Behind the Scenes of a Group Ride, Part 2

Behind the Scenes of a Group Ride, Part 2

Tim “Bacon” Searle makes group ride leading look easy.  Having now experienced first-hand the challenges faced by group leaders, I can tell you that leading a group takes a special set of skills!

On Sunday at 10:00am CEST, I was joined by 51 fellow climbing enthusiasts as I led my first group ride, the Monday Mountain Massif – Sunday Recce, on one lap of the Mountain 8 course. I couldn’t have picked a more challenging route.

Preparation    

Prior to the event, I had done my best to promote it, which included all different social media forms from Twitter to Discord to even highlighting it in my weekly “Top Zwift Events for the Weekend” column, but with good weather now in the Northern Hemisphere, most people declined my invitation and opted for a ride outside. My 3R VEveresting Academy friends, who I had hoped would join me and nurse round some of the riders who may find it challenging, were still suffering aches and pains caused by their epic adventure and were not fit enough to ride with me.

Fortunately, I had a safe pair of helping hands in Tim Searle.

Prior to the event, I had done a lot of preparation, including researching the route. I had found out some interesting facts that I was planning to share with the group, such as statistics about the Epic KOM reverse, like gradients. For example, did you know that it has an average gradient of 5.9%, maxing out at 12.2%?  The precise length of the climb is 3.8 miles (6.1km) with an elevation gain of 1303′ (397m).

I was taking this very seriously and had invested a lot of time in preparation, including calculating how long it would take to do certain segments of the route. For example, the first segment from the start to the base of the climb will take 11 minutes at a pace of 2-2.3 w/kg. 

I had even written a script, to make sure I introduced the event properly. 

Most importantly, I had studied the key points Tim had shared with me, particularly regarding communication:

  • Immediately prior to the event: enter the pen early before the start and get settled down.  With a few minutes to go, briefly explain what the ride is about.  If you write your message too early, those that join later will not see the message. You are effectively briefing everyone about how the ride will unfold.
  • Start of the event: at the very start, just as you are rolling en-masse, outline what the plan is so people are again very clear.
  • During the event: communicate throughout.  Repeat the key messages.  Encourage people. Keep the messages positive, support those who are finding it a challenge.

Immediately prior to the event

I had done a warm up, cycling to the base of the Epic KOM at 2 w/kg to “dial in the cadence” – I wanted to get a feel for the pace I would need to ride for the start, to ensure that I kept the group together.  I entered the pen with 15 minutes to go and got myself settled.  I watched the clock, counting each second, deciding when to deliver my introduction, which I had carefully written.  With 4 minutes to go, I decided now was the time. 

I decided that copying and pasting each section would be the best approach.  In an earlier test, I noted that there was a character limit, so I could only copy a small section and paste it into the app, at one time. It is important to explain my setup: I’m using an iPad (fully charged, those that read my vEveresting article will know the battery dramas I faced) and my iPhone companion app.

The message I sent was as follows:

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. 

Welcome to my first group led ride, where I am reporting on the challenges of being a leader.

We are going to roll out nice and easy pacing between 2-2.3 w/kg, taking about 10 minute (ish) to reach the base of the climb and there we all climb together (hopefully) around the 3.2-3.5 w/kg.

I would like to try and crest the Radio Tower and descend in a group and a nice relaxed pace to the finish. 

Ultimately, a nice Sunday ride.”   

Now, all this switching between apps to copy and paste the message had caused my trainer to disconnect, and when I pedaled there was no power.  With 1 minute 30 seconds to go, I jumped off the trainer and pulled the plug out.  The trainer had recently been having connectivity issues and I couldn’t afford that now. 

I kept calm and repaired the unit and was back on my bike with 30 seconds to spare. 

This was not the calm start I wanted.

The Start

As we rolled out, I again reiterated the plan, aware that within moments of the start, a few riders were already going well above the advertised starting pace of 2-2.3 w/kg.  I didn’t let this distract or fluster me as I thought I would deploy the Fence.  This is the red barrier to help keep people together.  However, on my app, I could not see any functionality for the fence.  I switched from the Chat screen to the map, but there was no additional functionality. 

At this point Tim Searle messaged me, noting to deploy the Fence.  I asked “How?” and it’s at this point we realised that the functionality had not been set up. 

The Fence is a functionality that has to be requested.  I had mentioned that I wanted to have the Fence, but it transpires that it had not been provided.  Again, like the dropped connection, I had no time to worry and just had to keep the “Show on the Road” – there would be many examples throughout the ride where things would happen outside my control, and I just had to make a decision and make the best of the problem. 

As you know, this was my first attempt at leading a group ride, but at no point have I seen any documentation from Zwift about leading a group ride.  As far as I know, there are no pages on their website giving hints and tips, or even any “How to Guides” to help novices like myself.  I was grateful that Tim was on hand to provide encouragement and support because I have to tell you, it’s quite daunting – especially when tools such as the Fence aren’t actually set up! 

A few riders were now way out in front and we had only been going maybe 5 minutes. I was very conscious of maintaining a consistent pace and to that end, I had got my Garmin Edge 1030 and connected it up.  I had set up a data field for AVG w/kg.  And I had my pace pegged at 2.2 w/kg. 

We were approaching the first challenge of the course, the little rise out of the aquatic underpass. I was sure to message the group about that.  I was trying to highlight any pinch points, despite I am sure everyone knowing the route extremely well. 

The Challenge Continues   

The first 10 minutes of the group ride felt frantic, more than any race I had done, despite traveling at only 2.2 w/kg.  This is because there is so much to think about:

  1. How is the group doing? 
  2. Am I in the centre of the bunch?
  3. How is my pace?
  4. Have I sent a message explaining what we are doing?

Literally, it was intense and we hadn’t arrived at the hard part yet. 

As we approached the climb, I had planned to deliver some facts that I had documented, I had even created a quiz wanting to get people to name the 7 climbs in Zwift, but the quiz didn’t happen.  Before I had time to explain about the climb, we were on it. 

I managed to get my message across about the climb but found it really hard to type a message at the same time as controlling the pace, going uphill AND check on the status of the group.  It was clear that the quiz was off the table. 

Within a few minutes, I could tell that my vision of a mass descent from the Radio Tower was not going to happen as the bunch started to string out.  I was facing a real dilemma regarding the people at the back.  I had communicated several times that the pace of the climb was going to be 3.2-3.5 w/kg and it was clear that they could not keep that tempo.  I had even eased to 3 w/kg hoping that they might come back, but as we ascended, it was clear that this was not going to happen.  I tried to give them encouragement, saying “Keep going, you can catch us on the descent” – I still hoped that they would be able to catch the group.     

Up the Epic KOM Reverse

I was feeling tense, as I could sense that things were starting to get a bit out of control.  I tried to encourage people by giving Ride Ons because up to that point, I had not given any. I simply had forgotten about it.

The way I can describe leading a group ride is that it is like learning to drive a car.  When you first learn to drive, there is so much to think about steering, gears, mirrors, brakes, the road, and other drivers.   There is a lot to think about.  The same for leading a group ride: pacing, your position, instructions, encouragement, the route. 

It’s at this point I had my first complaint.  Someone stated that this was more like a B Category ride not the advertised C.  The truth is, I had explained several times the pace of the climb, so there should have been no surprises and I was averaging slightly less than what I wanted, in an attempt to try and keep the group together.  The rider had joined the group with target of getting the 100kph off the Radio Tower.  So, wanting to keep positive and not let any negativity spread, I told them I would happily do a Meetup and ride with him and help him get the badge (incidentally, I noted afterward that he got the badge and then quit the ride).

This was my approach throughout.  No matter what was happening, keep the message positive. 

To make matters worse for me, I started experiencing ‘tire slip’ and my watts were not consistent.  Fortunately, due to my Garmin, I just used that to maintain a consistent tempo.  After experiencing massive technical issues with the trainer several weeks before on my VEveresting adventure, I had contacted Tacx who was going to replace the defective trainer, but with this ride already arranged, I had no option but to stick with it and hope it would last.  But alas, it was back to its old tricks.  

Explosion up the Radio Tower

It was the Radio Tower that did the damage.  It always does.  Riders were spread across the climb.  It was all I could do to give some stats about the climb averaging 13.7% and maxing out at 17%. I told what was left of the group that we would regroup at the top, but I didn’t hold out much hope. 

I noticed that the people behind me were now 2 minutes or more back, so my best hope of having a group was with the people ahead of me. So I pushed and got to the top of the climb where I waited (but not for long as the people ahead of me didn’t stop). I checked the map and there were only a few behind.  I found myself in an impossible position.  Do I wait for those behind or try and chase those who have just crested the summit and didn’t stop?

This is where I made my mistake.  I did neither one nor the other with conviction.  I said “Let’s regroup” and then maybe 10 seconds later (if that) I got going.  So I then posted “OK, let’s roll!” – and I started descending.  But no one was with me. 

You know, it only takes split moments in races to define the event and although this wasn’t a race, this was a moment and I made the wrong choice and I knew it.  It was confirmed when Tim messaged me that “a leader should never be on their own” and gave me the advice that I should sit up, which I had already done as I realised that the people I thought were behind me, were not. 

Fortunately, Tim was with me and came past but as I went to pedal, I had no power.  A dropped connection, again.  Strangely, this helped because as I got off and fixed my problem by re-pairing, a rider came past me, so I chased back on, picked up Tim and we had a group of 3.  Then we were joined by another AHDR rider, which was a huge relief, so I was in a small group. 

It was at this point I was desperately trying to salvage the group ride by keeping the messaging positive and telling the people ahead of us that a group was coming. 

A small group on the descent

The Final Few Kilometers

The last few kilometers were a relief. We were on the flat in a small group and through my messaging, a couple of riders ahead slowed and we picked them up.

At this point, I explained how the ride was being used for this article. I was grateful to Ben Myles who said “I’ve enjoyed it…thanks Tim” – the ride wasn’t a complete disaster as at least one person had enjoyed it.

We finished in 1 hour 6 minutes and 41 seconds, which was 3 minutes quicker than what I had budgeted for.

My thoughts

I think leading any group ride is a tough gig and the work that goes into it is completely underappreciated.  In the immediate aftermath of the event, I was highly critical of my performance, noting all the mistakes such as not regrouping at the top of the climb. But then I started thinking about some of the core parts of a group ride and comparing myself to the key performance indicators:

  • Immediately prior to the event: Brief the riders

Yes – this was done.  I did it with 4 minutes to go, was that too early?  Possibly.  Next time I would do it with 3 minutes to go.

  • Start of the event: at the very start, just as you are rolling en-masse, outline what the plan is so people are again very clear.

Yes – I started gently and briefed the riders.  I was in a group to the base of the climb, I messaged everyone, I rode at the advertised pace.  I was hindered by the lack of a fence to stop riders who were going faster than the advertised pace. 

  • During the event: communicate throughout.  Repeat the key messages.  Encourage people. Keep the messages positive, support those who are finding it a challenge.

Yes – I explained about the climbs, albeit not in the detail I would have preferred.  I encouraged people, including giving Ride Ons.  I highlighted ‘pinch points’ during the event.

  • Pacing and position

This is where I would say I had the biggest trouble.  The pacing, I thought was roughly about right, although I think I was hindered by not having any tools to support me, such as the fence. But I tried to compensate that by having clear messaging.  Where I ultimately failed was the positioning. 

The climb added a level of complexity that I wasn’t equipped to deal with.  Having no experience leading a group ride, second guessing what I should do resulted in me not committing to one course of action.  Perhaps I should have been very clear that at the top of the Radio Tower, we stop and wait.  But the counter argument is that it breaks up the ride. 

Ultimately, leading a group over a mountain route is tough and the experience gave me a unique insight into the moments that every group leader faces.  It wasn’t the best group ride I have ever been on but it certainly wasn’t the worst. 

If you look at it objectively, I met the brief, more or less, of what the group ride would do. I gave some interesting information about the route, I encouraged people and despite things not going as I wanted, I stayed resilient and made the best of the situation.

Bacon’s View

Talking to Tim Searle afterward, I was keen for his feedback on the event. He said the following:

“Overall, you got a lot right, and when things didn’t quite go to plan, you stayed calm.  It was more circumstances that broke the group up, like not having the fence to deploy to keep riders together that is worth 10 people in the group alone.  You also had one of the toughest courses to contend with and looking back on my Strava data, I have only ever led that route once, in maybe 1000 group leads.  The Radio Tower was always going to be tough. 

One point to note was that you didn’t actually ask people to ride with you.  It’s always worthwhile politely asking people to ride with you.  You could have asked the stronger riders to help those at the rear, using positive re-enforcement.

The pace was pretty good, but it became obvious halfway up the climb that front was going to do their own thing and perhaps at that point it would have been better to ease off and go with the rear of the group. 

It was a good call to stop at the top of the Radio Tower, but then you started rolling.  It would have been best just to stop.  If you make a decision, stick with it and that was the only real mistake you made on the ride.  One tactic you could have used would be to have let people go hard on the Radio Tower, but then ask them to stop at the top.  You could have waited 3-4 minutes at the top, letting people regroup, then descended as a group.  The research and information you had about the route, could have been used at a better time, for example, when waiting up the top of the Radio tower for people to regroup.  It’s good to have ‘filler information’ to keep people entertained, but use it appropriately.  You can use facts to get conversation going, to get people talking, which often facilitates them staying in the group.  Use the information you have researched wisely as it can help make the events more entertaining. 

The important thing to remember is to give people a good experience and although you didn’t have a really tight group, people had a good experience, so mission accomplished.”

Would I do it again?

Tim’s feedback was really valuable and positive.  His thoughts highlighted several key areas which impacted my event. The first being the fence, the second was I actually failed to do the obvious which was to ask people to ride with me. When I did finally do that I was descending the mountain, and a few riders did sit up and wait for our group – so I should have reinforced that throughout the ride.  The third point was the climb up the Radio Tower.  In retrospect, I should have asked people to wait for the group at the top and I should have waited for the rear and at that point used the information about the climb, to keep people entertained, whilst the rear caught up.  All valuable lessons and if I am honest, I was not put off by the experience, despite the challenges. 

JG from 3R has offered me the opportunity to lead a group ride on a flat route. Perhaps that would make an interesting part 3 of this series. But this experience taught me that preparing to lead a group ride takes an awful lot of time.  Particularly if you decide to work out timing of segments and do research on topics that you want to discuss!  All of this takes time and to do it well requires a big commitment.    

I am only grateful that there are people like Tim Searle who have the energy, desire, and resilience to lead groups.  Leading 50 people was enough, but Tim regularly has ten times that amount, so chapeau.  It was an absolute pleasure working with Tim on this project, a lot of fun and most importantly, I learned a lot from him – I’m already thinking of other potential projects we could do.

Personally speaking, I think there is a real opportunity for Zwift to link in with Tim and invite him to run a Leader’s School and help tutor future generations of ride leaders.  It is a fine art, and one which Tim has perfected and is happy to share.     

Your Thoughts

Share below!

About The Author

Tim Perkin

Tim is a six-year cancer survivor who has finally regained and surpassed pre-cancer fitness levels through the intense use of Zwift. For news about good events on Zwift follow him on Twitter @GoZwiftTim.

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Jonathan
Jonathan
2 months ago

Good post. Sounds like you did pretty well handling a bunch of unexpected challenges (in particular the trainer issues and the missing fence). Choosing a mountain route definitely made things more difficult. On Zwift there are always going to be people that join the event and ignore the event guidance (the information posted beforehand, and the guidance during the event). You need to just ignore them and focus on the people who are listening to you and following your instructions. You can’t satisfy everyone, so the goal should be to provide the best possible ride experience for the subset of… Read more »

Rosco P. Coltrane
Rosco P. Coltrane (@arkeele)
2 months ago

A courageous experiment, and a great write-up of your experience. Thank-you for sharing! Clear communication, consistency, and positivity are great pillars for a group ride, and it was a real service you’ve provided working with Tim to document that adventure here on Zwift Insider. Another challenge is that while w/kg does provide a common metric for pacing, it’s not a perfect one. Someone who weighs 100kg riding at 2.5w/kg on the flats will result in those that are substantially lighter pushing well above that to hang in, even in a group. Opposite for those lighter on the climbs ascending more… Read more »

Aoi Niigaki
Aoi Niigaki
2 months ago

I wonder if it is harder to keep a group ride together since Zwift added the “Hide the Display” mode which turns the HUD display off. Do ride leader messages still appear if the HUD is off? Plus, even the best ride leaders can’t keep a group together on the radio tower climb. If you want to regroup at that point it really should be in the ride description and repeatedly messaged during the ride.

Mark McDougall
Mark McDougall
2 months ago

Enjoyed your write-up and insight into the issues, thanks for putting it out there!

Flyers aside, there are always going to be people who don’t (or even won’t) appreciate the effort that not only leaders, but also sweepers put into organising, promoting, running and reporting on group rides. There will always be someone that complains, for reasons that range from of an outright sense of entitlement, through to simply an ignorance of draft physics.

In any case, by your own account (and Tim’s) it sounds like you didn’t do too badly at all!

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