Ask most coaches and they will tell you that group riding has a place for training, but if you really want to improve you need to be specific to your own needs.
Group riding has a social aspect that most riders really enjoy and is a great way to be more visible on the road. It is a place where you can learn how to ride in a pace line allowing you to conserve energy and gain a greater average speed. If you plan on racing or riding in situations that are tight quarters with other riders a group ride will teach you how to get comfortable with the pack and learn how to ride more smoothly without hitting the brakes in an on/off fashion.
A big challenge occurs when different strengths of riders are within the same group. What is easy for some may be difficult for others. Every rider has a different ability with limitations as to how fast they can ride and maintain a specific pace. Knowing your own limitations can help you decide which group rides to choose or take a pass on. Most of the time riders will choose a ride or group that is going to challenge them. Taking this path can make you faster to a point, but can also wear you down over a period of time. With an assortment of riders you will most likely have different agendas with different goals in mind as well. Unless you are fortunate enough to be the strongest one in the group you will probably be working above an intensity that allows for optimal adaptation (for you) in the long run. This can make the pack setting a detrimental aspect of training not allowing you to maximize your potential no matter what your goal is.
Our bodies react to the type of stress that we place on it with different intensities and distances. Putting some purpose behind each ride will help you make improvement and allow for better monitoring of how your body is responding to the time on the bike. Ultimately you want to be able to come away from a training ride not feeling shattered or as though you need days of recovery. Getting the most out of each ride comes with understanding how you react to the intensity of the ride and knowing what kind of pace or power you are able to sustain for any given period of time on the bike. If you find yourself in a group ride struggling to hang onto the pack for every ride you are most likely working at an intensity that could eventually do enough harm that will lead to over-training or injury. This is especially true when the ride happens daily without any designated recovery riding in sight. Knowing how your body responds over a week or period of weeks with some structured blocks of training will help to manage your training allowing you to make progress. Stressing the body too much will have a negative effect eventually. This is a common theme with group ride settings.
Once in a while I will hear from an athlete that they “need to be tough and able to experience pain better”. Having a “no pain no gain” thought process can lead to an unreasonable outlook and be very detrimental to even the best riders. A vicious cycle occurs when a rider is led to believe that more is better regarding both intensity and distance. This tendency can have a rider thinking they need to work harder when they feel flat, but most often it is recovery that is needed. Daily rides that have dedicated riders are more likely to see a pattern like this to emerge. Setbacks are no fun for anyone to experience, and can be difficult to recover from. Having a plan that implements recovery on a regular basis will help avoid this type of cycle.
Each person is unique and until you try to establish a priority you may find yourself doing the same thing each week and each month not knowing if you’ve made any improvement. I am often challenged as a coach by riders that live in places that are dangerous for solo riding or are required by their team to ride with the group for so many days out of the week. .
Rather than doing damage control we try our best to utilize the group to our advantage and make the most of each ride knowing what our main goal is. If you find yourself unable to do an easy ride in a group setting or it seems that you’re always struggling to hang on consider choosing the group rides as intensity days and do the easier rides solo or with a friend that won’t mind taking it easy. The peaks and valleys of intensity and recovery are necessary for achieving a higher level of fitness. While group riding is fun it can also be detrimental to your best performance. Trying to find a way to make the most of the pack so that it works to your advantage can help you enjoy the rides more and hopefully help you gain the strength you need to improve your performance for the next event.