The perfect group ride, with everyone motoring along at the exact same pace, just doesn't exist. Sorry. Ryan Dunfee photo.
We all know the zen of a perfect group ride, where everyone is the same speed and ability. Actually, wait... no, I don’t. Because that never happens.
Group mountain bike rides are usually a hodgepodge of friends who drink together, like the same things, met at the shop, or can get away from their wives (or husbands) at the same time on Sunday mornings.
There’s the wannabe pro, the wrench, the gearhead, the talker, the clotheshorse, single-speeder, the guy who should wash his gloves more, the trials dude, the climber and the DH rat, to name a few. But always, always, you will be somewhere on the slow or fast side.
If you're going out on group rides, you're probably finding yourself at one end or the other of the speed spectrum. Ryan Dunfee photo.
If you’re the slow one, you risk holding others up or suffering the dreaded "Italian Stop." This is where a group waits for the slow rider to huff up to where they are and, as soon as they get there, blasts off leaving them gassed and needing to catch up again.
If you’re the fast one, you risk being that jerk that just can’t wrap their head around the fact that ‘it’s not a race, dude’. Or the rider that mysteriously stops getting the group’s invites.
Of course, mountain bikers are generally a chill, socially accepting and supportive bunch. Most are happy to see you and accept whatever speed you want to go at. But, because I have the type of personality I have, being slowest bothers me. If my friends are consistently waiting on me, I want to be faster. Below are some steps to get you back to the car and into the beer cooler first. And also what to do if you're fortunate enough to be the fastest.
Are your friends faster than you? Part I: What you can do right away
Keeping up with these guys is tough. GT Bikes photo.
Be Opportunistic. Don’t try to make up time on the climbs. This is probably where your friends are a lot faster. Be a little crafty and pull back those seconds using your strengths. On straights, where you can keep a steady cadence without going into lactate threshold, keep spinning at 70-80% effort. Keep on the gas when the hill points slightly down, where other guys might catch a breather.
Pedal Efficiently. Keep those ankles locked in (noodly ankles rob energy and power) and pedal in complete circles. Visualize scraping mud off the sole of your shoe at the bottom of the pedal stroke to activate hamstrings.
Be Smooth. Smooth is fast, don't try to mash your way back to the pack–you'll make up more time by not getting thrown than you will trying to add 50 watts to your pedaling. Stay cool, engage in some positive self talk, and get psyched for each berm you rail or rock garden you clear.
Breathe. Sounds silly, I know, but when we get down we tend to hunch and cut off our breathing. Visualize breathing into your back, ribs, abdomen - fill that torso with air and maximize your oxygen.
Part II: what you can do in the short term
Optimize Hydration. There might be some bonking going on. Drink BCAA's (branched-chain amino acids) and some carbs in a bottle before your ride. Not Gatorade, that has high fructose corn syrup, and it sucks. Also, add a light amount of BCAAs and carbs to your hydration for during the ride.
Hammer Nutrition photo
I am also partial to Hammer’s endurolytes tabs if I’m wearing a pack and don’t feel like gunking up my camelback bladder with supplements.
Calcium and Magnesium Supplements. They work for racing, so give 'em a try on a ride. Especially on a hot or long day. Sometimes you’re slow because your body is starved for nutrients. B-vitamins can also be a smart idea. I’m not a huge fan of multivitamins, but if you feel like it’s hard to eat right, target a few supplements rather than eating more.
Work on your technique. Time lost to your buddies by getting kicked off more technical sections can add up; dabbing down or pushing your bike up tricky climbs will drop you off the back of the pack. Take a lesson or two from an instructor at a bike park, or practice on your own.
Taper into the ride. Don’t destroy yourself the day before a group ride. Look at it like a good-natured race: back off workouts or solo rides for a couple days before the weekend–rather than rocking a hardcore leg day Friday before your Saturday group gathering. And again, stay positive.
Part III: In the long term
Cross-training, lifting, and a better diet will help you get off the back of the group in the long run. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Cross-train. Add a few a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or Crossfit classes to your week (for God’s sake, don’t ever talk about Crossfit or how much you love it on the trail, though). High intensity (including plyometrics) works high-speed or fast-twitch muscle fibers, and develops better acceleration and power. Also, you’ll probably drop a few pounds. Dropping extra weight is really the number one thing you can do to get fast.
Weight Train. I don’t really need to mention the importance of squats, do I? Yes, they suck. Also, when you do legs, wreck them; add drop sets to your strength exercises.
Recover. Refuel within 20 minutes of all workouts and rides, and foam roll afterwards as part of recovery. Take days off.
Commit to a better diet. Sorry, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. This one is actually the most critical. If you want to be fast, you have to be light, if you want to be light you’ll have to eat smarter. It sucks, but... your choice.
TITS and balls! Take that, lawyers! Ryan Dunfee photo.
TITS and Balls. Okay, TITS is an acronym for Time In The Saddle, so just ride more and practice skills. And balls are, well, balls. You want to get faster? Sack up a little and go faster. Not recklessly (there, lawyers, I said it), but explore momentum over problem sections. Lay off the brakes, practice your descending and cornering skills.
Again, think of group rides as a race in which it doesn’t matter how well you do. Remember, your friends are happy to have you there - but take the opportunity for a good-natured pass, or get the cadence cranking to stay on a faster guy’s wheel.
If your friends are slower than you
If you're out in front, don't be a dick about it, and redo tech sections while you wait. Ryan Dunfee photo.
This never bothered me much. I’m really happy people are out popularizing the sport I like. And I like my friends no matter what.
Don’t be a dick. What goes around comes around. Next year you might put on 20 pounds and be the slow one (it happens ALL the time). Bicycling is a social, community sport. Think of a ride with slower buddies as a recovery ride and hammer until your eyes bleed when you’re alone.
Find a faster group. This keeps your skills and humility sharp. I ride with a group that’s faster. The faster guys are generous, nice and wait at trail junctions. And you will learn a ton by following their lines.
Redo technical sections. It will help the slower guy rail something that’s been frustrating him or her and allow for a cardio break.
Stop at trail intersections. If you have to hit the gas, (sometimes you do want to ride fast, and that’s your right), stop and wait at trail intersections. Make sure you’re not making the aforementioned “Italian Stop” by just waiting and taking off when the slower rider pulls up or into sight.
Encourage them. Be the guy that offers a leg up. Offer a tip or two. The other day I was riding with a guy faster than me, I got loose and crashed hard into pricker bushes. He helped me out, took some time to make sure I wasn’t injured AND he was even carrying a couple cans of beer for us to drink down the trail.
If you got someone really lagging, do them the favor of riding sweep and make sure they make it out okay. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Ride sweep. If you’re with somebody who’s just totally out of their league, and there is no clear or easy way for them to ride back, don’t dump them. If they crash in the woods alone or struggle until after dark, that could really put them in danger. Make sure you circle back several times and bring them home. You’ll get some distance and fitness out of it, not to mention a karma bonus.
Selene Yeager, a total pro hammer, has written a very comprehensive book called Get Fast. It’s an awesome road map to the fitness, nutrition, technique and mindset for getting faster.