They call him "The Shepherd." His real name is Scott Flanders and he is a Really Big Dog. Scott and his brother Jim run Flanders Cycle, a high end bike shop in Minneapolis. The Flanders cycling team has a well-known reputation for arrogance*, discipline and racing success. It's where I learned to ride safely in a fast, competitive group of cyclists.
There are actually a lot of big dogs on the Flanders team. Scott is the biggest. He had to be to keep order and maintain discipline over 30 or 40 very strong, very aggressive personalities... the safety of everyone depended on it.
I was invited to my first Flander's Saturday coffee ride by my neighbor Eddy Macholda. This isn't a group you can just jump in with - they don't allow it - I'm willing to bet that being a closed group is common with any serious cycling team.
I actually remember the day quite well. I had recently purchased my first road bike (white and purple Schwinn Paramount, complete with down-tube shifters) after completing 1000 road miles on an old cross bike. I had promised Amy that I wouldn't buy a new bike until I had shown that I was going to stick with cycling long-term.
Eddie had been a constant inspiration to me as I began riding outdoors. I found myself riding with him that morning, out to join the group. I still remember the exact place where I got dropped 🙁 In case you're wondering, yes it was quite embarrassing and to his credit, Eddy did come back to get me once he realized I was no longer there. I stuck with it. Before long I had the fitness to not only complete the 40 mile coffee ride, and could also hang with them on the longer evening and a few Sunday century rides.
Along the way I learned the dynamics and mechanics of leading a well organized pace line.
Notice I said leading, not riding, in a pace line. The skills necessary to ride in a group are not something I can teach you here. You can only learn by doing, so find yourself a well organized group and start practicing. My objective here is to communicate some of the subtleties (and not-so-subtle traits) of being a big dog.
- Establish your role as a leader. Jim Karanas suggests centering your class and I feel it is imperative to center your group before heading out on the road. Begin every ride with the short pre-ride meeting. Flander's group rides always started at the exact same place and at the exact same time. While we were waiting for everyone to show up, it was interesting to watch all the participants looking around to learn who would be in charge. There was never any "I'm going to be in charge" declaration. The natural team leaders were well-known and it quickly became obvious who would be leading the ride that day. Your pre-ride meeting should begin with you speaking and acting like you are the leader. Or as an alternative, if you don't feel you have skills necessary, you should introduce and actively support the person you feel would make the best leader.
- The Leader always begins the ride in front. I can't begin to tell you how many rides I've gone on that started with chaos right out of the gate and only got worse as time went on. It takes a lot of courage to firmly say "I'll be leading us out at the beginning." And then do it. I typically don't see women trying to jump up front and assert themselves, but testosterone driven men seem to do it naturally. Resist the temptation to allow everyone to just do what they want, in the hope that at some point they'll all settle down. This is especially important if you have new riders in your group. The lack of order and chaotic jockeying for position can be downright frightening to someone not used to riding with others. The goal here is to quickly establish order. If you don't do it now it is very difficult to do later.
- Crush any challenges to your leadership. I know that may sound harsh, but the safety of your group depends on everyone respecting your authority. The Flander's guys were ruthless in putting down anyone acting out of line. One of my pet peeves is when someone breaks out of line and hammers up toward the front. It may be because they're frustrated at the pace the group is riding, or they simply are trying to show off. Either way you need to firmly correct them, explaining; "we ride as a group or you can ride alone... your choice." Don't be surprised if you get some push-back. Stand your ground. I've also found it helpful to say it out loud so others can hear it, bringing some social pressure from the group. Now, if you're not following me in this example, let me explain my concern: Riders in a pace line need the freedom to quickly move right or left to avoid some obstacle or prevent running into a rider slowing in front of them. Most of us don't have rearview mirrors, so a rider passing you from the rear is unseen and presents an enormous potential hazard.
- Be as fair and even-handed as possible. This relates to #3 where your leadership is challenged and you don't do anything about. Nothing breeds resentment like selectively ignoring bad behavior.
- Assign roles. If you've done your job asserting your leadership properly, you'll be able to delegate some responsibilities to others. For example you may have a weaker riders who can't keep up with the rest. Pick out another skilled or strong rider and ask if they would fall back and shepherd the slower group.
- Exclude others. More harsh words but it can be critical to maintaining the safety of your group. Riding with Flanders was pretty much by invitation only - although they were so intimidating it was rarely a problem. People were too frightened to try to jump in. Big events like the MS 150 includes thousands of riders of all different abilities and levels of experience. Our team likes to ride fast, typically with Amy and myself upfront on our tandem. With the flat roads it's not uncommon for us to average 22-23 miles an hour. We make a very tantalizing group for other cyclists to want to join. In the past we were flattered by looking behind us and seeing 30-50 cyclists tucked into our draft. But not anymore. Not after the accident which was complete with broken bikes, broken bones and two people leaving in an ambulance. A number of riders (who were unknown to us) had joined our group, disrupting the flow that had developed over hours of riding together. It typically starts with one small mistake, a momentary loss of concentration that's followed by a number of bad decisions / poor reactions and ends with people getting hurt. There's a saying "no good deed goes unpunished". There are times when being inclusive, isn't always in the best interest of group. Please don't confuse this with an open invitation to new riders to join you at the beginning of the ride.
- Insist on everyone wearing a team kit (jersey). I could talk for hours about the importance of having everyone dressed the same. I realize that this isn't always possible, but having something that identifies your group creates a sense of team work, i.e. we're all working together as a cohesive unit and we have a leader - YOU 🙂 Uniforms also send a powerful messages; if you're not wearing our jersey you don't belong riding with us = you will have fewer people trying to jump into your group.
As an Indoor Cycling Instructor, you already have many of the skills necessary for being the leader, the Big Dog, on a group ride. No, it's is not an easy thing to accomplish or maintained for that matter. If you're doing it for the wrong reasons it may be impossible. But if your interest is in providing a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone, I feel you will find strength necessary to carry out. And if you continuously demonstrate your interest is beyond yourself, I'm going to guess that the other members of your group will quickly respect you and your authority.
So be careful out there!
* Although I don't ride with Flanders anymore, I'll still wear my team kit or jacket on occasion. When I do, passing cyclists don't waive back at me. Is really a kind of running joke for Amy and me, when we're out on The Bus - our Trek Tandem. We always offer a friendly wave to cyclists traveling the opposite direction. They almost always waved back. Except when I'm wearing my Flander's gear. Like I said, they have a reputation of arrogance 🙁
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