will be working much harder than those behind you, and it is also up to you to call out holes, gravel, etc. When I was in G3, I started taking turns at the front of the group. One of the things I had to learn was to not go so hard at the front that I couldn't catch onto the back of the peloton as it went by. This happened to me several times before I learned my lesson to get off the front while I still had some gas in the tank. Catching onto the back of the group sometimes feels like the hardest effort of the entire pull. Remember that your pull is not over until you are safely back in the group!    
  8. I've read that wind resistance is the biggest single speed obstacle we need to overcome as cyclists. In fact, as ride speeds increase, the required increase in power output (Watts) is not linear, but exponential. To increase average speed from 21km/hr to 21.5km/hr you will require an additional 3.5 Watts of power. If you are traveling 31km/hr, and you want to increase your average speed by the same 0.5km/hr, to 31.5km/hr, that will require 7.0 additional Watts of power. Don't underestimate the effort it will take to increase your average ride speed by even small amounts. If you've ever trained with power, you may know just how hard it is to increase your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) by just 10 Watts (for me, practically impossible apparently.)    
  9. It’s not a good idea to have to work so hard to keep up in a ride group that you are the upper limit of your capability for the whole ride. When this happens, you become more erratic with your steering, and you start to make mistakes like overlapping wheels with the rider in front of you or wandering off the road onto the gravel shoulder. This puts you and others on the ride at risk. It’s very important to be honest with yourself to recognize when a higher group might just be too much of a stretch right now. If riding in the higher group is important to you, use that experience to give you the motivation to train hard over the winter and come back as a stronger rider next year.     

Specific Group Observations

  • Rec Group – This group represents the best of cycling and needs to be celebrated. As our entry level group, these folks are new to group cycling and are discovering what we all know – group riding is a lot of fun!  Many in this group are learning and developing skills at a faster rate than any other group in the club.  Go Rec Go!   
  • Group 1 – This group is made up of cyclists who enjoy group riding and have improved their cycling skills and want to push themselves to develop riding skills. There is a strong sense of community here with the group celebrating their accomplishments, both individually and as a group.    
  • Group 2 – Riders in this group are good cyclists and with good cycling abilities, and they are challenging themselves to improve further and improve group riding skills. Fitness, ride distances, elevation gains and average ride speeds all increase over G1. These are very capable riders, and they are generally able to ride long distances at a good pace. This is a very social group, and it is hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to spend a ride. 
  • Group 3 – These are above average cyclists. Group riding skills and fitness are good and continue to be developed at this level, and the rides are a mix of fun and fitness training. I found that riders in this group are sometimes trying to prove themselves by showing what they can do on hills and flats, which could make these rides feel competitive. Despite this, there is a strong social aspect to this group as well. This group keeps a medium pace up hills and rides fast on flats and downhills. There can be quite a yo-yo effect at the back of this group. Many riders will take turns at the front, although some stay in the pack and rarely ride up front. Others take long turns at the front. 
  • Group 4 – This group is made up of strong and fit riders. In this group, you will be expected to take a turn at the front as the leader changes frequently. The group is friendly but competitive. If you move up to this group, you can expect to struggle at times. G4 taught me to stay focused during a ride and pay attention as speeds might suddenly increase. If you get disconnected from this group, it's going to be hard to catch them until they stop and wait for you, as they are switching fresh legs onto the front of the group quite frequently. Most of these riders are doing some significant off-season training, and a lot of rides during ride season.     
  • Group 5 –The riders in this group are very fit and have excellent riding skills. The focus here is on endurance and performance. Since this is the top group in the club, there are a mix of G5 riders, and others who could ride/race in higher groups if they were available. The ride is mostly all business, with few stops or conversations, and long sustained efforts. The group is very collaborative with each rider taking a turn at the front. With fewer riders each night, your lack of contribution will be noticed (I'm looking at you Scott P.) The G5 group slows down less on the hills and turns, and generally goes harder on rollers and around corners. You need to be able to recover while riding at 40+Km/hr in the pack. In my opinion, this is the hardest group transition in the club you will face. When I first joined this group, Darren B. advised me (repeatedly) that I could get a few watts of free power by shaving my legs, and I eventually broke down and did it. I'm not any faster now, but my wife thinks I'm an idiot, and my 18-year-old daughter scoffs at my "interesting life choices."  Thanks Darren!       

Are You Ready to Move Up a Group? 

If you are considering moving up to the next group within OCC, you need to be honest with yourself and should consider the following observations. I know that we sometimes have delusions of glory, but you need to temper these with the reality of your fitness and riding skills. Being in the right ride group will make your riding experiences with the club more enjoyable. If the group you ride with is too slow or fast, you will be frustrated and not enjoy the rides as much as you might.

  • Hills – Hill climbing is everything, and higher ride groups climb faster. To move up to a higher group, your hill climbing skills need to be strong compared to your peers. You should be in the top 20% of your current group on the hills. Check your hill climb times on Strava to confirm that you are one of the fastest on the hills among your peers. Remember, it's not always the first to the top that is the fastest. I like to find a pace and cadence that I believe I can maintain all the way to the top of the hill. As others start to fade near the top, I look relatively strong simply by maintaining my pace (I should be charging for these gems.) If you do try to move up groups, but find yourself saying something like, "I can keep up with the group except for the hills," then it's possible that you don't yet belong in the higher group. All levels will re-group at the top of the hills, but it's not fair to make the group wait too long for you up the climbs. If you are taking more than 25% longer up the hills than an average rider in a group, you should consider moving down a group and working on your hill climbing.          
  • Taking the lead – if you want to move up to a higher group, you need to prepare for harder efforts.  Challenge your fitness by taking the lead and pulling more than your share each night. Riding in the middle of the pack is fun and shows that you can hang with your current group. But, if you want to prepare to move up, you need to increase your fitness by getting out front and pulling. When I was in G3, if I couldn't get the out-front time that I wanted, I would also ride off the back of the pack and trail the group by enough of a distance to not benefit from the wind resistance reduction. My goal was to be able to ride at G3 speed without the benefit of wind protection.  
  • Pace – If, while riding at the front of your current group, people are constantly telling you to slow down or ease up, you may be too strong and need to move up.  By the way, if you choose not to move up, please don't push the pace for the others. Yes, blowing the group to bits may make you feel strong and powerful, but it's not fun for the rest of the group. Either control your speed urges or move up to a higher group. I have been guilty of this at times over the years, and I believe it comes from the combination of my Type A personality and my raging insecurities.      
  • Feedback – This is an important one.  If your peers or ride leaders recognize you as one of the strongest riders in the group, and they mention it to you, you should consider moving up. If you are unsure, ask an experienced ride leader for an assessment of your skills and readiness to move up. Often, others can see in you, what you yourself cannot see. If others do not yet see you as a candidate to move up, you probably haven't done enough time at the front of your group showing them what you can do. Do this first, and get others believing that you are ready to move up.   
  • Winter Training – If you want to move up a group, but are not quite there yet, consider stepping up, or starting, an off-season training program. I've been spin training at MacLean Sport Physiotherapy in Burlington for the last five years and it has helped me improve each year. I know there are other studios and options as well – you just need to find what works best for you.  As I've moved up ride groups, I've increased the frequency, variety and intensity of the winter training I do. For example, I've been practicing yoga for over a year now, and I find it to be beneficial to my cycling.

Your First Rides in a New Group

Today is the big day and you've decided you're ready to move up a group. Congratulations! Introduce yourself to the ride leader and let them know that you are new to the group. Make sure you know the route beforehand just in case you get left behind. Generally, we try and wait for people, but there are times where someone slips off the back unnoticed. Or, if this is the 3rd time the group has waited for you this ride, or the 3rd ride in a row where they've waited, the group may end up choosing not to sacrifice again on your behalf.

Your first rides in a new group will be more stressful. There is more self-doubt, and you are trying to be on your best behaviour to fit in, all while feeling more under pressure. During the ride, you may be feeling stressed, working at the edge of your capability and wondering if you will be able to keep this up.  Limit the negative self-talk, find your rhythm, try to calm your breathing, and hang in there. Your first ride with a new group may be the hardest ride of them all. In fact, it may take you several rides with a new group to get comfortable. Take a few rides to learn about how this group rides together before you start moving up to the front and taking the lead. You will not be expected to be at the front when you are new to the group. I've seen many new riders move up to try a new group and they bravely take the lead for an impressive pull only to gas out almost immediately after that and fall off the back of the group. We don't expect you to be a hero on your first rides. Ride in the pack, become more comfortable with the higher pace and effort, and survive to the end of the ride. If the rides continue to be nothing but a struggle from start to finish, you need to decide if you want to work that hard every ride.

After Your First Ride is Over

Don't be too discouraged if your first ride(s) don't go as planned and you do end up getting dropped or holding up the group. This is a time for reflection and learning. How did you get dropped? What can you learn from that outcome to help you be better prepared for next time?  Sometimes the answer will be to spend more time in the lower ride group working on your fitness or skills. Some years, I would try out a higher group at the end of the ride season and willingly suffer an embarrassing butt-kicking to give me the motivation to work hard through my winter training. A few times in G4, I was too slow around a corner, or on a re-start, that caused me to fall off the back and I could never close the gap to the group (G4 and G5 don't take corners in a friendly manner!) Another common source of getting dropped was when someone in front of me would lose contact with the group. By the time I realized what was happening, I was too late to make up the gap to the group. In general, I've learned that I need to pay attention, and if a gap starts to open, I had better fight like heck RIGHT NOW to re-join the pack. If I wait, the gap may get longer and the chance I can reconnect will go down. Riding in a group reminds me of the quote by Robert Strauss, “Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quit when you're tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.”  When you move up groups, you may not get to choose when you rest, that decision will largely be made by the group. 

If you failed to keep up with the group on the flats or rollers, it's possible this group is not for you yet. It is normal to be slower on the hills when you first move up to a new group but getting dropped on the flats is not a good sign.

If you find yourself holding the group up repeatedly, you should really consider dropping back down and riding with a lower group. The group members may be polite and insist that they don't mind, but the reality is that you are slowing them down and reducing the enjoyment of the entire group.

At the end of the day, you need to know yourself and be honest with yourself. We all have bad days, and if you just didn't have any legs today, don't worry about it – come back ready and stronger next time!    

If you hung in there and made it to the end of the ride, congratulations! You're on your way to successfully moving up to a higher ride group.

Enjoy the Journey

Today, I see many riders in the club that I feel could move up and try a higher-level group. I understand the anxiety and risk of failure that comes with trying a new group, but it can also be an exciting time if you're prepared. I also see examples where riders should probably move down a group. Ultimately, which group you ride with is your decision, but I believe choosing the right group can make your rides more enjoyable. There are also many experienced cyclists in the club who would be more than willing to give you feedback and guidance. I'm thankful to the many people who've given me advice and feedback over the years, including the constructive feedback that might sting at first. Whether you move up, move down, or stay where you are, the most important advice I can give you is to keep on riding!

- Scott P



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