This was a question I’d been asking for a few years. Me, procrastinate much? I’ve been a solo rider for five years now. Riding my bike has always been an escape, a time to forget life’s ills. Cycling has been my meditation.
Yet I’d been thinking about joining a cycling club yet never committing. Why? Firstly, I’m pretty anti-social, not in a throwing beer bottles at police English football hooligan kind of way, I just enjoy my own company, where I’m always right, funny and intelligent! Yet alongside this was also my fears of the unknown and my perception of cycling clubs in the UK being a bit cliquey and snobby.
Do cycling clubs have a bad reputation?
Snobby, cliques, judgemental, holier than thou, wanna be pro’s with the attitude but without the contracts, unwelcoming. This was the message I got reading some club websites or forums about joining a club. Some clubs demand you race, one was even expecting a minimum Cat 3 racing license – newbies need not apply!
It also doesn’t help the way a small minority of clubs ride. They’ll pass way too close at great speed as if we’re all in the Tour de France. This alone sets the tone. ‘Buzzing’ fellow cyclists is not cool, be you a group or a commuter. It’s the cyclist’s equivalent of a punishment pass from a car.
The Rules by the Velominati do not help either. No actually, that’s not the right. The Rules are just a bit of fun, it’s the people who follow them that give cyclists their unwelcoming reputation. This was partly why I rewrote The Rules a while back as an antidote to such snobbery.
Yet I’m intelligent enough to know such generalities cannot be believed and for every snob club there’s ten welcoming clubs. Yet still I dithered. Why? Ultimately it was all about me and my fears. You know the sort. I’m not fast enough, I wear the wrong clothes, they will laugh at my bike, etc.
So it was I dallied on the fringes. Until recently that is, when I finally took the plunge and joined a local club for a few rides. I say recently, it’s probably been a year since I was first invited for a ride with a certain reader of this blog (hello Alex!). And you know what, I really enjoyed my introduction to club cycling. Who’d have thought?!
My first ride with a cycling club
I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. Sure, I took a look at myself from the outside and wondered what they’d think of my 13 year old bike, or my very dirty, very old, giant water bottles or my unshaven legs or my minimal group riding skills. The list goes on.
Yet these things matter not. Just go! Do it. Go, don’t dither or be put off like I was. Most clubs allow you to tag along for a few rides to see if you’ll enjoy it before you become a member.
My chosen club was London Phoenix. They differ a little from other clubs in so much as they are a self-organised internet based club. They have lots of bike rides, weekends, early or late, plus a few mid-week rides as well as more self-organised and exotic trips to Europe and the like.
Best of all the club members are normal, friendly, of mixed abilities, with riders of all sorts. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting but it was nice to meet a group of like-minded people.
My legs were also a little relieved. One of the reasons I wanted to join a club was to go for some social rides and let my legs relax a little. I chose a social Saturday morning run for my first ride, where the pace is moderate and the people chatty.
We covered a modest 40 miles in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Rather than thinking about every bend and hill, I was so busy chatting the miles flew by and before I knew it we were done.
Group riding itself is so much fun especially when the pace picks up, whether being pulled along by the group, shielded from the wind, or taking a turn on the front, helping to drag others along. It is certainly a very different experience to riding solo.
What to expect on your first club ride
It’s likely on your first club ride you won’t have had much experience riding in a group. Fear not, everyone has to start somewhere. Here are some tips for your first club run.
- How fast do I need to be to join a cycling club? This is perhaps the biggest question for cyclists considering joining a club. Will I be able to keep up? Will I be dropped? Most clubs have rides of varying length and speed. Contact the club or read their website to find out what rides are on and how fast they will be. The social ride I joined averaged about 18 mph, which is moderately quick. Fear not though – remember your speed will be boosted by about 2 mph drafting in a group. The weekday ride averaged about 21 mph with some efforts well above this. Other clubs take it easier, and as I highlight below, I personally avoided anything too slow.
- Choose the slower ride. I consider myself to be a fairly strong rider but still decided to join the club’s slower social ride to begin with. This has two benefits. One, you can test your legs at a reasonable pace but more importantly, you can get to the know the group a little. Most cycling clubs have introductory days for new members or a ‘no leave behind’ policy where they make sure all cyclists finish together.
- Tell the group leader and anyone who will listen about your experience or lack of experience riding in a group. This will help them help you.
- Mixed abilities, mixed gear. I was glad to see a broad mix of riders and bikes congregating at the meeting point. Sure, there was some pretty nice gear on show, raising my bike envy hormone (that’s a thing right?) and once riding I could see there were some very strong riders in the bunch, yet this was not a group of Chris Froome skeletor replicas riding £10,000 super bikes.
- Club cyclists are just people on bikes, just like you and me. Quelle surprise! They lead normal lives, have babies, move house, take their kids to the pool in the evenings. You know, regular people for whom cycling is fun, challenging and an escape.
- Group riding is fun and scary. I’m not going to pretend group riding is not scary for a first timer. I’ve ridden in groups sporadically at sportives, or laps around the local cycle park, yet there were still moments when I perceived a much greater risk than if I was riding solo. Some of this is about confidence and getting used to riding close to other riders. It’s a trust thing, other riders are your eyes when your vision of the road ahead is limited. Communication and knowing how other riders ride will help group riding become more of a norm. I wrote some group riding tips a while back which you can read but I would say for your first ride simply hang at the back of the group where you can can watch, learn and slow down as and when you need to.
- Hand signals. Not the ones we might expect from angry drivers but friendly signals to point out potholes and obstructions in the road. I know a few of these but getting into the habit of pointing to stuff on the road is one that will take time. Don’t worry if you don’t know the signals, watch and learn as other riders point out obstacles in the road. Focus on riding in the group, the others will look after themselves. Here’s a handy little guide to the most common cycling hand signals.
- New routes. Even though I was riding familiar roads I barely recognised the route as we tackled many of the lanes backwards and in a different order to which I tackle them. Riding with a group will give you new roads to ride without worrying about navigation.
- Chit chat. This one’s new for me. I’m not a big talker at the best of times but enjoyed chatting to like minded people, be it a little bike racing, upcoming bike adventures, general conversations about life or more esoteric talk of bird song and human fear. Most enjoyable. You’ll also have that moment when you’re trying to a hold a conversation whilst riding uphill. Let the battle commence!
- Varied pace. I’m used to chugging along at a fairly metronomic pace. This becomes difficult to maintain in a group, especially at corners and hills where the group concertinas as they slow and speed up. This can make for a challenging chase or two and can be a little tiring if you are not used to it. Most groups will regroup at hill tops so take everything at your own pace.
- The thrill of the chase. Group rides tend to speed up towards the end of the route as legs with abundant energy answer the call of coffee / home / your better half. This is where stronger riders lead out and push on, raising your heart beat to the point where your inner-chimp will beat its chest and do its best to hang on to the tail of the group. It can be both a joy and chore to cling to a wheel.
- Drafting and speed. If you’ve never been pulled along the road as part of cycling group you are missing one of cycling’s great joys. Pedalling becomes easier and your average speed rises miraculously as if you’re floating. Watch out Strava segments!
- Kilometres not miles. Cycling clubs have a continental approach to measuring distance which means you’ll need to bring your calculator as every one talks in weedy kilometres not good old imperial miles. I will continue to confuse them as much they do me!
- Car drivers. Most have no idea how to overtake a group of cyclists and others are unable to resist the urge to wind down the window and shout something unintelligible when they see a cycling group. Human kind really does disappoint at times.
- The miles (sorry, kilometres!) and time will fly by. You’ll cover more miles than you imagine. Group riding is a great way to tackle longer rides as you draft, chatting away distracts you physically and mentally too, the miles ticking by without you really noticing (although your legs begin to notice near the end!)
I’m converted and I’ve applied to join the club proper. It really was great to get out and ride in the group. The fact that the miles flew by was brilliant and listening to the talk of all the other riders’ upcoming adventures, be it LEJOG, cyclo-cross, racing, or monster sportives in Europe really did get me excited for some new challenges and cycling adventures. Where do I sign?
Tips for finding and choosing a cycle club
There’s a wide variety of clubs out there, from the hardcore racing clubs to the more inclusive clubs where all abilities are welcome. I recommend doing a little research first. A club’s website will give you a pretty good idea of their philosophy and culture. Looking for cycling clubs in London I came across a wide array of clubs.
Sure some of the websites scared me with big long lists of ‘Rules of the road’ or talk of all club members being racers. I also baulked at talk of slow introductory rides as I’m a rider who likes to ride at a certain pace. What I’m trying to say, badly, is that we’re all different riders and I believe there’s a club out there for every type of rider.
Think about your criteria for a club. What are you looking for? A fast club? A club that will help you get into racing? A social club with lots of coffee stops? An adventure club who take part in lots of tours or sportives? Social rides? A little bit of everything?
After much deliberation I had many years ago taken a keen interest in London Phoenix. Why this club? I like the fact they were a self-organised club without too much structure or rules. There seemed to be a wide range of rides catering for a mixture of abilities. They are also very welcoming of new riders. Their geography suited me too, with many of their rides starting not too far from me. Oh and the kit’s not bad either – a very important consideration!
So give it a go. You may be thrilled by the speed of the pack or enjoy the camaradrie of the group. Or you may not. There’s only one way to find out…
Images courtesy of London Phoenix cycling club and cycling tips (lead image, edited by me)