How to Lead a Great Group Ride

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I really enjoy riding alone. I enjoy it on a number of levels. Being out in the woods by myself gives me the option of stopping whenever I want to relax and just enjoy being there. I enjoy going to new areas and taking the time to explore every trail that I encounter, just to see where they go. I enjoy the spontaneity of being able to take off on a moment's notice and go for a ride, without having to coordinate with my friends. But no matter how often I ride alone, and no matter how much I enjoy it, on solo rides, I'm always aware that something is missing - friends.

Sharing experiences is always more fun than going it alone. And while I can't always hook up with my friends, differing schedules, responsibilities, commitments, whenever I can ride with friends I do.

Riding in a group is different than riding alone, or than riding with just one of two friends. On a group ride you'll most likely have riders of varying skill and fitness levels. Maybe the ride you're on is a 'training ride' where it's expected that everyone will try to push themselves. Or, maybe it's a skills session where the norm is to repeatedly try difficult things in an effort to get better at them. If so, you'll know that at the beginning and can act accordingly.

But most rides are just cross country rides where the idea is to get out together and have fun. These are the rides that I like the best, rides where the number of smiles are more important than the number of miles.

Most people aren't aware of it but no matter who happens to be out front leading a group ride, the pace and duration of the ride are actually controlled by the slower people who frequently are riding at, or near, the back of the pack. A wise leader knows this and will adjust the pace, the length of the ride and the difficulty of the trails selected so that those slower people have fun. Because the wise leader knows that if a newer rider isn't enjoying the ride, they probably will never ride with you again.

That's a big responsibility. If you happen to have new riders on a ride you're leading and they don't enjoy themselves. They may never want to ride their mountain bike on trails again.

The typical ride has the faster riders at the front of the pack running away from the slower riders at the rear. The faster and more skilled riders wait around at corners or intersections until everyone's there, and then take off. Usually before the slower riders have had a chance to catch their breaths. Before the end of the ride, they're done in! While the better riders are probably a little tired of waiting around. This does not make for a happy ride!

Fortunately there is a better way to lead rides. It's called "drop the second rider". Here's how it works. Before the ride begins choose a leader and a sweep rider. Then explain to everyone that at every corner or intersection the leader will ask the second rider to stop and wait until they see the sweep rider and then take off in front of them. This means that every rider gets to ride second, third, fourth and at every position in the pack except first and last. It means that everyone gets to take an occasional breather while they are waiting for the sweep rider. But most importantly it means that nobody ever gets lost because there will always be someone waiting at every intersection and corner to point out the right route.

But the advantages don't stop there. For some hard to define reason when you're dropping the second rider the differences in riding abilities or skill levels aren't as apparent. How often have you heard someone say, "Gee I'm sorry that I'm slowing you guys down"? That never happens when you drop the second rider. How often have you gotten to something too difficult to ride and had no idea how to manage it? With drop the second, you can just stop and everyone that's behind you will give you a free demonstration of the best way to do it.

In these SingleTracks columns I've often said that the best way to learn to ride better is to ride with people that are better than you. But it's difficult to learn anything if those better riders are so far in front of you that you can't see what they're doing.

Next time you're out on a group ride give "drop two" a try. If you do, you may achieve the goal mentioned at the beginning of this article - Having more smiles at the end of your ride than miles.

—Bill Boles