Leading a ride is a funny thing. I can’t speak for everyone who does it; I can only speak for myself. If a group of people agrees to follow you there’s a certain expectation that you will look out for them to the extent that you can. It can be difficult on unfamiliar roads, keeping one eye on the GPS, one on the map on the tankbag, and the other on your mirrors to be sure your group is intact. I know, I know, that’s three eyes…
People sign up for rides with certain expectations and it’s really important that you honor those expectations; but in a large group there’s likely to be a range of skills, experience, and expectations. Some want to go fast and not stop, others like a more relaxed pace and more frequent stops to take photos and take in the scenery. Not all bikes are the same either; some need to go faster for the rider to feel he’s really ridden; others not so much.
So as a leader of a group ride what do you do? You do your best. You try to extend yourself so that the faster riders get the thrill of going fast on new roads, then you slow a bit to allow the lesser experienced among you to catch up in the straight sections. You wait at stop signs watching your mirrors until the group is accounted for before proceeding. You take notes, study maps, meet everyone, and tell them everything you can think of to help them on the ride. You also look at the bikes in the group and predict their relative range and try to calculate gas stops.
Once out on the road you watch your mirrors for traffic that may get between you and your riders and you try to estimate when everyone should merge for an upcoming turn. You constantly assess the skill set of those behind you so you can decide how best to lead the ride. You watch the road for obstructions, gravel, and blind curves, ever mindful that it’s not about you— there are people counting on you. Sometimes you make mistakes, miss turns, or get too far ahead; it happens despite your best efforts. You make your apologies and do whatever it takes to get everyone back on track. This year I was fortunate to lead a few rides during the RoadRUNNER Touring Weekend in Maggie Valley, N.C. and with the help of my buddy Ken managed to get two fairly large groups of riders through 200 miles of spectacular mountain roads (and down the Dragon). It was my first time at the riding weekend and a trip I’ll never forget.
Leading a large group of riders is a challenge in a lot of ways. The payoff is giving each member of your group an experience they’ll never forget. Some remember it for the fast lines through twisty roads; others will remember that you took the time to comfort them after a fall or drop; some that you stopped often enough for it to seem like an experience rather than a race. In the end all that matters is having done your best to get everyone home, safe and happy. The smiles, hugs, and handshakes always let you know that, while it may not have gone perfectly, your efforts were appreciated and you did your job—and that makes all the difference.