So you pull out, hear the clacking of a dozen or more cleats into clipless pedals. Everybody swims around a little on their seat getting their rear end positioned “just so,” everybody starts conversations with guys they haven’t seen in a week or a few. How’s the family, how did that race go last week, do you like those new shorts, I’m thinking about buying some. There's that girl who comes out sometimes who can hang... she's tough, climbs like hell, one of the guys, as far as everybody's concerned. If you ride with us, you're with the band. Let's go.
It’s an easy spin for a while. A few guys with Fresh Leg Syndrome go off the front a bit before they wise up and remember there is a fifty or sixty mile stretch laid out in front of them, and it wouldn’t do to blow up early.
You get to some hills, and a couple guys go off the front a bit. They don’t totally peg it – they’re being charitable to the fatboys on the ride, going a little easy. They know enough not to murder anybody this early in the ride. There’s not much talking here, just a lot of heavy breathing, and a lot of silence as the ride strings out a bit.
Over the top and it’s back together, a little regroupment, and settling into a good tempo pace. The fatboys move to the front and start setting a good tempo pace. They go pretty hard, but not all out. It wouldn’t do to hurt those climbers. For one thing, it would violate the spirit of the ride to try to shatter it. For another thing, the climbers will repay any injuries in spades on the next set of hills. The big boys chat at the front, pounding out tempo, the climbers find a nice wheel to settle behind, and all is right in the world for a while.
Soon enough, it’s a long false flat into a hill, and again the group labors. Everybody is closer together now, the big fellows have taken a little pepper out of the climbers’ legs, the climbers are probably realizing that the group can go faster if the rouleurs and the grimpeurs work together, at least for now.
There’s a flat tire, with the signature hisssssssthwackhisssssssthwackhissssssthwack. The group stops and gathers around the patient, everybody offering their considered medical opinion, one or two brave souls stepping up to risk embarrassment and help speed the repair. You do not want to be the guy who sets the tire on the rim for the flat victim, only to have it blow off because you didn’t set the bead properly. Soon, you’re back on the road, and the group is subdued for 10 minutes, the break having caused a the legs to tighten up a bit. But that’s okay, it’s a Saturday or Sunday, and you’re on the road with friends – even if the legs never get better today, the day itself is as good as it will ever get.
Then the group is off into the flats. There’s a lot of chatting and laughter now, and some games as people challenge each other in quick jumps off the front. It seems pretty effortless, going in the low to mid-20s, because everybody’s legs are warmed up. The group pounds out the tempo in the flats and across some mild rollers for what seems like days, but it’s only the better part of an hour.
The golden hour of the ride is transcendent. The miles slip by in a gentle hiss of tires on smooth tarmac, and in occasional gusts of wind that each rider hears separately through the helmet air vents. The riders who aren’t talking in this part of the ride seem almost unconscious, almost otherworldly… they are fully alive in the moment, open to the experience to the point that they are only experiencing it, not commenting on it, not thinking about the moment or anything else. Just soaking it in.
Then the golden hour ends, and the ride is back into the hills and rollers, the hour of hell is upon us. The riders see-saw back and forth in and out of the group. They come to a hill and some rouleurs power up it, staying ahead of the climbers until near the top, when the climbers with their steady spin pass the rouleurs. Then it’s down the other side, and into some more hills. There’s a long rolling flat where the rouleurs, near their limit, pound out tempo while trying to recover, and the climbers absorb the punishment.
Then it’s onto a real climb, and some of the rouleurs are off the back. Maybe one or more of them have a long chase back onto the group. The group is content to let them suffer, and one-by-one, they rejoin. The group slows its tempo a bit, enough to still punish the outliers, but not enough to make it a slow ride. Back together, the group gathers its strength for the last climb.
There’s a game that goes on here about who will lead out into the hill. Some lead out really strong, and hope they can get off the front and hold it to the top, which is the de facto sprint line. Others spin and hope to overtake near the top. Still others lag off the back, content that they’ve left it all out on the road somewhere the group passed an hour ago. It’s not only the riders’ energy that has been left out on the road – worries about family, work stress and all the cares in the world are back there, in some immense cosmic garbage can. We won’t be seeing those again, not this week.
Up and over the top, and the ride turns back into a Sunday spin. Guys gasp and stretch and shake out their legs and hands, and drop it into a small gear. The end is clearly in sight, psychologically and physically, and they’ve made it through with great shared effort.
Everybody spins easy, and the talk reverts to chit-chat, now it’s about what the rest of the day and the rest of the week will be. Although the riders were weighed down by cares at the start of the ride, by the end, they are looking forward to taking up their burdens again. Sweat and calories aren’t the only thing they burned off on that ride.
And all good group rides end the same way. In the waning mile or two, everybody talks about what a great ride it was, remember that hill, thanks for coming out, see you at Joe’s party, good to ride with you. And, always, some form of “see ya next week.”
The group ride may have a slightly different cast from week to week. It may be on the road or in dirt or some combination of the two. It might be fast, or sometimes a little slower. The weather might be so hot that a couple mid-ride stops are needed to prevent the riders from turning into beef jerky, or it may be so cold that it only lasts 90 minutes because the riders hands are freezing solid onto the handlebars.
But in the end, it is *exactly* the same from week to week. And that is why we keep coming back.