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Words by Eric Kenney
Photographs by Ken Conley

Many road riders and triathletes alike participate in group rides. They have a unique place in our training and overall season preparation. They can simulate a bike race, add some intensity to your training, be great prep for those doing ITU races, and let's face it... they're just fun!

Many long distance triathletes add in a fast roadie group ride to mix things up and get some high intensity. Matt Reed is seen on the local group rides in Boulder often. Tony Delonge, winner at IM USA a few years back threw down a record bike split on his way to an 8:56! Tony would take part in the Tuesday group ride outside of Boston quite often. Regardless of your racing goals these can be great training, but not all group rides are the same and, moreover, the same group ride can be a very different experience for different people.

So what's your Sweet Spot for a Group Ride?

First off we are talking about the fast rides. Hard, pre-set course, if you get dropped no one is waiting for you rides. Not the "team rides".

The first thing you should be doing, or not doing really, is trying to make the ride something it's not. I have heard before "I'm gonna do my threshold (or tempo) work on the group ride tonight", ahh, no you're not. With these types of training sessions, you are looking for "muscle endurance" as Friel calls it. If the type of training where you're on the legs every pedal stroke for your selected interval time, a group ride is not the place to do them. Unless you can ride on the front of the group in your zone for that long with out anyone coming around you. I'm guessing you can't.

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A group ride gives us a few unique things we simply can't get alone.
  • Higher speeds: turning bigger gears, even at a similar wattage has a different feel.
  • Variable power: the up and down stop, go, stop, go nature of a pack ride
  • A large amount of total anaerobic riding
  • The repeating nature of these above threshold efforts
  • Higher cadences, hopefully
  • The unknown. Going hard when you would like to rest, recovery periods when you least expect them.
  • Learning to relax in a pack, cross winds, etc. ie. more efficient riding when the situation is stressful. Better bike handling on a efficiency level.
    If you are going to do a ride of this nature you should be looking for at least some of these things.
Ok so now you're set on participating in some group rides, now what? What's a good ride for you, what's not so good? First off, prepare by learning the route. Maybe ride it solo or with a few friends before your first attempt so you know where you're going, where the big hills are, down hills, turns, etc. It is important to have an idea where the most intense efforts are and where there's opportunity to rest. You want to be near the front during the most intense efforts and not dangling off the back.

Intensity, the key factor:
This is where I see so many people blow their "group ride" type training.
If going on a group ride involves you hanging on for dear life for 20-30 minutes, accumulating 40% or more of your time above threshold (power time), getting dropped and barely limping home only able to push Z2 wattage, the ride is too hard and you're doing more damage than good. You want your ride to be challenging, not over-reaching. You want to be able to repeat your training, i.e., get out of bed the next morning for your run or another ride. You should be able to finish the ride, if not with the front group at least a group of other riders. Beyond this look to be able to do a few hard efforts with out getting dropped, (go to the front and do some pulls, a few 1' attacks off the front, etc) and be able to recover in the pack when you need.

Also a few, more tangible factors to aim for:
  • No more than 20% of your time above threshold, power. Or 30-35% of HR time. Even a road cyclist, who is trained for lots of anaerobic time is going to have a really hard ride with any more than this.
  • Your best hour normalized power being below threshold. If you start doing long sections of time at threshold things are going to get unmanageable fast.
  • Peek avg. power: having only your best 10 min. avg. being at threshold you will find the ride to be over all pretty hard. Start doing 20 min. or more. Get ready to suffer.
  • Wattage spikes: 10 watts per kilogram of body weight. This is a big benchmark for bike races and mass start rides. The more of these, the harder your overall effort is going to be. Get up to 12 or more per hour and you're going to know it! In a tough crit style race we can see up to 40 in 1 hour.
Example Wattage Graph: https://tpks.ws/eRsG

Above is a link to a group ride done by coach Eric recently. The ride is less intense the first 30 minutes and also the last 40.

This ride was tough. One reason is because it was the first one of the year! That first date with significant anaerobic time is always hard. I got a flat with about 30' still to ride. The last 30-40 minutes of the ride was tough. After a quick flat fix I was riding in a smaller group pulling through more frequently and getting less rest time. One of the things to note about any ride is how difficult there are while still having so much time in Z1 and not pedaling!!

Find your sweet spot. Make sure you can keep training after the ride. Can you finish it? What does your power file and HR file look like? The over all idea here gang - Can you get all of these adaptations in (mentioned above) but minimize the crushing fatigue and muscle damage of a full on race effort?

So before you decide on the group ride workout get some info on what you're in for, know your route, and decide what you're really looking to get from it. Is this ride going to give you that?

Be safe and have fun! Tough group rides can be the most fun you can have on 2 wheels.