THE GROUP GROOVY OR GRUELING?



One day last week I stood outside a gym,
And watched the folks inside some fat, some slim
Who rode LifeCycles, sweating, pedals spinning...
I couldn't help but notice: No one's grinning.
And why? Perhaps because they're on a floor
That never changes; they should get out more.

I think some cyclists would, but don't, because
It's riding all alone that gives them pause.
They'd love to share our fun and sun, providing
They find a group they like who's also riding.
For solo women there's some risk on trails;
For other cyclists social need prevails.

But rides with groups are not all fun and games;
They have their ups, but downs as well, and claims
That one will find Utopia just waiting
May set folks up to find their hopes deflating.
Before they've finished even one short ride,
Initial optimism may subside.

When we first meet in our cycling group,
To ride off on a flat, wide open loop,
We laugh and chat, till someone starts cajoling
To cut the chatter, mount up and get rolling.
While warming up, there's lots of jokes and smiles;
There's lots of talk those first few easy miles.

But shortly after those go breezing by,
For some of us the speeds start getting high.
The gap from first to last begins expanding;
Unless a group's worked out an understanding,
They'll likely get confused and all strung out
Some cyclists, maybe, on an unplanned route.

Fast hounds aren't always best to lead a hunt.
Sometimes someone will 'follow from the front';
He'll reach a fork no clue, no hope of knowing
Which way to turn but still he keeps on going.
The guys behind don't know which way he's gone,
Or do... but tough to catch, he's on his own.

Or someone in the middle of the pack
Has gotten just a little too far back
To see which way the guy ahead was turning,
Then OOPS! he guesses wrong, so... undiscerning,
That guy, and ev'ryone behind as well,
Have split the group, with no one there to tell.

Some clubs just always ride a single trail,
Which ev'ry rider knows in great detail.
And while it's better than some gym's oak flooring,
Compared to all the world... it's kinda boring.
And even that's not perfect riders change;
For some the simplest, best-known trail's still strange.

We've ridden up to Ojai umpteen times,
And though we meet up after those last climbs,
We still have found ourselves confused and scattered
With some dissent about how much it mattered.
Some 'subgroups' got together after brunch,
But others never got back with the bunch.

Some club somewhere may sort this out someday;
For us, the best we've done, I'd have to say
Is when no riders feel suppressed or crappy.
So... who knows how to make the whole bunch happy?
If that is not a Herculean task,
I'm absolutely not the guy to ask!

Lately, I've been thinking about the social dynamics of cycling clubs or groups. For whatever reason, there are some that somehow just work they hang together, grow and/or evolve over long periods of time while others fragment or vaporize faster than a Bible study group made up of a hardcore Catholic, a Jehovah's Witness, a Unitarian and a Southern Baptist fundamentalist. My basic conclusion after a good bit of thought is that there is simply no way that ALL the cyclists on our Ventura County Recumbent Riders mailing list that would potentially, semi-seriously like to go pedaling with our little group will EVER be happy with whatever we do and how we do it...

The thoughts and feelings you have about that statement about now should be sorta familiar if you've ever reread my Santa Clara River bridge poem or if you watched the second round of the Presidential debates, when John Kerry began his response to a question about government funded abortions by pretty much saying, "I'm a conscientiously committed card carrying Catholic". You have to know you aren't going to have very long to wait before a huge "BUT..." is going to pop up.

In this case the big "BUT..." is: Historically, I think we've done pretty well at making sure the vast majority of us have had fun and enjoyed our group rides, and with a bit of attention and effort we'll probably do even better in the future.

If there's a way to really understand and predict this sort of stuff, it probably starts with why a group comes into being in the first place. I think most classical serious cycling organizations exist primarily as a means for competitive, fast, fit bikers to ride with like-minded, like-bodied others in pacelines or packs, motivating and inspiring each other to ride harder and longer. This type of club has one real advantage in that it's pretty clear to both current and prospective members what's expected in the way of speed and attitude, and there's usually not a lot of emphasis on how well the guys in the group get along.

I think most other cycling groups, both formal and informal, originate as a more supportive environment for folks who don't quite fit into that gunfighter-eyed peloton mentality. There's almost inevitably a broader range of riding speeds, as well as some fairly diverse attitudes and ambitions in this type of club. They also tend to be focused a bit less on athletic ability, and more on interpersonal relationships. I think most of us agree that our group fits in this category, and most of us regard the friendliness of the group as a primary reason for our continuing participation. Man has always been a highly social animal, more or less, after all although probably never quite to the same extent as woman, of course. For example, when someone asks how fast we ride, I sometimes answer, "Kay usually goes about 25 MPH; that's a combination of riding 10 MPH while talking fifteen."

One of the issues that faces every cycling group is: where to go. It can be especially tough to choose a route for a very varied group of riders that will be fun and interesting, but won't result in long waits at every junction or having half the group ten miles off course. As noted in my frivolous rhyme above, a group can get separated even under the best circumstances. On one of the early rides Kay and I did with our local mob of recumbent riders up to Ojai, we'd all stopped to discuss where to go for lunch. Someone said, "The Italian place," and off we went, not really having any clue exactly what or where 'the Italian place' was, but trusting that everyone else did, and we'd just follow them. But, come to find out, that was what almost everyone else was doing as well...

There are in fact several eateries in Ojai, fast food and slow, that might be considered Italian, plus a pizza place or two. One of our frequent lunch stops, Rainbow Bridge, is a sort of a tree hugger quasi-vegan deli, but it serves a great lasagna and other similar casseroles. There's also a place named Antonio's, with a cool courtyard that's readily visible from the bike path; of course, it's really a Mexican restaurant, but who knew? As it finally turned out, I think the guy who spoke up was paraphrasing someone who'd suggested it to him, actually calling it 'the pasta place'. What he'd meant, in fact, was the Ojai Cafe Emporium, which dishes up a pretty good pasta salad, but would probably be classified by most folks as somewhere between mainstream American and New Age yuppy health nut. I think we had cyclists eating at five different places that day, all of us wondering where the HELL all the other guys had gone.

Probably the toughest issue for most 'casual' cycling groups to reconcile is SPEED. Think about this for a moment: If you ask any meticulously honest biker "How fast do you want the group you ride with to be?" his answer would almost surely be: "About oh-point-five to one-point-oh miles per hour slower than me." That way there's very little pressure to ride at an 'uncomfortable' pace even to catch up after you've stopped off to take a quicky call on your cell phone or whatever. But you can still pretty much go about as fast as you like most of the time without worrying about losing the guys behind, or having to wait 15 minutes for them to catch up at a potty stop. However, it doesn't take a mathematical or engineering wizard to figure out that in any given group, there's only going to be only one rider (or none) for whom that condition applies. When most of us ride with a group, it's more or less a given that given our inevitable intrinsic speed differentials, well... something's got to give.

These issues of where we go and especially how fast we ride are probably the biggest challenges for the coherency of our little biker bunch. For starters, we're a recumbent group, which at least superficially means that its central focus is on the hardware rather than on the riders. But there's a vast range of recumbent bikes and trikes, from Sam Whittingham's 80 MPH streamliner to a fully accessorized 85-pound EZ3-USX towing a medium-sized dog on a trailer around the neighborhood and an even wider diversity in the engines. We will probably always have to find some way to deal with the very divergent preferences, attitudes and expectations of a lot of local folks who like to ride 'bents.

Some observers claim that most relatively stereotypical recumbent cyclists are not real high up on the overall 'soche' scale, but that certainly doesn't seem to be true of our small slice of the subculture. I think we all feel some recurring urge to engage in intercourse [that's social intercourse, of course, not that other kind] with our peers [that's 'equals' or 'compatriots', of course, not those other things]. If it was only 'about the bike', so to speak, each of us would simply do his (or her) own thing on his (ditto ad nauseum) own route in his own time, and thereby avoid all the issues and/or hassles of trying to fit in with other cyclists.

In fact, some of the folks in our 'bent bunch probably do rack up a lot of their mileage that way. Others mix it up, riding with other groups or on other rides, some more or less formal and organized, but sometimes just with two or three guys on a catch-as-catch-can basis. In fact, I'd hope there aren't too many of us who regard a 20 mile bike ride once or twice a month as their total exercise program. But whatever and however folks spend most of the rest of their time on cycles, some of us do find ourselves whether twice a month or once a year, maybe having fun on one of the regularly scheduled VCRR outings with 10 to 25 of the rest of us.

When you ride with that many bikers, almost surely at some point on any given day, someone will want to ride faster or slower, farther or shorter, or somewhere else entirely than you do. I think one factor that's made things work for us as well as they have is that most of us don't have only one magic number for the speed we need to go at any given point on a ride; it's actually more like a kind of bell curve with speed as the x-axis and happiness (or satisfaction or comfort or whatever) as the y-axis. It's pretty typical of most peloton-style training groups that all the regulars in the group have very narrow curves with very similar midpoints. Anyone who doesn't fit in is pretty quickly eliminated. On the other hand, most of our gang, most of the time, seem to have pretty broad curves with a wide variation in their midpoints, but fortunately just enough overlap that we can usually find a pace that works, or at worst we can split into a couple of subgroups.

I honestly don't know any ideal way to deal with this issue of speed differentials and still maintain some social interaction: we've tried regrouping periodically; splitting into smaller subgroups with different length courses, but meeting at common destinations; and some days with smaller groups just having the (graciously cooperative) fast guys poke along with the rest of us. [Thank you all again very much; you know who you are.] All of these things seem to help, at least sometimes; alas, nothing's perfect... But still, I think it's safe to say that all of us for whatever reason enjoy riding with the group, and at least most of us also realize that any group outing comes with its own unique set of compromises, which are ultimately for most of us more than worthwhile.

I think it's kind of neat that our mixed bag of mostly recumbent riders has managed fairly well, so far at least, to bridge the span from the local Lances to folks who might feel too intimidated or embarrassed to ever try riding with another cycling club. The two of us who try to act as 'anchorpersons' for this group pretty much cover the same span; John is about as fast as anybody can hope to be... well certainly at least at his age, in his condition [snicker-snicker]. Personally, I'm definitely much more comfortable riding drag and making sure everyone's rolling along, not lost, with no flats or other problems, than I am out front trying to show the gang some local route that's one of my favorites [but rambling and convoluted, of course!] So I usually think of myself more or less as an advocate for the folks at the other end of the speed spectrum. Anyway, as far as I'm aware, we've never had any kind of serious division or polarization on the basis of riding speed.

It may be tempting to think that there's one pretty simple and obvious way to keep the group together. The 'fast guys' all have the option of riding slower, but realistically, many, maybe most, of 'us slow guys' don't have the option of going much faster. So... why isn't the best way we can all ride together for everyone to pedal at the speed of the slowest rider? Well, remember that speed vs. happy curve thing? When guys start spending too much time on the very low end of their personal curves, they're ultimately almost guaranteed to drop in on this group less and less often and spend their Saturdays riding somewhere else, with some other group maybe, where the pace is a bit more rewarding. There are a lot of cycle clubs within a 30-mile radius of our area (Oxnard-Ventura), and I'd guess that the average speed for most of them is probably a notch up from our group. But some of these clubs and groups also tend to be a bit standoffish about recumbents, especially trikes, which doesn't make them an ideal alternative.

All the same, I hope it's more or less obvious to everyone that simply dropping riders from our group who can't keep up with the middle of the pack, and/or alienating them even if unintentionally to discourage their return for another ride isn't a real good solution, either. Almost by their very nature, recumbent cycles will always have some appeal to folks who aren't ever likely to pose a serious threat to Tyler Hamilton, with or without blood doping. IMHO, I certainly see it as part of our reason to exist to provide encouragement and support for virtually anybody who's willing to tackle a 20 to 30 mile bike ride.

So... bottom line: I'd really like to find a way that all of us can get together before each ride, for that first mile or two, and again at the lunch stop, and to make sure that as many current or prospective recumbent cyclists as possible can join our camaraderie and sport. If we can accomplish that, I'll be a happy camper, even if most of the time while we're actually riding, we're traveling different routes or at dramatically different paces.

If you have any ideas to make the group work better, or if you want to take a more active role in our outings, leading a ride or laying out a fun but easy to follow route or whatever, please step right up and either rattle my cage, or as Nike likes to say, "JUST DO IT!"

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Last updated Nov 8 2004