The individual experience is one of the best things about cycling—it’s just you and the machine, alone with the silence of the tires on the road.
But on the flip side of that is the social ride, and it can be just as good. Hundreds of people moving through the streets together, in one big group, is a force to be reckoned with and can be a lot of fun.
The social rides in Austin—and there’s one almost every day of the week—may spook the beginners just by their sheer size. But there are rides for just about any level, and anyone with a bicycle can, and should, try it at least once.
Here are some of the pros and cons to big social rides, and a few technical tips for social-ride beginners.
- It can be easier. A “peleton” is a large group of riders, and it’s the best part of the social ride. The positive, competitive, driving energy that happens in that large group makes it easier to go the distance and uphill. Aside from the obvious physics of drafting, it’s the stampede mentality, the chase response, whatever it is that drives horses in a race, that pushes you further in a group than you might go on your own.
- It’s safer. Yes, you’re more likely to crash into another bicycle if there are 300 others riding right next to you. But you’re much less likely to crash into a car, which would have a better chance of killing you. The cars can’t ignore 300 bikers.
- It helps you learn. It gives you practice steering the bicycle, and controlling it. But you can also make yourself a better cyclist. Cycling is such a simple thing that it’s often underestimated. But simple things have a certain real specific subtlety to them. Riding with a group lets you observe firsthand the other riders. You can see their techniques and learn from them.
- You give up control. On a planned social ride, you don’t always get to ride at your own pace or go the distance you normally would go. So if you’re trying to go for the workout and you’re in pretty good shape, the benefit is less from pushing your own limit and more from the sheer entertainment value.
- You are more likely to crash into other bikes. Again, I’d rather crash with a bike than with a car. But since we’re talking downsides.
- You’re not necessarily surrounded by experts, so your safety measures aren't always going to do any good. On the Thursday Night Social Ride organized by Social Cycling Austin, I meet someone each week who is doing it for the first time. Some of them never come back. Plenty of them have been doing it every week for years and are very good. But most probably do it every once in a while. So there’s a good chance that the person right next to you is a beginner, and may not know the rules.
That brings me to a handful of tips that you’ll find good to know when—not if—you go on your next social ride.
- Hold your line, particularly in a turn. Be respectful of the people you’re riding with by avoiding erratic movements.
- Be more concerned with the biker in front of you than the biker behind you. It is your obligation not to hit the biker in front of you. It is the duty of the biker behind you not to hit you. Avoid slamming on the brakes if possible, but you can’t ride with all your attention behind you for obvious reasons. We don’t have brake lights, so pay attention to what’s going on in front of you.
- Wear your helmet. If you’re going to wear any kind of cycling apparel, the first thing you should wear is a helmet. I’d give you this advice anyway, but when the risk factor for collision is high and even a spill can result in someone riding over your head, a helmet is especially important.
- Listen and watch for signals. Also, communicate in general with your other cyclists - call out when you’re stopping, call out when it’s a left turn. You’ll catch on to a common vocabulary or a communication pattern.
- The route is not usually a circuit, so you may end up further away from your car. Know your limits, and break off from the group if you need to or if you know that you’re going to wind up several miles from your car and unable to make the last leg of the trip. Find a group to stick with if you break away, if possible.
These are by no means the only tips to follow when you’re doing a big social ride, but I’d call them the most important. I’m sure several of you have your own hints.
What are they? Leave them in the comments. And we’ll see you on the next big ride!