Sometimes group rides can be daunting and can feel more like a battleground than a group activity.
The good news is it doesn't have to be that way. Here are my top five practical ways to improve your own group riding and influence other cyclists to do the same (without resorting to verbal abuse).
Pick a Formation and Ride it Correctly
The road that you're riding on at a particular time will determine if you ride single or two abreast i.e. depending on traffic flow, local laws and road width. Someone in the group should call the formation and the group should follow suit.
If you're riding single file: Leave about half a wheel length between you and the rider in front—enough to react to pace changes, but not so much that you may as well be riding alone. Stay behind the rider in front and trust them to call out obstacles or hazards (more on that later). If you drift to the side of the rider in front DO NOT position your front wheel alongside their rear wheel and overlap it. This is a highly dangerous position to be in should they suddenly have to maneuver unexpectedly.
If you're riding two abreast: Do exactly that; handlebar to handlebar, shoulder to shoulder. Don't be "that rider" who sits two feet ahead, constantly looking backwards to try and make conversion but steadfastly refusing to ride alongside you.
Communicate Obstacles and Hazards
If there is an obstacle in the path of the group, point it out (e.g. large potholes, seams in the pavement, glass, sticks, rocks, parked cars etc). It's also good etiquette to shout out and make it clear if it's on the left or right since, if you're 10 riders back, you may miss someone pointing, and just hearing "glass" doesn't give you much idea where to start anticipating the group flow to move.
However, wild gesturing towards glass in the middle of the car lane, runners on the sidewalk, holes in the road that no rider should be anywhere near, etc. might get you some funny looks. Pointing things out unnecessarily also results in other riders starting to ignore your warning calls (bad news when they really are about to disappear into a wheel-trashing pot hole!)
Use Your Turn Signals, Brake Lights and Hazard Warnings
Okay so we don't have them on a bike, but you wouldn't drive your car if they weren't working would you? So: If you're slowing, signal and call out "slowing." If you're stopping, signal and call out "stopping"(a hand at your side with palm facing backwards is a standard stopping gesture). If you're turning: signal and call out "right turn" or "left turn." You get the idea...be predictable and if you're going to do something unpredictable make sure people know about it.
Also, don't assume everyone becomes telepathically "tuned in" after mile 10. Use these signals from the first second of the ride to the moment you pull into the coffee shop at the end. If you do it, other people with follow your lead and good group communication will become the norm.
Call 'Car Up' or 'Car Back'
"Car up" or "car ahead" means there's a car traveling towards the group or the group is traveling fast enough to overtake a car from the rear. "Car back" means there is a car following the group closely from behind or overtaking the group.
If calls of "car back" or "car up" send cyclists repeatedly scurrying toward the shoulder, you should consider practicing tip one and ride single file for a while. If you have to move over when a car appears, it's probably wise to be out of their way in the first place.
Win Friends and Influence People
If you practice good group riding yourself others will learn from you. Be diligent and keep demonstrating such skills, even if everyone around you appears to have adopted an "every man/women for him/her self" attitude. Persevere and a disciplined group will emerge. When it works properly it should feel like a flock of birds moving together in perfect harmony and less like stampeding cattle.
One final word of caution: riding hands off in the middle of a pack of riders doesn't look so cool when the pace suddenly slows without warning, sending you hurtling into someone's rear wheel. Although this is a highly recommended skill to learn, one which can save you from hours of riding in too many clothing layers because the group isn't stopping, please use caution: move to the back of the group to remove your jacket, or warn your fellow riders and move out the side slightly.
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Josephine Allen is in charge of business development for Cycling Camp San Diego. She is a level 2 USA cycling coach and an experienced endurance cyclist.