Photo by Matt Koschara
The more I ride, the harder it is to ride with other people.
It’s not what it sounds like. I wanna ride with other people. I enjoy the social aspect of riding; you can have a good conversation while still getting in a workout. I would much rather race with a team (which is a whole other discussion). And this isn’t a critique of how you ride, or how I ride. It’s an observation of how people actually ride, the little competitions that go on when you get on a bike.
You’d think I feel this way because I’m faster, but actually it’s the other way around. I know I’m not that fast, certainly by bike racer standards. But the more I ride, the faster I get – and the happier I am to ride ‘slow’. I took a 2h30 hr ride with a non-racing pal recently, kept it happily in my aerobic zone (140-150bpm), spun 110 RPM on the downhill to try and get my pedal stroke smooth and with less ankle movement as per my coach. There’s still plenty to do, including a nice, social ride, other than pick up the pace. After all, I ride hard with my teammates.
One teammate and I were doing some laps the other day, and after an interval up the Great Hill as it’s officially known – or Harlem Hill, or North Hill – in Central Park, and while I was trying to bring my HR down after hitting 182 bpm, I saw him roll ahead. I had to ask him a few times to back off the pace a little, post interval. I wanted to get my HR < 140 for a full recovery – it’s good to see your HR drop that low, because it means you can recover; if you’re having a hard time getting your HR down, you’re probably cooked and should spin lightly before you head home.
But it’s always with a little hesitation to ask your riding partner to ease up. C’mon, if you’re reading this, and you were on a ride and someone asked you to ‘ease up’ you’d think they were having a hard time keeping up with the thundering pistons that are your legs, right?
Except this wasn’t the case here; a few minutes before, I was pulling him up the hill until he couldn’t hold my wheel anymore, telling him to sit on, to close the gap.
How does someone go from driving the pace to saying ‘slow down’ in 2 minutes?
I was thinking about this subject for a few reasons; my college cycling team is doing a reunion ride here in NYC in a few months, and that’s where I started racing. But racing with those guys taught me jackshit – training rides were super unstructured, people hammering without warm-ups, no coaching – I didn’t realize that I could even sprint well until years after college, because in college, I just jumped early and people came around me. No one told me to wait, to sit in, to get a lead out. They were lousy training ride partners. But we were all young, and few of us had real experience in anything.
A new coworker of mine rides, and her BF may come out on a group ride with me. He’s a triathlete, whom I stereotype as, more often than not, put-your-head-down-and-go-hard in training. Triathletes, in my experience, are often real type A personalities. Who else thinks one sport just isn’t enough – so let’s do three! (Then again, so are most road racers I know.) Mountain bikers, on the other hand, are more likely to get high and eat cupcakes while playing Call of Duty with you.
I used to make fun of the bad bike handling most triathletes exhibit until I rode a full TT bike and realized how twitchy those things are. Trigeeks don’t have the high end of a road racer (they don’t need it), but I’ve definitely ridden with some triathletes who could go really, really hard. Bonus: swimming shoulders=good draft to sit in.
I began dreading riding with my coworker’s BF. Suppose he wants to go hard from the gun? I find that the more I ride, the harder it is to be, or find ‘good’ riding partners; ‘good’ meaning, you’re all on the same page. I don’t worry about the tri guy’s fitness; maybe he’s faster than I am, maybe he’s not – chances are he’s not so fast that I can’t sit on his wheel.
No, I worry about people who are overly competitive on training rides.
You know the type.
It’s no fun riding with people who are push the pace as if it’s an unspoken rule. One of my first rides with my now-teammate was with two of his friends, a girl and a guy. The guy was his mechanic, an ex-racer. He and my friend pushed the pace on the hills. The kind of riders who jump up the climb, then ease up on the flats. If you rode a steady effort, you’d probably end up catching them. But I thought we were riding together; who called for hill work today?
I ended up riding and chatting with the girl. Hey, I’m not an idiot. I like girls, and I like riding with people. We didn’t go fast. I think we caught up with the other 2 at Piermont and we rolled into Nyack. I like riding with my teammate and now that he races, I think he has a very different idea of what constitutes a good training ride. Thinking you’re fit (and being fit enough to ride centuries), then getting dropped like a stone when the training ride goes into race pace is eye-opening for most people who aren’t naturally gifted cyclists. I don’t mean to call him out. I’ve been on that ride with any number of people before.
I also read some of the updates here on a training diary/social network site I use, Dailymile; there’s a lot of (good natured) trash talk, about how so-and-so couldn’t keep up with me. It reminds me of all those rides where people would jump ahead and look back and see if I was coming. It masks as competition, but it’s not real competition, often; it’s fake because it’s not a shared goal.
I reminded my teammate of our first ride when he said he wanted to ride with more discipline after he slowed down and waited for me on hill interval day.
They weren’t going very hard that first ride – sub AT on the climbs, and probably aerobic or low tempo on the flats. But what was the point? It wasn’t going to give me race intensity… and yo-yo’ing between almost-hard just on the hills and a bit more than easy-ish the rest of the time seemed pointless. If I wanted to do some hard climbing efforts, I’d have done River Road; more importantly, I would have done them with people who wanted to do River Road. I get it – it feels good to go hard. You gotta get your ya-yas out. I feel the same way, sometimes.
People think it’s satisfying to ‘win’ training rides – to drop people. But you can only win if everyone’s playing. Half-wheeling someone is like a passive-aggressive race – though I remember a Cat 2 teammate half-wheeled me until I blew, after which he told me he did that to see how fit I was. Not as fit as he was, that’s for sure.
I think it’s a nice affirmation of my fitness if I can win a sprint or not be last up a climb. But I’ve ridden with countless guys who want to hammer from the gun – and by hammer, I mean, go uncomfortably hard early in the ride. I could hold that pace, but I wanna warm up first. I want to feel ready to hit the gas – if it’s my ‘hit the gas’ day. I think its fine to feel good about dropping people on training rides, but they’re sort of an empty victory. How do you know that they were really going hard? Maybe it was a base mileage day for them.
I train, generally speaking, following a method laid out by Phil Maffetone, one of the early HR zealots and 40/30/30 diet proponent. Phil’s philosophy was that if you are going aerobic, that’s what you do all day. If you go anaerobic – even for a jump up a little crest – your body’s switched over and you’ve become primarily a glucose burning machine, as opposed to a fat burning machine. If you are doing a base mileage ride, you never, never go above your aerobic zone (for me ~145bpm). It was really hard to do this, until a teammate did it with me. My instinct was to chase down everything that rode by me (still is) but my teammate would never do that. He was a better racer than I was, and this was his way of training. When he went hard, he really went hard; he took a pull in a break once that was so fast that not only did it clear us from the sight of the field, it demoralized everyone else in that break who must have been thinking ‘there’s no way I can pull through at that pace’. We eventually got caught.
That means while aerobic rides keep a decent pace on the flats, it’s slow up the climbs. SLOW. It makes me a lousy riding partner for all those riders who want to hammer up hills, because this method almost is the reverse – you go slow up the hills and keep up the effort on the flats. I find that when I’m riding this way, people are always waiting for me. I know what they might be thinking – why is he so slow? Maybe he’s gonna write up this ride on DailyMile and talk about how nice my bike was but how I couldn’t keep up with him.
Maybe I couldn’t keep up with him on the climbs – or maybe I could. (Probably not, though.) But if I’m doing hard efforts that day, I’ll be doing hard efforts. If I’m out for a base mileage day, I’ll do that. That doesn’t leave much room for freelancing; I do have rides where I just go out goof off, not worry about zones or training intensity. Just don’t have much time for that with work and family.
I guess there’s nothing wrong with riding hard a lot, or revel in dropping people. But it’s hard now to find people to ride with – the hard efforts tend to be very hard, and ideally, structured. Hard paceline, county line sprints, attack/bridge/counter… none of that, I think, would be fun to someone just out to ‘ride hard’ because you have to suffer until you wish you would flat just to catch a breather.
I thought of my early ride with my new teammate, and I wonder if he just thought I wasn’t that fit. The following week or 2 later, 2 other riding buddies and I rode paceline from the NYC side of the bridge to Nyack in about 1:02, which included a 20 min warmup. That’s about 20 miles. We worked like sled dogs to state line, sprinted, eased up a bit in Piermont, picked it up again, and spun the last .5 mile into town. That was a hard ride, faster than my friend and his mechanic rode. It was consistently hard; HR was 176+ bpm at the front, 170-172 sitting in. We hit it up the climbs, and when we crested, we hit it on the flats; 53×12 at the descents, out of the saddle to drive downhill.
No one wants to do intervals or pyramids – at least I don’t. No one wants to do a sprint workout where we jump several times at 100% until nausea washes over you. They hurt. A lot. When I’m doing that, it really helps to have a team, or guys out doing the same thing to push you. I’m always happy to ride with people who aren’t out to prove anything because on team rides, where people are out to prove something, it’s grueling and painful.
It’s fun to pretend that the guy you rode by is slower than you. Except they may not be. People ride by me commuting and I’m often tempted to give chase, but why bother? I’m trying to get base miles in. And I give in sometimes, push the pace to keep up and sit in, just to keep things different.
I wanna be laissez faire about riding hard – if you like to do it, great. If you get extra enjoyment from dropping people, that’s OK too, I guess. Maybe I just think you should try and drop people who are actively ready to not get dropped – who want to drop you too, and are (more or less) fully committed to that idea. You should just compete. Do the bike leg of a relay tri, enter a citizen’s race, even ride a granfondo, do something where everyone who shows up for the ride is ready to commit to trying to push your time behind them.
An old teammate, Stefani Jackenthal, a former local Cat 1 woman and now batshit insane adventure racer (I mean that in a good way), used to tell me that guys used to sprint by her, then ease off because they had to be in front of the ‘girl’. Stefani had won/placed in some big races – she didn’t have anything to prove to macho guy. But it clearly irked her. There’s so much ego on bikes, and I wish people were out to enjoy the ride a bit more, and worry about hammering a bit less.