Bespoken Word: Strength in numbers

Bespoken Word
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Humans are for the most part a species with very strong social gravity. Whatever you call it - group, tribe, herd or pack - those gains are perhaps more obvious in cycling than anywhere else in our lives too, but only if we team up with the right gang.

There’s a bunch of reasons riding groups are upfront in my mind at the moment but straight away I need to acknowledge that I’m pretty damn picky about who I’ll pedal out with. As someone who’s fundamentally an irritable, impatient ‘control enthusiast’ (shout out to Mark Twight on the Nonprophet podcast for that wonderful phrase), I’m not exactly cut out for a chummy ‘no drop’ trundle through trees. I live to surf the friend or foe boundary red-lining my heart rate against them on a climb but nothing will raise my blood pressure faster than an unnecessary faff at a mid-ride gate. I could pretend that’s because I don’t want to get cold on a mid-winter moor, but the truth is even if it’s perfectly pastoral mid-summer evening I’ll be prowling in circles like a caged animal if there’s any sign the vibe is becoming conversational, not cardiac.

A group of mountain bikers having a rest on a night ride

Guy's Thursday Night Fight Club injects a vital dose of mid-week competition and comradery (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

In fact, I’m amazed that anyone wants to ride with me at all, but Thursday Night Fight Club has been the axle around which the whole week revolves, for a small band of savagely competitive but also extremely trusted, tight-knit friends/fiends for almost twenty years. 

The unstated but clearly understood ‘ride now, talk later’, ‘fastest rider opens the gate and then chases back on’ vibe not only scratches our collective competitive itches but it also means we can smash out what most riders would regard as a decent day ride in two to three hours. A vital escape for dads who often have to surrender their weekends to family duties. A solid date and time in the diary. A reason to train, sharpen skills and stay focused. Giving us the background capability to go off and tackle other random challenges that groups are always a crucible for and mean that we’re now riding faster and harder as a group in our forties and fifties than we were as individuals in our twenties and thirties. 

And while we fight for every corner and banter with brutal honesty over trailhead beers afterwards, the trust and respect formed on the trail means we look out for each other off the bike too, helping each other through the inevitable ebb and flow of life if that help is asked for. Or if you want to torque not talk, TNFC is the perfect place to detonate frustration/anger/anxiety/stress through the pedals in a controlled explosion, share a thank you smile with the pack in the aftermath, and head back home a lot happier.

From the sound of it our Group Technical Editor, Aaron would fit right into our ‘horrible group of hyenas’ as one 'tried it once' rider called us too. 

“It’s funny because every time I join in on a groupie, it’s apparently going to be chilled. That’s never the case. There’s always at least 10min of full-bore racing, often more than that with a sprint at the end, but always coupled with laughs and enjoyment. I think it’s important that we as cyclists mix things up, as well as sort out where we are in the food chain. Maybe, it’s because I’m still at the point in my cycling where I still enjoy giving it some wellie. That said, I enjoy the whole coffee culture cycling vibe and always appreciate talking about how crap the weather is in the UK - apparently that’s standard talk on every ride.”

Bespoken Word

Whether you're grimacing over the handlebars or smiling for selfies, riding in a group builds bonds with fellow riders (Image credit: Claire Sharpe)

But the beauty of groups is how different they can be in vibe as Mildred Locke illustrates perfectly:

"I ride with a women-led inclusive cycling group called Routing For Ya in Bristol. It's a group I co-founded and our rides are accessible, open to all, and focused on having fun. I get to meet new people every time we ride, share knowledge, encouragement and enthusiasm, inspire and be inspired, and explore Bristol and its surrounding areas on two wheels. We're not the kind of group where you spend an hour riding with your head down, staring at someone's bum. We prioritize fun, socializing, snacking and photo opportunities, and I always leave our rides feeling like my heart is full.”

On a very similar note, I had a great conversation with Temi Lateef from the Black Riders Association this week, where he told me how the group had formed organically after he’d posted that he was starting training for a ride to Lagos. As a complete novice rider of color, he’d felt cold-shouldered by other cycling groups he’d tried riding with but soon he was in the middle of a bunch of new friends. 

People from all backgrounds helping each other navigate the weird world of why people wear tights or bolt their feet into pedals, how to repair or improve bikes, sharing routes and experience, as well as the stories, laughter and support, that’s the brilliant part of ganging up with others. In Temi’s case, it also opened up corporate connections for sponsorship and charity growth and literally helped an East London native navigate through some of the remotest parts of Africa based on expert local knowledge. His growing group is a crucial part of connecting and growing inclusivity in cycling not just in the city, but nationally and globally too. In fact, within minutes of our conversation I was following a young BMXer in Lagos who Temi had met and started setting up events with, so who knows where that might lead.

Bespoken Word

As Temi found setting up a Black Riders Association, connecting like minded riders can have far reaching effects (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

How quickly connections can be made through social media and then organized through WhatsApp (or other platforms) is obviously a massive help to growing groups and finding like-minded riders to roll with, wherever you/they are in the world. It can also help you connect with people you’re with everyday, as Jim Bland explains:

“The Stif Mountain Bikes team and close affiliates - this is my ‘solid crew’. Every ride session regardless of whether it’s an after-work loam-zone session at the local, or seeing how many laps we can squeeze into an uplift day at Revs has a focus on individual progression, with every element of the trait ‘ego’ removed. Trying a jump for the first time? Or just roosting that corner harder than ever before? This group of rippers has your back with nothing but positive vibes, helpful tips and a bloody good laugh along the way. The general open-mindedness of this crew is sick too - it encourages rides of different disciplines, attempts at silly new lines, and pumps the motivation to build new features which will only boost the fun at future sessions. Good laughs, with proper shredders, and nearly always excellent apres too.”

While Jim’s crew are all serious steeze mongers, with the instabangers to prove it, groups can be totally mixed in terms of skill or whether you even know the people you ride with off the bike as our editor Rich proves:

“I tend to hit the trails with a real mixed bag of riders of varying abilities and different MTB backgrounds. Some are fully-fledged mates while others are people I usually only encounter when we ride. A handful of my riding buddies seriously rip, so hanging with them can really help to get me out of my comfort zone and push my riding forward as a result. Others are less skilled, so when we ride together, I play a part in getting them to the next level. Whoever I'm riding with though, there's virtually always a positive, fun vibe, plus a bit of friendly competition too of course.”

Bespoken Word

Whether it's close friends or trail aquaintances, getting together with others to ride can have a real benefit to riding abilities (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

While the ‘running with the pack’ vibe of a big session train or the power and protection of a critical mass ride is an awesome thing to be a part of, just having one buddy calling is enough to get you off the couch and onto the bike like my mate Dave did last night. Besides the social side, there are still big gate opening, headwind pacing, equipment sharing, picture taking and safety gains from a two-up too. Plus as my wingman Ryan wryly pointed out “while adding a third person to a possible ride seems like it should only add 33 percent more potential problems, it often seems to add nearer 90.” And let’s not forget the freedom and solitude joys of just heading out solo are pretty damn fine too.

But yet again I’m getting distracted and muddying the waters, so for now big up the riding groups of all sizes and vibes and if you’re feeling lonely on your rides at the moment, maybe now’s the time to find a crew to cruise with.

Guy Kesteven

Guy Kesteven has been working on Bike Perfect since its launch in 2019. He started writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. He’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and he reviews MTBs over on YouTube.

Current rides: Cervelo ZFS-5, Specialized Chisel, custom Nicolai enduro tandem, Landescape/Swallow custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg