Article by Fred Matheny
Cycling can be a solo sport. Long rambles through the spring countryside, hard rides in the hills, weekend tours to scenic areas—all can be enjoyed with only your own thoughts for company.
In fact, many cyclists prefer to go alone. Then they can choose their own route and are free to ride hard or stop and smell the flowers, as their fancy prefers.
But cycling is also the perfect group sport. Here are just five good reasons for riding with others:
- Part of the thrill of riding a road bike is drafting other cyclists in close proximity.
- A group lets you meet people, expanding your social horizons.
- Racing is inevitably a group activity, so if you plan to compete it’s almost mandatory to train with other racers at least part of the time.
- Small group rides are fast because you can share the work at the front. You can cover more ground during your training time.
- Small groups are safe because a pack of several riders is that much more visible to motorists. And if you have trouble of any sort, help is right there.
To get these benefits, it’s a good idea to join a bike club even if you ride alone much of the time due to preference or your schedule.
But if there are two or more clubs in your area, how do you know which one to join? It depends on what you want to do and how you want to do it. Are you interested in recreational rides or racing?
Get to know area cyclists and ask why they joined the club they did. Go to club events to watch the organization and feel the atmosphere. Sit in on a club’s monthly meeting to hear about issues and see what kind of people are at the helm.
Participate in club rides and tune in to the tenor of the group. Is it supportive or critical of other riders? Remember, if you enjoy cycling, you should enjoy it even more in the company of fellow riders. It pays to pick your club carefully.
Most clubs are geared to promoting fun rides and tours. Here are some ways you can identify a club that’s doing it right.
- Good clubs offer a full schedule of weekend rides plus occasional longer tours.
- Good clubs grade rides in terms of distance, speed and ability so that newcomers don’t accidentally bite off more than they can chew. One sure sign of a poor club is when a ride rated “easy” turns into a race as the leader shows off his fitness and power.
- Good clubs have rides that encourage participation by the whole family. They sometimes sponsor low-key time trials (safe races against the clock) and encourage everyone to participate, regardless of fitness or skill.
- Good clubs have social gatherings like potlucks or “restaurant rides” that bring people together off the bike.
- Good clubs are active in politics. They support local and state bicycle advocacy organizations. They often are the force behind bicycle path construction, traffic ordinances that favor cyclists, and campaigns urging residents to reduce air pollution by commuting to work by bike.
- Good clubs sponsor a major yearly event, such as a century ride. These rides are well organized, safe, and promoted to the regional cycling community. Shorter distances will be included to welcome everyone, not just enthusiasts.
- Good clubs regularly publish a newsletter to keep members motivated and updated on rides and other events.
Some recreational/touring clubs have a racing division, while other clubs are strictly racing organizations. They exist to help talented cyclists achieve competitive goals. If you want to race, joining a good racing club is a key step toward realizing your potential.
Some clubs are geared to junior riders, some to masters, and others concentrate on Category 1-5 riders. If you find two or more clubs that seem meet your needs, make your choice using this criteria:
- A good racing club provides qualified coaching.
This may mean the coach is certified by USA Cycling (the governing body of U.S. bike racing), but many fine coaches don’t have formal certification.
Good coaches have time to work with young or inexperienced cyclists. They have the patience to bring beginning cyclists along slowly, letting them develop at their own rate without undue pressure.
Good coaches aren’t slaves to one coaching system. They don’t blindly follow some formula but instead devise training and racing strategies geared to individual cyclists.
- A good racing club has a comprehensive year-round program.
In the winter, riders meet for weight training and stationary bike work. They train together in the early season, doing long base-building rides. They practice team tactics on training rides and use them in races. They travel to events together, sometimes in a team van.
- A good racing club promotes races.
There’s usually a local time trial series and a weekly evening criterium in which members hone their skills for the real races on the weekend. These practice races are a good measure of the club. Look for events that start on time, are well organized and take place on safe-but-challenging courses.
Cycling is a relatively expensive sport, so good clubs work hard to secure sponsorships from non-cycling companies as well as from the industry and bike shops. These sponsorships help cover the cost of clothing, equipment and travel. Shops also may offer parts and service discounts to club members.
- A good racing club offers a friendly, supportive environment despite the emphasis on competition.
Team members encourage each other with advice and consolation. (One sure sign of a poor club is people yelling at each other on training rides, dispensing criticism instead of support.) Training rides should be designed to help everyone improve. Race strategy should be based on teamwork rather than on showcasing star athletes.