Changing group road ride behavior

March 18, 2014

By Richard Fries

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”  --Walt Kelly, Pogo

When I helped pro cyclist Tim Johnson develop the first Ride on Washington in 2011, I figured we would be raising funds and awareness for PeopleForBikes while engaging elite athletes to support advocacy. That seemed like enough, right?

I also thought I could have an amazing five-day ride. 

Turned out the “amazing ride” part would, in my opinion, ultimately provide a greater legacy for Tim, this ride, and this writer. Indeed, the funds and awareness are critical. But the “amazing” part of the ride is not how far or fast it rolls (both of which are amazing).  In addition to changing why we ride, this ride has changed how we ride.

Tim Johnson brought to dozens of regionally influential road cyclists perhaps the most impactful lessons ever taught to enthusiast road cyclists of all types: How to ride as a group with traffic.

The merits of the bicycle are self-evident for public health, the environment, energy conservation, public safety, and quality of life. And during the past 30 years bicycle advocates have been able to use those merits to increase public funding for improved bicycle facilities and programs. This has been done at the local, state and federal level. 

But when budgetary push comes to budgetary shove bicycle funding becomes an easy target to cut. Why? Because while most political leaders will give quiet support for bicycling projects, very few are willing to truly champion the bicycle and risk aggravating voters. While most Americans like bicycles, too many have come to dislike bicyclists.

I quote Walt Kelly’s famous line from the comic strip, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  

An organized group ride riding two abreast (Image: Jamie Kripke)

The average American’s exposure to bicyclists is not a good experience. One of the most aggravating experiences for motorists is encountering a group ride.  

It seems like the number of bicyclists, both competitive and recreational, has grown tenfold if not more in the 30-plus years I’ve been riding. But the conduct of group rides has devolved into a curious roadway Darwinism, where zeal, fitness and narcissism swirl together to create roadway behavior that is dangerous, hostile and inconsiderate. This is largely due to poor leadership or no leadership. 

The Wednesday club ride, with riders sprinting for town lines, attacking curb to curb, fanning out on climbs, diving through corners, is far more than dangerous: it’s rude. Frankly I’m stunned that bicycle shops will often host such rides and put their names on the backs of such clubs. 

This type of large, unruly group ride often does a disservice to bicycling as a whole (Image: 303Cycling)

The rising popularity of charity bike rides, which accounts for one out of six dollars generated for the American bike industry, has complicated matters. Hundreds of thousands of newly baptized bicyclists are pouring on to the roadways with a lot of information on fitness and equipment and clothing…but zero appropriate instruction on how to ride in, or as, a group. And this poor instruction happens not only on the day of the big ride, but on their weekend training sessions. Emboldened with a sense of mission, many of these riders add to the roadside tension.

We get what we tolerate. 

Here’s my confession. With more than 30 years of experience racing, riding, training and commuting, I sort of thought I had it down.  

Tim, working with some legendary supporters as Kevin Wolfson and Pete Webber, run this ride with amazing effective mechanisms for riding safely, with courtesy for all road users, and with consideration for all riders. There are no swarms of riders at the intersections. There are no riders out by the center line. There are no red lights blown.  But the ride also rips along, with an average speed of 17.5 mph for 530 miles. There are sustained sessions for impressive distances at 26 mph.

Ride leader Pete Webber explaining to new riders how to be efficient and courteous while riding in a large group. (Image: Jamie Kripke)

What’s different? The entire orientation of this ride is not with how the individual rides but how the group rides. At the conclusion, all participants are stunned by how pleasant and exciting this system works.

I have since used this system to organize regular group rides for everything from beginners on corporate charity rides to seasoned racers on our weekend speed sessions. We ride 2x2, stay 2x2 when we stop, put the tough guys in the back instead of the front, the weak guys are moved up, and we go easy when it’s hard and hard when it’s easy.

While this is a condensed version on the system and its outcomes, I cannot begin to tell you how this ride, by re-training the alpha cyclists in each region, can revolutionize the perception of bicycling in America. Until our large group rides and club rides are conducted in such a manner, we will struggle to receive mainstream public support for our advocacy efforts. 

How do I know this? 

Go on a group ride in the Netherlands or Denmark or Germany, those places we view as the models of bicycle transit. You will find yourself strictly governed by the patron of each ride on what will and will not be tolerated. I discovered this riding in the Limburg province of the Netherlands with a massive group that included Hennie Kuiper and Jan Janssen, both of whom had been professional world road champions. The group rode with vigor and speed, but stayed tight to the right in double file that did not impede automotive traffic.

Last time I checked, those Dutch guys have some good bike infrastructure. So if you want good stuff for kids and families and commuters, try to organize your group ride, large or small, like Tim’s ride. All it takes is one person speaking up to change how an entire group behaves. It seems like a little, but in the long run it can do bicycling a whole lot of good.

Stopping at red lights: a must. (Image: Jamie Kripke)

If you happen to live in Chicago, join us in actually experiencing Tim’s ride as the Ride on Chicago rolls into downtown on June 2. The full itinerary will be announced soon, but check out for basic dates and details.

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