Bridging the Gap From Training to Racing
Club rides don't allow you to gauge what you are capable of accomplishing in a race, mainly because of having different levels of riders and not being a true race situation (i.e. traffic lights, stop signs and regroups). One of the most important aspects of being successful in bike racing is each athlete truly understanding what their bodies are capable of doing, both physically and mentally, at any given time or situation. A good training program will allow you to link both physical and mental capabilities to your race efforts.
It's All About Improvement
A good training program allows you to track improvement, which because of the nature of group rides, is very difficult to do. With the popularity of power meters and software to track performance, athletes can readily track progress when they do a structured workout. Since group rides vary so much from time to time, it is much harder to understand whether you're improving over time.
I like my athletes to have two different sets of goals; one that addresses improvement in training in the form of increasing their watts per kilo at threshold, and the other to have realistic competition goals. They are separate entities that eventually link together and are dependent on each other.
So what's the bottom line? As always, it depends on many factors, mainly because each athlete's fitness level and goals are unique. In general, the earlier you are in your race preparation, the more you should avoid unstructured group rides. One of the primary reasons for training is to prepare your body for racing.
As we end this season and enter the winter months, you must make a decision about how to spend your limited training time. If a rider neglects working on specific aspects of that preparation (e.g. aerobic capacity) during the off-season, they will enter the next race season unprepared. The early races may then have a negative effect on the athlete and will thus cost them more valuable training time. This could set-up a season of disappointment.
If you feel you have prepared sufficiently with your training program, you can effectively use occasional, unstructured group rides before the season begins to sharpen both your pack skills and aspects of your fitness as a springboard into the races that count. If you are fortunate enough to be a member of a group or team that does group training—so long as your goals match those of the training ride—then go for it.