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Why you shouldn’t treat a ride like a race

The grumpy gruppetto rider’s public service announcement

by Bart Egnal

Illustration: Glenn Harvey

Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, airlines were briefly grounded. For months after, scared travellers opted for the seeming safety of car trips. I say seeming because though air travel suddenly appeared more dangerous, car trips were and remain a much more dangerous mode of transportation. Ten years after the attacks in the U.S., The Guardian reported on a study by Gerd Gigerenzer, a German professor who specializes in risk. Gigerenzer found that in the 12 months following Sept,. 11, 1,595 more Americans died in motor-vehicle accidents.

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Why am I sharing a story about the evils of cars in a bicycling magazine? Not for the usual reasons, but to highlight how poorly we misallocate risk. We fear things that are statistically unlikely to happen to us (like lightning strikes or shark attacks), while participating in activities that are risky and dangerous (like texting while driving).

The same applies to racing your bike in a sanctioned race and riding your bike in a club ride. I can’t tell you how many times people tell me they avoid pinning a number on because of how dangerous racing is, and then cut the yellow line while they are on the limit of a morning club ride, putting themselves and their fellow club riders at risk and making the experience less enjoyable for all.

Just this past year, I saw or heard of many risky behaviours on group “rides.” There were riders who “attacked” their group ride – which consisted of a few laps of a local circuit – and bragged about how they wanted to get rid of the pretenders in their group. There were riders, going hard on circuit, who passed a stopped car (waiting to turn left) by going into the lane of oncoming traffic. The riders got hit when the oblivious driver turned left. A rider having moved up to Group A in our morning club ride was on his limit on a descent that finishes with a 90 degree right turn. The rider slid out, took out a friend of mine and was lucky there was no oncoming traffic to run him over. There were riders who didn’t want to wait to regroup 30 km into a ride after a sprint section. New members of the club were dropped and stranded in an industrial park. They had to find their way home – and presumably another club.

These are just a few examples of what happens when you try to turn a group ride into a race. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t risk in racing – just look at a sprint finish in a crit – but almost every race I did this past year had a lead car and a follow car, some or all closed roads, a set finish line and a sense of structure that ensured people understood how the group would behave. When these conditions exist, the risks are contained and mitigated.

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Sketchy riding in a group is not only dangerous, but it makes the ride unenjoyable for those who aren’t racers. Racers who aren’t out for a race that day won’t like it either. When I do these group “races,” it’s rarely the high-level masters or Cat 1s who behave badly. Instead, I find it’s the Type A riders who skip racing, but ride 15,000 km on Strava. I have a few close friends who are pros, ex-pros and national team members. They aren’t the ones trying to drop me 6 km into a 120 km route while we are still in the city. It’s neither safe nor enjoyable (for me at least) to do a group ride with a group of people who want to attack each other constantly. Of course, I’m all for hammering on the climbs or having a go of it at safe sprint points. But a group ride is supposed to be just that – a ride.

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I fell in love with this sport when I got in the draft and discovered how much more enjoyable – and efficient – it is to ride with a well-collaborating group. So as you enter your summer season, chill out and ride hard with good people on bikes. If you have that urge to drop someone, pick an event on the race calendar. Just remember: if there’s no number on your back, it’s not a race. Handle yourself accordingly.