this article originally appeared in SPIN Magazine, out of Singapore – catch my new column there every month, entitled ‘Rubber Side Down’
I’ll never forget my first ever group ride…
There I was, 15 years old and stick-insect thin in my brand new 7-11 uniform, which despite being an XS size still left me looking like Chris Froome wearing Fabian Cancellara’s kit. The slightest breeze and I almost fell off my Harry Hall newbie special, all 17 kilos of it, as the sleeves of my jersey became de facto parachutes.
I huffed and puffed my way that cold winter evening to the roads around the aerodrome where the Wednesday night chaingang ride was held, seeing a throng of about twenty grizzled older guys gathered. I got a nod from one of them whilst the rest eyed me up for a brief second, then carried on with their conversation about the local barmaid.
I looked around at the bikes, far superior to mine with their late ‘80s Campagnolo and Shimano groupsets gleaming in the evening light, and stared in awe at the bulging calf muscles, intimidated right from the off.
‘Crikey’, I thought, ‘I’m gonna get battered here.’
And then with a signal from the leader of the pack we were off, barreling down the flat road in no time, with cars and trucks whizzing close by. The front pair did a couple of minutes then peeled off, as I watched on from the back, eventually finding myself up at the front with an old timer next to me.
He started half wheeling me, then pulled away by a bike length. I changed down a gear, dug in a little, then pulled alongside. In a moment of youthful exuberance I pulled ahead the same way he had and forged on. This was how I’d been riding for the past three months, since I started cycling, banging along the roads of North Lancashire alone as fast as my legs would permit.
I knew nothing else really, and the old guy’s half wheeling had got me thinking I was in a race. Suddenly I heard a shout from behind and turned to see a guy break out of the group, chasing up to me, pulling alongside.
“Oi!” he shouted again. “What the &*%# do you think you’re doing! It’s steady pace tonight! Go on, *&%# off to the back!”
Thoroughly browbeaten, I peeled off and did as I was told. As I reached the back, the guy next to me then had a go at me for wobbling and told me to get behind him. Luckily the effort I was putting in hid my burning cheeks, now a deep red more from actual embarrassment than from the effort.
After another half a loop, another guy dropped back to me.
“Listen,” he said, “this is a group ride, it’s fast, but we’re not trying to drop anyone. You don’t attack on rides like this.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know,” I replied sheepishly.
“First time?” he asked.
“Yes, can’t you tell?” I answered.
“Well, now you know. And try to keep your wheel steady or no one is going to want to ride next to you. Watch and learn lad, and there’ll be no need for anyone to shout at you.”
And in that moment I went from being a newbie to being a learner. I watched, I studied the other, older guys, copying their style, holding my upper body and the wheel steady. It was something of a baptism of fire but it was a massively valuable lesson I’d just learnt.
I might have been younger than them, and maybe even stronger than a good few, but there was a hierarchy of experience amongst the group and I had to put my time in. I had to serve my apprenticeship.
And then, as I got older, it was my turn to bollock the new kids! That, has to be said, was a sweet moment!
Ok, I’m joking there. Maybe…! However, that experience when I was younger and living in England is one that is mirrored in many countries in the world, where young riders are taken under the wing of older riders who use their experience to guide and teach new riders how to behave on the road.
They teach you how to train intelligently, how to corner, to descend, and, most importantly, how to ride safely in groups and how to respect other riders.
I’ve lived out in Asia now for 15 years, and I’ve been in group rides in Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, and I’ve raced all over Asia, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed in that time, it’s that older and more experienced riders seem to be less and less common, as more and more new riders of all ages are coming into the sport.
As a result, there’s less of the ‘old hands’ in comparison, and less of the knowledge of the road and of the bike being handed down to these new riders. And the result of that is often group riding that is not only erratic and more akin to all-out racing, but at times very dangerous indeed. Now, I haven’t ridden in a group training ride in the UK for some time, but I would presume that this situation is replicating there and in Europe and the US too, as more and more middle class and middle aged riders are joining the fray.
It’s gotten to the point now, here in Taiwan especially, where I hardly ever ride in groups of more than five or six riders. The last time I went on a group ride of more, there were thirty riders who clearly had never been shouted at in the way I was way back when I was 15!
The result? Utter chaos. Older guys who should have known better, even if they weren’t that experienced on the bike, were sprinting off from traffic lights or even cutting right through red lights, dodging between slowing cars and just generally riding like it was Paris-Roubaix and the approach to the Arenberg Forest, not a Sunday ride through a congested town.
I couldn’t help but think that the example they were setting was irresponsible at best and potentially deadly at worst. There was no cohesion in the group, and little respect for differing levels of ability. At every other convenience store the front guys would slow to a halt to wait for the stragglers, and then, once they reattached, they’d bolt off again!
I ‘d had enough. After thirty kilometers of that madness I turned off and rode alone. I would have had a good old rant at them but my Chinese unfortunately isn’t good enough…
Riding in groups is where young and other new riders learn their race craft. It is, in fact, where they learn how to ride their bikes for the rest of their cycling career, learning habits, be they good or bad, that are hard to shake. So, beter they be good ones.
And so, for those older guys out there who do know what they are doing, I encourage you to get angry!
We have a duty and a responsibility to shout at people who ride like idiots. Sometimes they know no better, simply because no one has ever told them – though sometimes, it’s true, they are just idiots! Either way though, a quick, verbal cuff round the ear can do a great deal of good.
That, or a quiet arm round the shoulder at a rest stop and an encouraging word in their ear would do. If enough of us do that then maybe we won’t be complaining about all the crashes that racing seems, inevitably, to bring these days.
Clubs and teams also should create beginner rides where new riders learn the craft of handling their bikes with others around. It can, ultimately, save lives.
Right, I’m off to learn some more Chinese. I’ve got some bollocking to do!