So you’ve committed to leading a group ride for a shop, club, or a few friends. Now what? While leading a ride shouldn’t be intimidating or scary, it does require a bit more thought and preparation than just heading out on your usual solo loop. And the better prepared and organized you are before you start, the smoother the ride is likely to go.
In prep for guiding miles with others, here’s sound advice from other group leaders to help you create a safe, fun riding experience for any level and any kind of cyclist. One thing to keep in mind from the start: You may not have big numbers your first time out. But if you stick to these guidelines and keep your rides consistent, people will trickle in and stay for the long ride.
Know your ideal ride group
Ask yourself: Are you hoping to start an open-to-all club, lead a ride for a group of friends, help new cyclists get comfortable riding on the roads, or get a group together to train for a season of road racing? Get specific with your personal goals for starting a group ride—even if it’s as simple as meeting new friends to ride with—because if you don’t, you may end up leading a group ride that you don’t actually enjoy.
Sandra Fletcher, the founder of Saddle Sisters of Hyde Park in Toronto, Ontario, started her group ride back in 2020 as a casual way of bringing any level of rider together for a ‘chill pace’ ride on any type of bike. Since then, the club has grown and evolved. There are still plenty of chill pace rides on the schedule, but there are also faster weekly rides, as well as quite a few women in the club who are now racing.
Set a clear pace/terrain/bike needed
Let riders know if you’re heading out on mountain bikes, road bikes, or if the ride so chill that any bike will work. Also, mention if there are a lot of climbs and if this is a “no drop” ride, meaning you don’t leave any rider behind. Most importantly, define the pace you’re riding. A lot of group rides will bill themselves as easy, intermediate, or advanced (or A, B, and C levels), but the more specific you can be, the better, says Fletcher.
“It’s tempting to say that a ride is open to everyone of all abilities, but often, that ends up making people uncomfortable,” says Lucia Deng, who’s been leading group rides in New York City for years. She’s led everything from advocacy rides to NYCC rides that are meant to be instructional, to fast FTWNB-only rides (femme, trans, women, and non-binary cyclists) to MTB rides with folks of different ability levels, to silly rides she’s organized for friends. She’s found that the more clear you can be on pace and ride style, the better.
Consider this: A ride where one rider is constantly falling behind because they didn’t understand ‘intermediate pace.’ This isn’t just tough for the group waiting, it’s also stressful for the individual rider who’s unlikely to come back, even for a beginner-friendly ride. Deng also recommends avoiding terms like beginner or advanced without clarifying what they mean, because a beginner ride can mean anything from someone’s first time on a bike after 20 years, or it could include a triathlete who has a high power output but doesn’t know how to draft or ride in a group.
Once you do post a pace, your goal should be to not deviate from it. “There are a lot of groups where they say the average speed will be 18 mph but it ends up being 21 mph, and that’s a big difference,” Fletcher says. “We name the pace, then we really watch the average pace during the ride, easing up or going a bit harder if we need to. So many people do one ride with a group where the pace isn’t as advertised and never come back, and that’s such a shame. So if you pick a pace, you have to stick to it as the leader.”
Be specific about gear
You should also remind riders of any particular gear they need on their bike. Do you require front or rear lights for your twilight ride? Fenders for muddy or wet days? Are helmets 100% mandatory? Remind riders to bring things like water bottles, snacks, tools, and flat-fixing gear as well. Especially for more beginner-friendly rides, assume that riders will show up empty-handed unless provided a list.
“There are so many riders who show up with nothing but their phone,” says Fletcher. “Then, if they get a flat or get hungry, we’re basically doing a ‘stone soup’ kind of thing where everyone is contributing tools, tubes, pumps, or snacks. We’ve always made it work, but it’s much easier if everyone is prepared.”
“As a ride leader, I always try to have some extra water, snacks, and tools,” Deng says. “But it’s better if riders know exactly what to bring on a ride.”
Explain safety/in-ride protocols
This can be done either in an email, on your website, or in a quick pre-roll-out meeting. Ideally, you’re sharing these safety protocols multiple times, since they’re pretty important, and it includes a plan that addresses stopping at stop signs and lights, riding two or one abreast, and what to do if the group starts to split.
Setting these expectations ahead of time can avoid issues in-ride. “If you’re riding with a beginner group or it’s your first ride with this group, take some time to practice in an open area before hitting the road,” suggests Fletcher. Take 10 minutes in an empty parking lot or open space in a park to practice riding in a line, moving through a pace line if that’s going to happen in your ride, cornering, stopping as a group, and starting as a group.
Stick to your parameters
“One of the most important roles of ride leadership and one where I most see mistakes, from new and veteran leaders alike, is matching the clear expectations you’re setting in advance—whether in planning or at the start of the ride—with the on-the-fly decisions you make as the ride gets going,” says Elisabeth Reinkordt, the co-founder of Team Laser Cats, Little Bellas mentor, and founding co-director of WPBHL Racing. “There are so many variables at play once the ride begins. Your ability as a leader to remain true to what you set out to do depends on your judgment in the moment.”
For example, if you usually have the same riders every week and go at a 13 mph pace, then a new person shows up who needs you to slow down a bit, make sure you remind the group that it’s a no-drop ride so you’ll slow down if needed. Communication, leadership, and your word choices make a difference in how everyone feels, Reinkordt explains.
Another example she gives is how you plan to deal with mechanicals along the way. “What’s the expectation on waiting? Does the whole group stop? Do you split up? Are there variations if it’s a ride that happens in the morning when most people have to be at work right after? If people need to know how to find their way home on their own, make sure they know that in advance,” Reinkordt adds. “You also need to think about whether you’re being consistent in how you’re treating riders and whether you’re unintentionally treating more established riders differently or giving them more deference.”
Provide route, parking, and potty info
The clearer picture you can paint ahead of time, the smoother the ride will go. If you’re meeting at a trailhead or a major parking lot, drop a pin on the exact meeting spot and send that link out to riders, so they know exactly where to go. (Many parks have multiple entrances or confusingly-titled lots, so the more specific you can be, the better.) Fletcher likes using an app like Strava to create a route, which you can then send out as a link so riders can see what the ride will look like.
Some mapping apps, including Strava’s premium subscription, will also allow you to download GPX files so that riders can upload them to their cycling computers. And of course, it’s helpful to let riders know what to expect in terms of bathrooms at the start. That way, if riders are driving to a trailhead with no potty access, they know to do a quick coffee/bathroom stop en route.
For point-to-point rides, Deng notes that it’s important to tell riders what their options are for getting home. Organize a car drop or make sure you start and stop at an Uber-friendly spot if necessary.
Assume rides will take longer
Flats, longer stops, wrong turns, someone having a bad day on the bike, an urgent bathroom stop, a longer coffee shop break—as soon as you have a group of more than two or three riders together, there’s a good chance that your projected ride time is going to be held up by something. And that’s totally fine. A longer coffee break or extra photo stop can make a ride fun, but it can also be tricky if you haven’t accounted for that extra time.
“Always assume a ride will take longer than you expect,” says Deng. “Especially if at the end, riders will need to get rides or catch a train. It’s much better to have a buffer where you finish a few minutes early versus having everyone racing to catch their train at the end, or missing it altogether.”
Because of this, it’s also important to stick to your start time. It’s tempting to start rides a few minutes late to give people time to arrive and get ready, but for those who are dutifully punctual and waiting around, it can be frustrating if every ride starts 20 minutes behind schedule—and it makes it more likely that the latecomers will continue to be late! Set a clear “rolling” time (the time when you actually begin to pedal away) and stick to it. You may have some people miss a ride at first, but quickly, people will start to get the message.
Ride among the other cyclists
Honestly, “ride coordinator” might be a better term than “ride leader,” because leader tends to imply that you’re at the head of the pack. But a good ride leader shifts around in the group, checking in with riders at the front, but also spending plenty of time in the back helping riders who might be suffering a bit, offering feedback and motivation, and making sure that the group is sticking together in the case of a no-drop ride. “Whenever we have a new person join one of our rides, I try to stick with that person as much as possible during the ride,” says Fletcher. “That way, I can help make sure she’s comfortable and provide a bit of feedback, and keep the group safe.”
Deng adds that an ideal group ride situation, especially if it’s a beginner-based group, is having three ride leaders (or ride lead helpers), with one in the front, one in the back, and one floating in the middle to help riders who are sitting mid-pack and often miss out on chances to chat with ride leadership.
It’s also nice to be social with riders: “Good rides happen because multiple people share the load, leading from the front, back, and middle of the ride,” Reinkordt adds. “Good rides happen because those leaders and regulars introduce themselves to new people, move around the group, ride next to different folks throughout the ride, and listen well. This goes for road and mountain bike rides alike.”
Have an emergency plan
Fletcher laughs and says that now, even on road rides, she considers using a hydration pack just to make space for extra supplies. Carrying things like a basic first aid kit, extra gels, and extra flat repair tools can save a ride.
It’s also important to have some kind of emergency action plan: It sounds dire, but doing 10 minutes of legwork while you have a good internet connection may save lives. You can always call 911 in the event of an emergency, but it’s also helpful to know where the closest hospital is, where the best routes back to town are, and the number of someone who may be able to come and pick you up.
If you’re in an area where service is spotty, download area maps onto your phone and computer so you can select faster routes or ride-arounds if needed. Even the simple act of thinking through how you would handle an emergency is helpful, so if something does happen, you’re not caught entirely off guard.
Lastly, club registration shouldn’t be a sticking point to making a group ride happen, but there’s a reason for it: Often, it provides a certain level of insurance coverage, and it allows ride organizers to pull a list that has emergency contacts on it. If you’re not going the club route, no problem—but it would be a wise decision to have riders fill out a quick emergency contact form beforehand, so you have that in case something happens.
You may also want to see what other local clubs are requiring in terms of rider waivers for group rides. In some states, they’re not necessary, but in other states, if you’re leading the ride, you may be liable for any situations that arise.
Add a snack stop
Every group ride is more fun when ice cream is involved, no matter how old you are. Planning a route that has a snack stop so that riders can rest, refuel, regroup and hit the restroom is a good choice, whether riders are beginners or advanced speedsters.
If you don’t love the idea of a mid-ride stop, an optional postride snack/drink destination is a nice way to cap off the day for riders, especially if your goal is to make new friends within your group.
Give feedback, but kindly
You may notice a rider doing something dangerous—but the odds are good that it’s an unintentional mistake, not something a rider is doing to purposely endanger the group. So avoid calling them out harshly, Reinkordt says, but still correct the behavior.
“Generally, it’s best to offer feedback after the ride, and to pull someone aside to do so in a kind and compassionate way,” she explains. “The exception is when safety is concerned.” For example, if the people at the front of your group run a red light. This puts your whole group in danger. As soon as it is safely possible, Reinkordt suggests saying, ‘I’m glad everyone is safe. On this ride, we do not go through red lights, so if you are in the front, please communicate clearly that you are stopping. If you are unable to stop, please stop as soon as you can and wait.’
Discuss inclusivity with riders
“A big part of making rides inclusive that I have seen happening a lot is statements in postings about rides or advertising events that have policies on sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia not being tolerated,” says Reinkordt. “This is a great step, but you also need to make sure you have leadership and plans in place to respond if an incident arises. Have a conversation with your ride leaders and regulars—especially those that are well-regarded in the community—about how to respond if they see, hear, or are told about incidents of harassment or inappropriate behavior. This goes for during and after the ride.”
Keep these conversations going, and make sure that new ride leaders are appropriately briefed on your group’s values.
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