Joining the Group


Making your first steps into the serious cycling world

Serious road cyclists are just different with their helmets on. For whatever reason, competitiveness (some might even call it an elitist vibe), takes over even the nicest people when they zip up the club jersey and clip into their pedals.


“I don’t understand why a lot of guys have to be that way,” says Jon Skaggs, the founder of Tuxedo Thunder racing club. “I don’t get it.”


That intimidating aura, along with the tight spandex, foreign lingo, and bikes that could pay a month’s rent on a fantastic 3-bedroom apartment, keeps many would-be cyclists on the sidewalk.


So how do you go from commuter cyclist or solo rider to one who feels comfortable peddling into a group ride? Well, Skaggs says, “to a certain extent, you just have to show up and learn.”


It’s not much different than anything else, but the Ukrainian Village resident says you can do a lot to educate yourself before that virgin ride.


“You can learn a lot by spending a couple hours checking out the resources on the city’s bike club websites,” he says.


Anne Barnes, the bike fit specialist for Running Away Multisport in Lincoln Park, agrees. She’s been riding for over two decades, and says the sport breeds a bit of attitude.


“Competitive cycling has a very aggressive mindset of suffering, who can suffer more than the other guy,” she says. “As a newcomer it can be intimidating, but it helps a lot to find a mentor, someone who will take you on one-on-one rides to build your skills.”


So how do you know you can join a group ride and not feel foolish? Several cyclists said that if you’ve been putting in more than 70 miles a week on your own and keeping a solid pace of 16 miles an hour or more, you’re prepared to step it up.


But there are a few things to be aware of.


First, Skaggs says, be open to instruction.


“That will get you super far,” he says. “Don’t pretend you know everything. Being upfront and saying, ‘This is my first group ride,’ anybody leading a ride is going to appreciate that.”


Also, don’t be intimidated when the information about the ride quotes speeds a few miles faster than you’ve ever maintained on your own. The group will pull you, save your energy and generally have you comfortable riding a couple miles an hour faster than you would on your own.


“There’s also a big difference between what your computer says your average speed is and what you can really do,” says Brad Green of Western Springs, a member of Tower Racing. “Your computer isn’t factoring stop signs, turns, and other stoppages.”


The computer, however, is also not factoring accelerations. A fast ride will feature surges where the pace hits 26 to 28 miles an hour for several hundred yards or even miles at a time. Some will exceed 30 mph, so make sure you find the right group to start with.


Drops happen


Many riders say their first group ride left them wondering if they were really cut out for serious riding.


“I got dropped at mile four,” Green says. “I thought, ‘What are you thinking? You can’t do this.’”


But the next week he made it to mile eight, and the week after that a lot further, and a month or so later he was keeping up.


“You’re body needs to adapt and you learn how to ride,” he says. “You can’t get discouraged. You need to learn deal with the characteristics of a group ride, the surges – suddenly going from 20 miles an hour to 25 miles an hour. That’s the way competitive road cycling is. It’s surge and recovery, surge and recovery.”


Fortunately for the beginner, Chicago is rife with bike clubs, training classes and beginners’ rides. So don’t let the expensive bike and skin-tight uniform scare you off. There’s a place for everyone to ride.


5 Surefire ways to look like a novice


Want to make eyes roll and other riders despise you from the start? Great! Here’s your starter guide to being a cycling jerk:


  1. Show up without a helmet. Not only will you look like a rookie, but more often than not the ride leader will send you home.
  2. Wear earbuds. Yes, some people use them on solo rides, but rocking your Katy Perry mix while snug into close quarters with as many as 40 other riders is a great way to be a nuisance.
  3. Ride with aero bars. They cost you maneuverability and many road cyclists won’t even ride with you.
  4. Show up without water or some sort of snack.
  5. Overlap the wheel of the cyclist ahead of you.


Keys to an Easy In

You don’t need to be Greg LeMond to ride with the veterans, but you do need at least some basic experience and skills. Barnes says not to expect to know it all when you start. “Cycling is a big buffet, and you can’t eat it all at once, you have to take small bites.”


Here are a few bites to start with to fit in:


  1. Know some basic bike maintenance. No, the group won’t expect you to be Johnny fix-it, but you should know how to change a flat, adjust your brakes, and fix your chain. Come prepared with a spare tube, and a bike tool. “If you’re hitting it hard and you drop your chain, you could fall, and you could take everyone out,” Green says.
  2. Be comfortable riding at speed, in close quarters, and in a pace line, because “things happen at 30 miles an hour that don’t happen at 10,” Barnes says.
  3. Be able to hold a line and ride predictably. Don’t have a quick trigger-finger on your brakes, and don’t go wild avoiding every bump, pothole or rock in the road with sudden movements. With another rider right on your tail, a small but sudden deceleration could lead to disaster at 20 miles per hour.
  4. Get your miles in. That doesn’t mean hundreds, or even 100 miles a week. “If you’re getting 75 miles in, you should be prepared to keep the pace,” Barnes says.
  5. Wear the right gear (not to be mistaken for expensive gear). “If you’re doing any kind of serious ride, you’ll have to take the dive into the Lycra. It does make a difference,” Skaggs says.


A guide to the language


Paceline: A line of riders forming a straight line, in which riders draft off one another and take turns in the lead (larger groups will form double pacelines or circular pacelines).


No-drop ride: This means the group stops for mechanical problems, flats, nature breaks, accidents and emergencies. Members of the group will drop back to ride with slower riders.


Drop Ride: A ride in which the group is not obligated to stop for slower riders for any reason (exceptions include accidents and medical emergencies). The group is going to ride fast, and if you’re too slow, you’re riding home by yourself. You better have an extra tube, know how to change your tire, and bring a cell phone.


Acceleration: A group ride will feature several accelerations in which the pace will increase by several miles per hour. These last several hundred yards or several miles.


Regrouping: After an acceleration (depending on the group rules) the lead group will slow down to pick up slower riders.


Peleton: The large main group in a road cycling race. Riders in groups save energy by drafting off each other.


Aero bars: Handlebar extensions that allow the rider to rest his or her elbows and improve aerodynamics.


Criterium: A race on a closed, short distance course with multiple laps.


Drafting: Riding closely behind another rider to make use of his or her slipstream and reduce wind resistance


Getting Dropped: When a rider can no longer maintain the group pace and slips behind.


Echelon: A riding formation used to combat a crosswind in which riders form a diagonal line across the road, like migrating geese.


Average Rolling Pace: The speed a group of riders will maintain on a flat road with no wind.


Average speed: The speed of a group of riders over the course of the ride.


Beginners Rides and Resources


  • West Town Bikes offers open shop for bike maintenance Tuesdays and Saturdays, plus a basic bike maintenance class on Mondays.
  • Chicago Cycling Club offers regular Monday night Intro to Training rides, where you’ll practice the skills of large group riding.