If you’ve ridden with groups at all, one thing you’ve probably noticed is that the group either stays together well — everyone riding at the same pace — or it “rubber bands” — stretches out with faster riders out in front, the main “peloton”, and the slower riders bringing up the rear, contracting when (or IF) the faster riders wait for the slower.
The faster riders don’t often wait. I found that out the hard way when I first started group riding. I would show up all enthusiastic and ready to go and within the first fifteen miles of a 50 mile ride, all I was following was the line on the pavement. The group had dropped me long before. Fortunately, I knew my way home and finished the ride vowing to keep up the next week. And the next week, it happened again. And the week after that. And the week after that…
However, what I did notice was that I was going farther each week before I got dropped, and eventually I was able to hang on and keep up.
So, one way to get better? Pick a group ride you know is faster than you, and try to stick with the group as long as you can. You will improve. A note on cycling etiquette, though. If you do pick a faster-than-your-ability ride to latch on to, be sure to tell the group leader and/or other riders you don’t expect them to wait for you if you get dropped. That lets them do their ride without worrying about you and you’ll be welcome the next time, rather than have the grumbling about that rider for whom they had to wait! If you’d rather have a more controlled improvement, read on.
I noticed it wasn’t the big climbs where I lost the group. Most groups, except the very hard core, will wait at the top of a big climb to regroup. I was losing the group on the little rises and gradual inclines, where the group kept up their speed and I fell further and further back, unable to close the growing gap between me and the main group.
Now, group riding is very advantageous because you save 30% or more of your effort on a long ride. That’s a big benefit, and it means you can go farther in less time. That leads to the ability to take longer and more varied routes, keeps you from getting bored with the same old routes, and you really get to know the back roads of your area.
That is, of course, if you can stick with them.
So, how do you get better and keep up? I already mentioned one way and that’s to just go and keep trying. But, you can also do a lot on your own.
You’ll need to find a loop route of 2-5 miles or so with enough undulating hills that are typical of the riding in your area. If you’re in the State College area, the Linden Loop is a perfect training track (Oak Hall to Linden Hall via Linden Hall Rd, and either turn around & repeat or for a more advanced training, return to Oak Hall via Rock Rd and Upper Brush Valley Rd. More on that below.).
There are four short rises along the section from Oak Hall to Linden Hall that are just enough to slow you down, and notice the whole distance is gradually rising. Your goal is to ride the section from Oak Hall to Linden Hall at a constant speed. What speed is that? Well, how fast does your group go? 12mph? 14mph? 16mph? etc… Pick a speed 2 or 4 mph under your intended goal, then give it a go.
As you ride the course, anticipate the coming rise and ready yourself for it. There are at least two ways to overcome these small rises: strategy or brute force. The strategic approach is to shift to a easier gear and increase your cadence – the speed your feet are rotating – just before you get to the rise. The change in gearing gives you a little more mechanical advantage and you’re shifting before you need to, so you can focus on moving your legs faster. The brute force approach is to stand up and power over the rise. Either works, so use the one that best fits your style of riding, or try both and see which works better for you. After you get over the hill, shift back to the harder gear and coast back to your target speed, but not faster – you want to “rest” and prepare for the next rise.
How did it go? Were you able to maintain your speed? If yes, bump up a mile or two an hour and try it again. If no, then back off a mile or two. Repeat this little exercise 4-5 times, and then take a nice, easy spin home and rest. Repeat this exercise two-three times a week until you’re at your desired speed. What you should find is that the little bumps seem to get smaller and that maintaining your speed gets easier.
What you are essentially doing here is intervals; small intervals, but intervals nonetheless. Next step? Try the whole Linden Loop, adding 4 more rises to your training. Now, it’s not likely (or necessary) that you’ll be able to maintain your speed on this section. Hill 5 is quite long, Hill 6 is quite steep, and hill 7 follows right on 6’s heels. The point is to get faster overall.
As you tackle the longer and steeper rises, you’ll find the smaller ones “flattening out”. You can also improve your breathing and power by doing standard intervals (lots of references on the web for those). When you do get back to the group, try hanging out towards the end of the pack, but not at the very end – having another cyclist in front of and in back of you is the most advantageous place to be aerodynamically. Most groups will forgive you not taking a turn at the lead, especially if they know you’re struggling. Keep back and in a few weeks you’ll be ready to take a turn at the front.
Now, get out and keep up with that group!