Riding in a group reminds me of playing Follow The Leader when I was a kid. It can be a lot of fun - but if you make a mistake or mess up, you're out of the game. You put your safety and life at risk riding in a group, as well as the other riders around you. I crashed my bike during my first ever group ride. I fractured my left arm just below my shoulder. I was lucky no one else was hurt. I made a beginner mistake. I was in over my head and the stress of the ride contributed to my making the mistake.
I had been riding only two months when I signed up for what was described as a beginner's ride posted on the website of a popular local riding group I had recently joined. Here is the verbatim text that was used: This will be a ride for beginners to get their feet wet, dust off the rust and enjoy a ride through some very scenic canyons with several changes of elevation in Santa Clarita/Acton. The ride will be at an easy pace to appreciate all of the different landscapes and beautiful views. The ride sounded doable and the destination (a popular biker food and drink establishment) seemed like a reasonable distance for a beginner's ride. But wait - the ride description failed to mention the route would go 40 miles past the destination and then double back in time for lunch. So it turned out to be a much longer ride than I expected.
I suppose the words "scenic canyons" should have been a big red flag. But I naively assumed a "ride for beginners" meant exactly that.
One of the most common problems that occurs during group rides is what's called the "rubber-band effect" which causes large gaps to form in the pack. There are a few reasons for this: different skill levels of the riders; group leaders in the front speeding up suddenly; bikes in the rear having to stop for a red light; and too many bikes in the pack to begin with. This is dangerous for two reasons: (1) it allows cars to get in between the bikes and, (2) bikes have to speed to catch up once there is a gap between bikes. For example if the pack up ahead is going 50 mph, the bikes that fall behind will have to go 70 mph in order to catch up.
The rubber band effect was happening on the ride when I had my accident. The constant falling behind and speeding to catch up caused a lot of stress resulting in my losing concentration. Not to mention the ride went through some very technical canyons that should not have been included in a beginner ride. This caused more stress. When I questioned the ride organizers later about this, all they had to say was the pace of the ride made it a beginner ride, not the route. But the excessive speed required at times to "catch up" totally negated any leisurely pace at other times. And technical canyon roads are never, by any stretch of the imagination, good for beginners in a group ride.
Here is some advice from the Rock Store website regarding riding "The Snake," a very technical stretch of Mulholland Highway between Kanan Dume and Las Virgenes:
If you cannot control your bike within the confines of a single lane then you must slow down. End of story, debate over. If you need further explanation, ride her once and you will understand. This is a tight, highly technical piece of road with steep drop offs, few guard rails and little room for error. Every week there are one or two serious accidents on The Snake, most which are caused by bikes and other vehicles crossing the double yellow line or unsafe speeds.
So let me repeat myself - technical canyon roads are never good for beginners in a group ride, or any other time if the rider isn't up to it. Start out on easier roads and build up confidence gradually. Any road where the second word in the name of the road is "Canyon" should not be part of a beginner group ride - ever.
I've participated in numerous group rides since healing from the accident - a few were enjoyable, but most were not. My riding skills have improved tremendously since that first group ride, and I consider myself to be a good rider today. But I continue to observe the same problem with large groups being unable to stay together.
If you're considering going on a group ride, here is my advice: stay away from riding in a large pack of bikes - any one group should not have more than 10 bikes; make sure you know the ride route before committing to participate and make sure you have the skill and experience to complete the route with minimal stress; make sure your group has an experienced road captain/leader - don't be shy about asking him or her a few safety questions before the ride; make sure you're comfortable riding close to other bikes; and if the ride is too fast, too technical, or if the riders around you are careless, bail out of the ride immediately (I've had to do this more than once).
Group rides can be a blast with the right people, but they can also very dangerous. Choose your group carefully and pick a ride that you can comfortably handle. Your life will depend on it.
Post-Script to the above post: today is November 11, 2017. It was six years ago today that I crashed my bike on Spunky Canyon Road while on an advertised "beginners' ride." Luckliy I wasn't seriously injured and I'm still riding today. But I feel the need to say more about this topic.
This week I saw a ride scheduled for tomorrow on the same riding group's website. The ride is described as an "epic beginner's ride." The ride is taking Mulholland Highway to the Rock Store and then down to PCH and over to Neptune's Net.
Included in the route description is the following: "it is a true beginners ride that will have no Freeways and some twisties including the world famous Snake." As the risk of repetition, here's what I posted about The Snake in my original post above: This is a tight, highly technical piece of road with steep drop offs, few guard rails and little room for error. Every week there are one or two serious accidents on The Snake, most which are caused by bikes and other vehicles crossing the double yellow line or unsafe speeds. Again, that description is from the Rock Store's website. That doesn't sound like something to be included in a beginner's ride.
If you've never ridden The Snake, here's my advice: go on a weekday when there aren't any crotch rockets zipping around. Take it nice and slow; leave plenty of room as you enter and exit the turns. Go top to bottom, then turn around and go bottom to top. Do this round trip a few times. Without the pressure to keep up in a group, you will build a lot of confidence. And you will be in a much safer situation.
It's okay to be a beginner in a canyon. Just know what you're getting into if you're going on a group ride that includes one like The Snake.
No biker deserves to be bored . . .