Taking the Plunge

So you want to join a cycling club, eh?

There are a number of great reasons for joining a cycling club, and despite what you might gather after stumbling across this benighted and secluded backwater of the Internet, it’s a great experience. Hopefully this blogs content won’t put you off too much.

Yeah, cyclists can be smart-arses, but we’re a friendly bunch at heart. I’m just trying to capture the humour, incessant chatter, experiences and oddball characters you’re likely to encounter on a typical club run.

I find them hugely entertaining and If I’ve failed to convey even a portion of a scintilla of a hint of the humour and enjoyment involved then that failure is singularly mine. Trust me and try it. Maybe then you’ll understand why club riders confess that they live for the weekend club run, or why one recently retired club mate told me he had no great desire to ride his bike too much during the week, because it might dilute his weekend enjoyment.

It’s this very essence of being a club rider that I’m hopelessly hopefully trying to capture.

But the fun is only part of it – the other obvious benefit is getting better, fitter and stronger as a rider. You can ride further, faster in a group, find new routes and roads, learn how to handle your bike better, learn tips and techniques and being pushed to keep up with a group will improve your fitness. Quickly.

I also find it tends to be safer to be in a larger, more visible group, although this can also increase tension and upset other, less reasonable road users, especially the (thankfully irregular) random indignant motorist (RIM).

I ride with a fairly large club, based in a fairly large city so we have a lot of new members turning up, almost on a weekly basis (or at least we do when the weather is good). They often tell me that they enjoy the experience of the ride, but it’s surprising how few actually stick and grow to become regulars and turn up week after week.

Perhaps therefore some guidelines are in order for the newbie, or FNG as I unflatteringly dub them, (this is simply because I’m a lazy, mean-spirited curmudgeon, don’t take it to heart.)

The Guidelines:

No one cares what sort of bike you ride, vintage Colnago, Trek, Specialized, Boardman, Cube, Carrera, whatever. Trust me, the only one who cares is you.

Of course if you have a “Nice bike” you’ll get more than a few admiring glances, and probably more than a few riders will tell you, “Nice bike.” We’re an imaginative, verbose and original lot us cyclists.

So no one cares what sort of bike you ride except, well there always has to be at least one exception, if you’re a Raphalite and turn up, in freshly minted, too tight Rapha kit (especially a replica Sky team kit) with a super-expensive, all singing, all dancing, all carbon stealth machine that’s equipped with a Dura Ace Di2 groupset and deep-section carbon rims and you fail to ride like an all-conquering baroudeur, taking huge turns at the front into a crippling headwind, scampering up the climbs and putting all other riders effortlessly to the sword, then I reserve the right to think you’re a knob until you prove otherwise.

Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Anyway, where was I, ah yes, no one cares what sort of bike you ride, but it should be mechanically sound – no one wants to abandon you in the middle of nowhere with an irreparably seized bike, or stop every 5 miles while you adjust this, or tighten that. Or listen to a cacophony of chirrups, scrapes, clunks, creaks, bangs and rattles as you pedal along, sounding like someone dropping a bag of random timpani instruments down a concrete stairwell.

I also like bikes to be clean and waxed to a deep polish, but that’s by no means a requirement and I accept I’m a bit fussy.

Our club makes a point of saying we welcome people on MTB’s or hybrids et al, but to be honest if you’re going to ride these then you’re likely to be putting yourself at a serious disadvantage.

By all means if you’re super-fit come along on your plush, fat-tyred, full-suspension mountain bike, and good luck to you. I won’t even object to the noise your tyres make slapping the tarmac like a frenzied swarm of wasps, even through the paranoid, cold sweat it invariably induces in me.

What I’m trying to say is it’s called a “Road Club” for a reason – and while road bikes aren’t absolutely essential, they are the best tool for the job.

I would recommend testing yourself a little before hurling yourself into a club run – you should be able to ride 30-40 mile or so at a reasonable pace, say at an average of around 14 or 15mph (try it, it’s not as difficult as it sounds). Quite simply, if you can’t hack this then the club will wait for you, but you’re going to be struggling sur la jante, (“breathing through your arse” is, I believe the rather quaint, colloquial expression around here).

More importantly you’re not going to enjoy the experience quite as much, and if you don’t enjoy it, you’re less likely to do it again. Unless of course you’re one of those strange souls who like suffering, in which case Rapha do a special commemorative hair-shirt jersey and bibshorts combination that’s not only supremely uncomfortable, but so ridiculously expensive it’ll hurt you in the wallet as well.

So you think you can hack it, and you’re ready to take the plunge? Here are a few tips:

Make contact with the club leader/road captain, ideally before meeting up and find out (if it isn’t a closely and jealously guarded secret) the intended route and timings – especially when you can be expected home.

Tell someone, (better yet, tell everyone): your wife, partner, children, loved ones, pets – and most especially your mother – because even if you’re old enough to have grandchildren of your own, if you’re not back when you say you will it’ll be your mother on the phone haranguing the clubs Glorious Leader and demanding to know where you are. After that you’re still likely to be grounded when the next club run rolls around. Sadly, we’ve know it to happen.

Breakfast well. Mad Colin who occasionally rides with us, has the strength of 3 men and has been known to push struggling newbies up hills faster than I can climb them, recommends a breakfast of porridge mixed with an energy gels. I must admit I always forego the gel part, otherwise sound advice.

Be prepared. Make sure the bike is in full working order, oiled and ideally polished and waxed so it gleams in all the right places. A furry, ginger chain will earn you instant notoriety, and a flash mob of cycling onlookers clustered around your rear wheel. Check your tyre pressures.

Get to the meeting place bang on time (N.B. this will be well before anyone else turns up. As we’ve discovered cyclists are notoriously bad at time keeping and congenitally late). Enjoy your own company and inner peace for a while. You can even use the adrenaline rush of worrying if you’re in the right place at the right time to help fuel the first few miles.

Once the first few riders roll in, introduce yourself. You can also cleverly hint that this is your first time by asking questions about the likely route, ride protocol, average speeds, who the head honcho is etc. Don’t be too subtle though, you are talking to a bunch of cyclists after all and we do have cognitive limitations.

Try and make a good first impression– you may be relying on some of these grizzled veterans to help get you home later.

Clothing – dress appropriately and for the weather (and any potential weather likely to head our way i.e. check the forecasts).

We’ve had a number of selective wardrobe malfunctions ranging from the chronically over-dressed, turning up in pit boots and long leather trench coat that would occasionally part to flash a startlingly white bum crack, to the criminally under-dressed, in a short-sleeved skin-suit for a very chilly January run. This on a rider with as much body-fat as piranha-stripped frog skeleton. Never mind goose-bumps, this was a case of moose bumps. I’ve never seen anyone shake so much without seriously overdosing on non-prescription drugs.

We have enough trouble looking after ourselves on winter rides, without having to donate gear and keep checking for the onset of hypothermia. Seriously, cyclists don’t (only) wear all the weird stuff because they’re Lycra fetishists; it’s been designed to work. I also believe that if you look good you’ll ride well, but this is obviously absurd and doesn’t stand up to even cursory examination.

Dress appropriately. Extra marks for sartorial elegance.

Essentials – as a bare minimum you should have the wherewithal to fix a puncture. Carry a pump, spare inner tube(s) and tyre levers at all times. Or CO2 canisters if you prefer. There’s really no excuse not to these days when you can get a mini-pump that’ll slip neatly into a jersey pocket and should be able to inflate a road tyre to around 80psi relatively easily and with a minimum amount of grunt. (YMMV as they say on the Interweb thing).

We have a Hall of Shame that’s especially reserved for those stranded at the side of the road with a simple puncture, but lacking the tools to help themselves. Surprisingly it has some rather illustrious members…

Be prepared. You do not want to join the Hall of Shame.

Puncture repair kits have a place and use (I’m a pessimist and carry one for the inevitable and catastrophic failure of all 3 spare tubes), but you shouldn’t expect a bunch of hairy arsed cyclists to wait around in the cold, while you hunt a microscopic pinprick in your inner tube and glue your fingers to your rim.

A multi-tool is a good idea for addressing simple mechanical emergencies. The Venerable Toshi-san once told me about encountering a guy on a super expensive, all singing, all dancing Colnago, stuck out on the moors in the middle of nowhere for the sake of an Allen/Hex key to tighten the bolt holding his saddle to his seat pin. Toshi-san didn’t recount if said stranded cyclist was a Raphalite or not, but I like to think they were.

Simple running repairs can get you home before your mother is unleashed.

One of our number, Red Max carries a portable workshop in a backpack. Spare tyres, cables, patches, chain links, pliers etc. Occasionally even a change of clothes. All seems a little excessive to me, although I have borrowed the pliers to try and remove a Kevlar-tipped thorn from my tyre once – in the end Red Max’s teeth actually proved even more effective.

Carry a mobile phone – most places we travel through have some kind of mobile signal. BTW some MTB’ers at work told me how they used 112 to contact the emergency services after one of their number face-planted in the middle of nowhere. They reasoned this was the best option because it actually allows the emergency services to trace the mobile signal. Apparently this is a bit of a myth and 112 works in exactly the same way as 999. Either will do.

Cash – worth carrying for the inevitable coffee stop, emergency rations and (whisper it quietly) perhaps even a taxi home, if everything goes horribly pear-shaped.

Group Riding – one of the best, but perhaps most daunting part of club runs is riding in a compact bunch or peloton. Tucked in behind someone’s rear wheel, sheltered from the wind you can be literally sucked along with much less effort than you could ride the same road all on your lonesome.

Group riding in style on our club run yesterday.

This isn’t something you can learn from reading about it, I had to have grizzled veterans repeatedly drum it into me as a youngster, learning several illuminating and imaginatively creative new profanities at the same time.

For what it’s worth, a few tips for you to instantly forget…

#1 Much of the club run will be spent riding two abreast in two parallel lines, occasionally singling out on narrow and busy roads, to allow traffic to pass, or to navigate around obstructions.

#2 When singling out the inside rider of each pair moves forward, while the outside rider drops back and tucks in behind them. If you’re on the outside you shouldn’t need to brake to do this, just ease off slightly.

#3 You need to ride around 1 metre back from the rear wheel of the rider in front, with your handlebars in line with those alongside you. Cover your brakes at all times – hands on hoods, fingers resting on levers, head UP. Don’t watch the wheel you are following, but the riders in front so you are aware of what’s happening around you.

#4 Smoothly does it – be predictable at all times, don’t brake harshly or accelerate suddenly, or veer off-line. Don’t brake if gently easing off the pedals will achieve the same result. Don’t try and look behind you, fumble in your pockets for a snack, doff or don a rain jacket on the move unless you’re sure it’s safe to do so. You don’t have to look at the rider next to you in order to hold a perfectly civilised conversation.

#5 No matter how good and in control you are, don’t go riding with no hands, pulling wheelies or track-stands and other such shit like some wannabe Peter Sagan. Save it for when you’re on your own. Seriously, you aren’t going to impress, I’ll just think you’re a bit of a dick and you’ll make me nervous.

#6 Be particularly careful when coming to a hill – a lot of (even experienced) riders will stop at the top of a pedal stroke to jump out of the saddle (yes, it really annoys me)- this causes a rapid loss of momentum and the danger of someone running into their back wheel. If you’re going to stand up out of the saddle do it as smoothly as possible without interrupting your rhythm. Practice it – it’s not hard, and be careful of people in front not managing as well as you after you’ve practised some.

#7 Be particularly careful when coming to a hill, Part 2 – group order can often disintegrate rapidly as gear changes are fluffed, chains slip, slower riders drift backwards and faster riders take the opportunity to show off and jump forward. Particularly worrisome are riders who pick the wrong gear, and end up with furiously spinning legs and zero momentum, or complete a slowly dying power grind as the slope bites and they can no longer turn over a big gear without straining and contorting their entire bodies, complete with an idiotic gurning expression. Hills can quickly become a bit ugly and a free for all. Be prepared for riders suddenly appearing either side of you and trying to squeeze through sometimes non-existent gaps.

#8 Throughout the ride try to stay in the middle of the bunch. Here you’re sheltered most from the wind, and don’t have to cope with the sudden accelerations and decelerations that cause those at the back to have to slow then chase on all the time.

#9 We have various signals and shouts for pointing out hazards or relaying information up and down the group, but these tend to be different in different clubs and parts of the country. They’re all relatively self-explanatory though, and I’m pretty sure that anyone with the wherewithal to read this far down the page (you weren’t skimming, were you?) will pick them up pretty quickly.

#10 Although occasionally the butt of ridicule and the source of great amusement (guilty, as charged, M’Lud), group leaders, road captains and especially Our Glorious Leader have a thankless task. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before trying to organise cyclists is akin to herding spooked cats in a thunderstorm. These guys have generally ridden more miles than the rest of the group combined and have seen it all before. Respect is due, being shouted at shouldn’t be a badge of honour.

This bit of the blog outlines a typical club run in a little more detail.

Remember, if the group splits be careful who you end up with! Try and resist the mad siren song of the cult of the racing snakes, at least until you’ve learned your limits. It’s very easy on a bike to feel great one minute and then suddenly have it all drain away to leave you jelly legged and plodding home. In fact, for this reason I would always suggest riding with the ambling group – if you have an excess of energy you can always burn it riding on the front and sheltering everyone else, or sprinting to glory at the café .

Most of all enjoy. And keep coming back. It does get better, easier and FUNNER


2 thoughts on “Taking the Plunge

    1. Hi Stephen – I don’t actually own the rights to this photo, it was simply something I found on Pinterest. I suspect that the copyright has actually expired as it is more than 50 years since it was first published.


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