Sunday morning. The air is cold and the wind is strong. The ground is damp and a dark cloud overhead signifies the approach of a shower that might be rain or it might be sleet. Whatever it might be will not matter. You are in your gear, out on the road with your local club or cycling group and the banter is good while the pace is strong.
A glance down at the Garmin shows figures all beginning with a 3. 31, 32 and sometimes even 35 whilst you are motoring along on the flat. The group is well warmed up and everyone is getting a good workout. This is not a group for beginners but is a group that challenges and pushes and builds strength and character.
A well oiled machine moving smoothly at pace now approaches a section where the road slopes upwards. The gradient is 4, 5 or 6%. What happens next?
This is a question that is rarely thought of but often answered silently in cycling groups up and down the country. The difference between what actually happens and what should technically happen is often as large as the gap between Kelly and Kippers McQuaid in the 20k time trial from Carrick to Clonmel in the Nissan Classic (6 minutes 22 seconds).
What actually happens is a primal version of human nature kicks in. Someone at the front is on a good day and somewhere deep inside they sense an opportunity to put a little bit of a squeeze on. The speed goes from 26 to 27 to 28. The guys behind stop talking and the speed rises ever so slightly again. A half wheel gets matched and the speed is now 30kph on an incline of 5%. Some at the back are already getting shelled out but those at the front try to look as nonchalant as possible. This continues until eventually someone senior a little way back the group shouts ‘Hey, wait up for Tommy, or Billy or whoever’. The pace eases back and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
What is actually happening, and what every cyclist has done at some stage, is a primitive form of a show of strength. It is like a lions roar or a gorilla beating its chest, and it feels good.
It feels good for the lion or the gorilla but what about poor Tommy or Billy at the back. They feel like an antelope after being savaged by a pride of Lions. It takes a different form of mental strength to keep coming back for more but they always do because they know that their day will come too.
Whilst this often happens it is not to say that it should. To know what a proper group spin should be like you just have to go out with a pro team someday. I have had an opportunity on a number of occasions to slot in at the back of different pro team training rides and they all follow the same pattern. This is the pattern that all training groups should strive for and it is what will make your group look like a well drilled, smooth running, well oiled machine.
On the flat they keep two tight lines. Each rider rides pretty hard at the front for 4 – 5 minutes at a time. They get a workout and those behind have to work too so nobody is getting cold.
When they come to a drag or a climb the pace slackens off. Those at the front ride tempo and the group maintains the very same formation all the way to the top. Those at the front remain in place and there is no change until the top. Nobody gets dropped so there is no having to wait or ease up.
Over the top, as the entire group is all together the pace increases rapidly and those at the front work hard to make sure everyone behind is working too, and not just coasting along getting cold.
This tends to work the opposite way on many club spins where groups get decimated on the way up, hang around at the top and all coast on down the other side freewheeling and getting cold.
The best way to be an animal during a group spin is to Climb like a Lamb, Ride the flat like a Gorilla and Descend like a Lion.
There is a time and place for doing efforts on a climb, but it is not in the middle of a group spin.