After a recent local club ride, I posted the following on my my Facebook profile:
Am I just becoming an old curmudgeon, or is every club ride being turned into a crit-head, carbon-wheeled, Strava-hyped feeding frenzy?
One of the remarkable things about the first few years was how much camaraderie developed and how cooperative the riding was. And at the same time, the group of riders was developing, improving year-to-year. Out of the same core group developed another weeknight social sport ride. And with my friends, we began to meet for other rides, and to help people train and finish their first centuries.
What ever you wanted to call it, we pretty much rode has a group, double pace line, stronger riders holding back to keep the group together, with an occasionally friendly sprint during the last mile. We always rode with an eye to the back, to keep the group together, or maybe we broke into a couple groups, or with a rider doubling back to help some finish.
But over the last couple of years, something changed; popularity and word of mouth brought a different flavor to the ride. More new riders showed up, many from the local weekly training rides, whose sole interest was speed and a fast workout. The change was subtle, but corrosive. One of the new riders would pop-up the front of group if they felt it was not moving along fast enough, even when "slow" was 19-20 mph. Another rider would follow around, and then 3 lines of riders were jockeying for position between the original group, and that rider that wanted just a mile or two faster.
Next came setting up for turns; with riders moving to the far side of the road to be positioned for running the stop signs and moving to the front. Then came groups of riders moving up after each intersection, bumping up the pace each time. Finally, if you were riding the wheel of a friend you knew and trusted, just letting a bike length open during an intersection would mean you were cut-off. What had been a club ride became an open road race.
And as I watched the group jump from 19-20 mph to 23-24 mph, my personal alarm bells, my biking "Spidey Sense" would go off. The mix of riders is just wrong, with the faster riders pulling along both fit novice riders and struggling experienced riders, in their red-zone, almost anaerobic. The lead riders never look back. There is no conversation, just everybody concentrating on the bike in front of them. Every issue in the group is magnified at the faster pace. Wheel overlap, riders coast, riders jump, brakes are touched. Hazards aren't called out, and large gaps must be bridged when a weaker rider to close to the the front looses it, especially if they are inside. And every quarter mile or so, another rider would drop off, to finish the ride alone. And when that happens, I leave the group.
When I started riding in the `70s, it was pretty easy to spot a novice rider, by their gear, their bike, the way they dressed. It took a couple of years to get "the look". And over that time they were putting in miles, and picking up all the skills and etiquette of group riding. But for better or worse today, it is pretty easy to have "the look". All the gear is readily available, it is easier to learn to use, and novice riders come with a higher level of fitness from other sports, like running and spin classes. They have the speed of the faster riders, but need time in the saddle, and mentoring to get those other skills.
When I come across the area training rides in their final miles, you see one or two fast packs with dozens single stragglers following for a couple of miles. I have to ask, what are they "training"? You never see those stragglers form into their own group. Nobody seems to take the time show them how, they just seem resigned to coming out next week, and just trying to hang on a mile farther, or to just be the last one dropped.
I have had some great experiencing helping others finish first centuries, or pulling along a rider having an off day or not ready for a headwind. Riding as the pace tandem for 12 club members on STP, who after 4 months of training together finished as a group, is one my favorite cycling memories. Just a few days ago I rode an informal century ride I host every year. We ride as a group, we set a pace it for everyone, and below the pace of the fastest rider in the group. It is a great time. I have been asked a couple of times to make it a local club event. But I know that it would not be the same if I opened it up; not from the loss of control, but from the handful of riders that just wouldn't get what this ride was about.
There is a lot more to bicycling than just maxing watts and tearing up every rider, every ride. What is anybody learning when every ride is just about being the first and fastest with no regard for anyone that is off the back? And if you aren't the fastest? You spend half the ride maxed-out, barely hanging, and then spend the rest of the ride alone; you aren't really learning group riding skills either, just how to ride fast as can, as long as you can. Sooner or later, you will have that bad day, or time will just catch up with you. If your have never looked out for somebody behind you, dropped one gear for a stranger, or helped a group ride stay together, who will be there for you?
It is an open road, and you can ride any pace you like. No one is forced to follow you, or follow me, and every rider has their own motivation, training goals and time constraints. We are all supposed to be responsible adults. But it is time for more riders to understand, and speak up. There is more to learn, and to teach, than just how to be the fastest; speed alone is a small and fleeting accomplishment.