Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Social Riding

While the weather holds this winter, I will continue to lead what I call a social ride on Tuesdays out of Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington, MA. This is a ride that starts and ends with a coffee, covers some quiet scenic roads and usually includes a lunch stop. We ride at a Goldilocks pace - not too fast, not too slow, just right! (If you're in the area and have Tuesdays free, please come join us.)

So what exactly is a social ride? Recently a conversation erupted on the email list of my local recreational club about riding etiquette. I was rather surprised by some of the opinions expressed about what makes a good club/social ride. But I suppose more to the point is whether a recreational club ride is a social ride. In the case of this club, the word social is very much part of the club charter. When I go on club rides, I am looking for a social ride.

So I thought I'd share my thoughts on social riding here on my own little soapbox :-)

First and foremost, a social ride is not a race***. If you want to race, fill out the entry form, pay your fee, pin your number on, warm up, race, and then go stand on the podium, and collect your medal and prize money. This doesn't mean that you can't occasionally sprint for a town line on your social ride, but don't assume that the rest of the group will join you or be impressed by your athletic prowess as you raise your hands in victory. I have yet to see newspaper headlines proclaiming any winner of the Concord Town Line Sprint*. I do know of plenty of people who treat a weekly Tuesday evening club ride like the world championships, but I honestly don't know anyone who is impressed that someone else won it.

For events with a large number of riders, ideally groups should split into smaller social groups to keep things at a manageable size, which will vary a bit depending on conditions. On a large club ride in a busy suburban area, folks might start out in small groups of maybe 8-10 riders according to pace. But often riders will see groups heading out and think everyone is leaving them to ride alone, so they jump in and the small group becomes large. Experienced riders will hang back, knowing that it's not a race and there's no need to start (or finish) first! They know there is potential to make new friends and possibly mentor new riders.

Many of my rides are with old friends, which doesn't just mean friends who have AARP cards, but rather friends I've had for a while. Some are with new friends. I often go out with a small group of regular riding buddies. We all know each other pretty well. We chat away about anything and everything. Sometimes I meet new people. I usually start by asking how they got into cycling and about some big ride they may have done. It goes from there. Many of those new friends soon become old friends.  
Since we've established that a social ride not a race, it should be ridden at a steady pace. Race tactics really have no place on a social ride. I am surprised that some people just don't understand that sudden surges in speed do not actually constitute a steady pace. No one else is impressed that you can surge around the group to reach the top of the rise first, especially when you slow down to ask about the next turn. Either ride with the group or don't.

Half-wheeling is where one rider keeps pushing the pace up by riding half a wheel in front of the rider at his side. The first time that I saw this term was many years ago in a column from one of my favorite cycling writers, Maynard Hershon. Maynard says it's just not nice, so don't do it. 'Nuf said there.

Since the point of a social ride is to be social and have a conversation, this means riding side by side when reasonable. A few weeks ago, I was on a club ride and tried to pull up alongside another rider to chat, but each time that I pulled along beside, just as I was about to introduce myself and start the conversation, the rider sped up, presumably because if I could come along beside, he must be going too slow. But when I did not subsequently sprint to close the gap and fall in behind, he resumed the previous pace and we all came back together. I finally managed to let the rider know that I was trying to be social, not competitive. As we talked, he indicated he was new to club riding, and wasn't actually sure about the etiquette. So I said that as long as the roads were not busy, it was much more pleasant to ride along side by side, talking. The rest of the small group did the same thing, with folks riding side by side, in line. We did this for the remainder of the ride, except on a couple of busy stretches, where the whole group dropped down to single file, resuming side by side riding when back on quieter roads and where safe and reasonable. The time passed much faster as we chatted away. I'll even venture to say that the hills probably seemed easier too. If I want to go ride myself, I'll just go ride by myself. I do the club rides for company. If I want competition, well... see above... I'll fill out the entry form...

Once a small group has formed, stronger riders may need adjust their pace to keep a mixed speed group together. More experienced riders will graciously pass on tips to the new-comers, all the while being aware of the difference between being a know-it-all and a good teacher.

When you have a group of 8 to 10 riders, riding along in a group, side by side, 4 to 5 deep, it is important to ride steady and to alert riders behind to things they cannot see, like potholes, branches, ice, dogs, walkers, etc. When you see a pothole, point to the side where the hole will be as you go around it. Calling out, "Hole, right" as you go to the left of the hole, will also alert the riders behind who may not see your hand signal. It's also good to indicate rough pavement or tracks with voice and hand signals, as well as slowing and stopping.

All the usual pace-line riding etiquette is appropriate. Maintain a steady speed. Don't speed up when you get to the front. Avoid sudden stops.  Don't blow your nose (or spit) on other riders - move out or give some indication that phlegm is being ejected! If a rider has moved out and is waving you forward, it may be for this purpose.

If a call goes out for ice or angled tracks, riders may need space to maneuver.  This usually means the group spreads out a bit. Do not come up beside a rider trying to cross badly angled tracks squarely. Do not pass a rider who is trying to negotiate through ice or slush.

Indicating turns is also critical. I prefer to use right hand for right turns and left hand for left turns. The old left arm up for a right turn is necessary in a car (where no one would see your outstretched right arm inside the car), but not a bike. But try not to poke out the eye of the person riding next to you!

Calling out "Car back", will let riders in front know that a car is overtaking, but unless riders are in the middle of the lane, and clearly oblivious, it is not necessary to repeat it twenty times.

A nice aspect of social rides is that folks are considerate of each other. This means that a group stops for mechanical problems, clothing adjustments, bio-breaks, and even photos as appropriate. Riders help each other out with the loan of a forgotten tool or tips on how to get a stubborn tire on or off, or maybe with the loan of a jacket, or even the offer to carry something when there is a space issue. If you've ridden along with a group for 95 miles on a century, it is considered bad form to sprint when the person doing all the navigating suddenly has a flat tire. Karma will haunt you for this.

Unless you live in the desert, or a truly dry area where roads are never ever wet, fenders are one of the nicest things you can do for your riding companions. Even if it's not raining, roads may be wet from snow melt, or run-off from garden sprinklers. There is nothing worse that riding in the rooster tail of a fender-less rider. I hate having to floss grit from my teeth. Even if your bike has tight clearances, you can get fenders like the Crud Roadracers or SKS Raceblades. Oh, and they'll keep crud off you too!

Finally keep your lights considerate on a group ride. Flashing or exhibitionism, is usually not considered socially acceptable. So when in a group, if you have your lights on, please use the steady mode. (This includes on busy bike paths too). 

Please mount your taillights so they aim straight back, not up into the eyes of the following rider. Lots of folks mount lights on seat stays and they end up angled upwards into the eyes of a following rider and alerting low-flying airplanes. Please make sure they are aimed straight back. Also the lower a taillight is mounted, the less likely it is to shine directly into the eyes of a following rider. Maybe it's because I'm a pixie, and my friends are all giants, but their seat post mounted lights tend to be right at the wrong height for me.

Also I don't understand why anyone uses a flashing headlight. You see... you don't see... you see... you don't see... But for some reason, lots of people that I meet on the bike path use this less-than-friendly-to-fellow-path-users mode. Please just say no to flashing!

As I said early on, a bit of spirited riding is not out of the question. However, if you get to the top of the hill or the town line first, it doesn't mean you are better looking. Have fun and go for it, but the display of peacock feathers is just that.

Finally the best riders will make everyone feel that their company is enjoyed, rather than endured. If your friend says, "Go on, don't wait for me", consider that you might be half-wheeling or not showing appreciation for your friend's companionship. Did you come out to ride and enjoy time with your friend or to fuel your testosterone poisoning**?

*Yes, I do occasionally sprint for the Concord Town Line, and sometimes even slip up and try for victory or a podium spot in the local, weekly, Thursday morning world championships!
**Yes, females, including yours truly, can suffer from testosterone poisoning, also known as peacock syndrome - the need to show off.
***I also occasionally enter races.


  1. Please don't forget to mention that it is rude to spit. Even more so when someone is riding behind you.

  2. Had reason to search for this post, again. :-)