Friday, February 4, 2011

Beginner's Dilemma. . .Becoming a Group Rider

Cycling in and around Spartanburg, SC is hard to beat. I have been riding here for about 27 years or so, and over the past decade, we have evolved into a cycling community that offers 4-5 organized rides a week for 52 weeks a year, including night rides when standard time leaves most of us in the dark after work.

In a previous blog, I recounted the not-so-good ol' days of being a beginning cyclist, and I still marvel at why I bothered to keep at this.

Cycling is expensive—just to have the equipment needed to begin—and the performance curve between riding alone and riding with a group of experienced riders is huge. I often think about a few instances when I have been on fast organized group rides with a friend who has been a very successful triathlete (including the Hawaii IronMan). He is clearly a superior athlete to I, but I have finished in the front pack of those rides with him left behind on a few occasions. While this is the source of some enjoyable ribbing, it speaks volumes to the unique characteristics of group cycling that rises above pure ability and even experience.

So what is a beginner to do?

(1) Research the sport of cycling by talking with a bicycle shop, contacting the local club, and cruising the internet for sites dedicated to the sport at many levels. Information about the expectations of riders and the costs of the sport can help prevent many issues beginners face.

(2) Begin working on your fitness independent of cycling. Cycling has adopted athletes from many sports; runners often come our way after the pavement takes its toll. A moderate to high level of general fitness helps off-set the cycling-specific learning curve tremendously—but there is a caveat. Many elite athletes believe they can simply jump in with elite cyclists, which can create problems associated with riding etiquette and bicycle handling. People at all levels of fitness should respect an initial period of acclimating to the sport.

(3) Seek one riding partner to start your cycling experiences. Consider asking a local experienced cyclist to ride with you before or after organized rides as part of her/his warm-up or cool-down to help you adjust to riding on the road and with another rider.

(4) Identify or create beginner rides. Everyone should find a friendly group as a stepping stone to more aggressive and intense group riding. If no beginner rides are available, contact the local bicycle shop or club and ask about starting one. Bicycle shops should be creating new riders and should be eager to support a growing cycling community.

(5) Look for cycling coaches. Many of us who can afford to enter cycling can benefit from professional help. The Upstate of SC has many experienced and talented cycling-specific coaches who can help with fitness, bicycle fit, and learning to ride at many different levels.

(6) Experiment with more advanced rides. Here is likely the most important advice that is complicated. Everyone should eventually join a ride that is more advanced than the rider. But the new rider is responsible for a few important things—(a) contact the ride leader and inform her/him of your beginner status along with acknowledging that you know you are extending yourself, (b) know the course if at all possible, (c) have tools and your cell phone so you are entirely self-sufficient, and (d) ask the ride leader to keep you in mind for regroups, but reassure the ride leader that if either you or the group decides that the ride is over your head, that you will graciously abandon the ride and be able to finish safely.

(7) Know what the guidelines for a posted ride entail. Please consider reading carefully all posted rides and even talk to the ride leaders about what those rides entail. (See this set of guidelines I have recently recommended: CLICK HERE). In short, anyone who joins a posted ride should be prepared to honor the ride posted and the guidance offered by the leader(s).

(8) Consider joining the social aspects of group rides even when you aren't always on the group rides. While you are starting out, you may choose to ride alone parallel to a standing ride while also joining the group for food and drink afterwards. Here, you have a chance to meet, get advice, and lay the foundation for entering the group ride soon.

Cycling is hard, and for beginners, it can seem insular and heartless (well, we are heartless). But cycling communities are generally inviting and even eager to help new riders join in. Both new riders and the established riding community have to be patient, however, during the time needed for all new riders to get into good enough shape to be hammered and dropped so we can talk about it over a beer and a burrito.

Paul Thomas, EdD, Associate Professor
Furman University

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