by Megan Hottman
I’ve often thought that the perfect riding mate is one of those elusive and difficult-to-describe creatures. Like unicorns, you know it when you see it. To articulate it and actually describe, it is quite another. I’ve been blessed to ride bikes with a handful or so people in my life, who have set the bar incredibly high as perfect ride partners. I’ve paid close attention to the nuances, asking myself, “just what exactly makes this so magical?” in the hopes of being able to distill it down into words without doing the dynamic an injustice. It’s hard to describe a flow-state feeling.
Nevertheless, as we head into 2021, as more and more people continue to find or rediscover cycling, and as many of us continue to manage our small bubbles of humans for COVID-spread-prevention purposes, I thought it might be helpful to try and articulate what makes the perfect riding partner*, so that we all might aspire to be the best ride mate we can for those with whom we ride.
*This is not intended to reference a romantic ride partner context- I refer to the perfect riding partner, or riding mate, with no off-the-bike relationship context… but on the bike they are your partner, and your teammate (hence mate) out there on the roads, so I use those words interchangeably and throughout. Partner in crime, person-with-whom-you-ride-bikes, friend, fellow cyclist would all work as well, but my intention was to impart a riding dynamic with a deeper sense of intuitiveness and perception, which we don’t experience with just anyone. (And hey, if your significant other IS also your riding mate, good on ya! Riding bikes with your person is probably the best thing you can do for your romantic relationship IMHO ;)).
Let me acknowledge that when you’re new to cycling, you’re very focused on changing gears, clipping in and out of pedals, pedaling, and so on. I fully appreciate and acknowledge your mind is full with plenty of things to focus on – that said, I still believe everyone no matter their experience, can begin curating an awareness for these behaviors early-on, and I believe doing so will make us all better and safer riders.
OK here we go ….
SAFETY & CONSISTENCY
Of course, it’s stating the obvious, but my ideal riding mate follows the rules. I don’t want to be out on the roads or paths with someone who breaks the laws or puts us in a position to cause a potential crash or receive a traffic citation. Finding a riding partner who is on the same page about this simple principle is harder than readers may think, but it’s the crucial first step towards finding your perfect bike ride partner.
One of the biggest things that puts my mind to rest and puts me in a space of ease and enjoyment when I’m riding with someone else, is their consistency in calling out hazards vocally and/or pointing out hazards. If they are 100% accurate always indicating concerns in the roadway, I start to relax knowing that they are reliable “eyes” for me if I’m riding their wheel closely or even if we’re side by side. Knowing that they are looking at the road to ensure we don’t hit something, is a HUGE relief. I don’t exclusively RELY on their signals, but I trust them to tell me what’s coming, especially if I’m riding their rear wheel closely.
Contrast that with the riding partner who only sometimes points out hazards … who doesn’t point them out soon enough to avoid them, … who rides in such a way that they even fail to see things and sometimes ride over/ through something I’d prefer to avoid. I had a person on a group ride once take three of us through the same monster pothole when we were riding single file. Two of us ended up with immediate pinch flats (it was a big hard hit) … not cool. The ones who are inconsistent “pointer-out-ers” are the ones with whom I find my guard is up the entire ride. Think about the restaurants where you’ve received inconsistent food quality or service – once it was exceptional, once it was dismal…. You don’t really want to go back and roll the dice now do you?
The ideal ride mate is also looking ahead and anticipating all the things: pedestrians stepping off corners, lanes narrowing, bike lanes disappearing or reappearing, walkers or runners up on the path, cars turning without signals, traffic lights changing. Even though they are conversing with me as we ride, the conversation is never enough to knock them off their eagle-eye vigilance. I tend to be observing and noting all of those things too – and if I’m the only one on a ride noticing those dynamics, it can be tiring and even exhausting to essentially be the group lookout. But when I ride with someone who is focused on anticipating possible issues the same way I am, our joint focus and attention on those things provides a sense of supportive teamwork- allowing us both to enjoy our ride, our conversation, and to share the desire to keep us both safe.
There is also a subtle way to go about pointing out hazards and threats on a ride. I’d like to thank Tim Johnson and our multiple “Ride On” events with People for Bikes for really teaching and demonstrating this technique of calm and subtle hazard-signaling.
Some people are loud and abrupt about it “CAR UP!! ” they SCREAM! – and perhaps they were trained that way, to ensure they get everyone’s attention. But the smoother, quieter, calmer way of pointing things out using hands or just one or two key words, is so much less stressful, especially when there are just 2 riders.
Choose the same words or phrases and stick to them. One comment about the word “right” – it can mean correct, or it can mean turning right. Consider using “yes” or “correct” and saving the word “right” for directions. “Clear back” can also sound a lot like “car back” so refine phrases based on what your mate can hear best. Just a few words or hand-gestures go a long way, especially when people are tuned in.
This is not always the case of course but generally speaking when I am riding with someone like this and we are doing the joint-lookout and anticipation approach – these tend to be my safest rides, the ones with few or no dangerous or scary interactions with motorists. Of course, as we all know (too well), anything can happen regardless of how solid our lookout teamwork is, but as a general rule: the safest rides with zero negative incidents or motorists interactions, are with riding mates like I’m describing here. Communication is key.
When I ride with someone who knows the route, and I do not, I really appreciate them telling me in advance what we’re doing. At the beginning of the ride, if they give me a general overview of the route, that is hugely helpful, even if I don’t know all of the streets and turns. When they tell me about how long the ride will last, or where we’ll end up and about when, that is also really reassuring. Then -during the ride, receiving cues like, “up here, we’re going to veer through this chicane-like turn, and then merge onto the road in the bike lane and then when it’s clear we’ll merge across the traffic lanes into the left turn lane…”. This kind of message cannot be clearly portrayed with just a couple hand gestures or words, and it also informs me of traffic patterns or potential risks to be aware of as we are making these dynamic moves in the road.
CALLING US OUT
My ideal riding mate tells other path users we are coming up, on their left (calmly and friendly-tone), and how many of us there are, and waves or says something kind, so that they feel warm and fuzzy about us as we pass. Contrast that with the cyclists who overtake walkers or runners in such a way as to make the path user feel threatened or scared. Remember: We are out trying to make friends on our rides, to show the world how awesome bikes and cyclists are -to be bike ambassadors – not to overrun or frighten path users!
My ride partner does an impeccable job waving at cars who wait for us – those who pause; we wave and give a gesture to get their attention and we wave in such a way as to signal appreciation and a heads up, not a gesture that sends an entitled or demanding message. When we give the two-finger salute (like the peace sign) to motorists, it’s a GOOD thing. We are out making friends at the same time we’re trying really hard to make sure that they see us. Often, my riding mate even waves or says hello to walkers or runners on the sidewalks next to us as we ride past in the bike lane. Always projecting that kindness vibe -that energetic connection with others out getting their recreation on. THANK YOU as a hand gesture to motorists goes a long way. Waving makes everyone happier. Do as much of that as you can.
This is one of the biggest nuances and most impossible to teach to cyclists – the behavior and body language we use during our ride sends all kinds of messages to other road and path users. Someone is always watching us. When we give off a friendly, connected, “we are all out here in this fresh air together” vibe, it unites us. Sadly, we can all think of a handful of cyclists that we know, who instead project that sense of “this is my road, get out of the way, COMING THROUGH” aggro – self-absorbed vibe. And that just turns people off of cycling.
Then we get into the real juice of a solid flow state ride…. The way that two people are able to ride bikes side by side, or single file, with bikes close to one another, handlebars even with one another, comfortably close, rolling steadily, having conversation, making occasional eye contact during the discussion… neither one is “half-wheeling” the other; both have the capability to perceive the others’ pace and to back off subtly if one is having a better day on the bike than the other rider is…. (BTW- You’ll know you’re half-wheeling your riding partner if you find yourself talking over your shoulder frequently; that’s a sign they are not right next to you 😉 ).
Souplesse is the art of riding a bike in a smooth fluid motion. The Velominati defines it as, “Souplesse is the perfect storm of Looking Pro; harmony between grace and power, casual and deliberate. It speaks of the entire organism, the perfectly manicured machine together with the perfectly refined position and technique of its rider. It is the combination of Magnificent Stroke, gentle sway of the shoulders and head, the rhythmic breath, and of knees, elbows, and chest converging on the V-Locus.”
Again, this is one of those things that you’ll know it when you see it. And if you yourself ride this way, and you are fortunate to find a riding mate who rides this way, let me tell you, the sight of the two of you on the road, side by side, will make people stop and look. Because it really is the most amazing and awe-inspiring sight. Poetry in motion. It’s the beauty and art form of cycling to which we all aspire, and when you find yourself on a ride in this state, it is as though the world blurs around you and the bike ride, conversation and company, all move into sharp focus, and the miles click off effortlessly. Suddenly- a four-hour ride can be finished and it happened seamlessly.
This brings to mind the subject of surging. As we say in cycling, smooth is fast. And so it is when riding with your mate. When you pull on the front keep it smooth and steady. When you leave a stop sign or stop light, don’t punch it and sprint off, gradually accelerate. When you slow down and speed back up, make the acceleration smooth, smooth, smooth. Nothing wears out my legs quicker than when I ride with someone who is punchy in all the wrong places. It can be so exhausting trying to close those gaps off stop lights, or having to reaccelerate when they take the front to take a pull and they press on the gas too much. This is all a sensory read and it takes time and practice, but it also takes awareness and a desire to pay attention. Read your mate- and don’t leave them in the dust. My riding mate does not surge. Rather, he slowly and almost imperceptibly increases speed, ensuring I am on his wheel as he does so. Or if he is going to intentionally surge, he tells me so.
This brings me to another nuance related to standing: when I am riding the wheel of my mate on a climb and he is ready to stand up, he’ll give me an indication. Most common is the double elbow flick, a sign a rider is about to stand up out of the saddle. This allows me the chance to soft pedal for a second, to create a small gap for their back wheel, which will seem to go backwards as they stand. When two people are riding closely to one another, and especially when the back rider is really sitting on the rear wheel of the front rider, this is a really important thing to do. If I choose not to also stand when he stands, I will remain in the saddle and ever so slightly accelerate to regain position on their wheel.
All of these subtle energy-saving techniques add up to a smoother, safer, more enjoyable ride with minimal energy-wasting surges and gaps. When mental energy is conserved in this way, we are freed up to invest more physical energy into the work we are doing on the bike. The entire ride is more enjoyable.
JV TO VARSITY -CLARITY OF PURPOSE
Have you ever been on a ride where you thought the purpose was riding simply to ride- no agenda, other than to connect with your mates and be social, perhaps have a coffee stop, otherwise just #milesofsmiles and some togetherness? Have you ever been on a ride like that where perhaps one of your group members really wanted some structure, perhaps some intervals on hills or some punchy-spots? When you put those two objectives together without communicating about it in advance, it can result in disappointment or frustration all around.
This is when alignment, or at least a discussion of the ride’s purpose or goals, can be very helpful. And it’s possible for everyone to get what they need even if the goals are different. For example, one person can give it some gas on the hills to add that punch or effort for fitness gains while the others can remain social and continue chatting up the climb. Or, someone can start the ride an hour earlier or tack on extra after to get their distance or time goals met. What is key is that these things be vocalized. Because nothing brings the mood down, or breaks up a small group ride faster, then some who want to add surges, accelerations, hill repeats, and some who don’t, when those desires aren’t spoken in advance.
Based on rider goals, or on the time of year or season, some riders will be perfectly happy to ride just to ride -just to be outside, happily pedaling. Some will need to execute a mission on every ride, whatever that may be. To keep everyone together and happy, it’s a “best practice” on your varsity squad to articulate these desires in advance.
This pre-ride conversation can be facilitated with a ride route map shared between you and your riding mate(s). “Here is the ride plan,” it can start, and the graphic can include mileage, elevation gain, and a map (if the ride has been done before, or if an app like RideWithGPS is utilized to pre-map the ride). This way you and your riding mate(s) will have expectations of distance, time, climbs, difficulty, regroup spots, snack stops, and so on. This allows you and your mate to prepare with snacks, drinks, a mental map of how the ride is likely to unfold, and if you haven’t already guessed it -taking these uncertainties and unknowns out of the equation makes for – yep, a smoother, calmer, more enjoyable ride.
Think of it as a mini trip each time you go. Having a destination, or objective, or at least stops and refuel points in mind, gives everyone involved something to set their sights on.
When you ride with other humans, it’s important to also tuck some grace in that back jersey pocket.
When (not if), someone is having a bad day, realize that we’re all humans and humans have not-optimal days sometimes. Give your mate(s) permission to scrap the ride or bail, or shut it down early if they are really struggling and don’t make them feel badly for it. Maybe you take all the pulls into the wind and they sit on, or maybe the route gets shortened because they just don’t have it …. Someday it will be you on the struggle bus; it happens to us all. (It often catches us by surprise too). Maybe your mate wants to just sit on your wheel and not say a word back there, but still wants to ride with you. Cool. Have that discussion. Maybe they need to turn around and go home and climb back into bed. It happens. Don’t make them feel badly about it. There will always be another perfect ride day.
IN SUMMARY- TUNE IN, FEEL THE FEELS, SMOOTH IS FAST, ANTICIPATE
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to ride with people who ride the way I’ve described above. And it is the gold standard; it is remarkable and noticeable when I go back to riding with a mate who does not follow these techniques or approaches. It is more fatiguing and mentally taxing. It can be downright stressful if I ride with someone who does few or none of the things mentioned above. (And you can be sure, I minimize the number of rides like that. It diminishes my bike riding joy).
If you want to be the dreamy ride mate for your pal, tune in, really feel and perceive what is going on during the ride. Perfect the art of riding side by side, and single file, and really hone your senses to anticipate what is happening well up the road, what might happen, and what your riding mate might need to see or know or hear well in advance.
Riding with your mate is not the time to make them read your mind.
Until such a time as you’ve perfected the art and they have too, and you can ride side by side without speaking a single word, truly in a zen space existing and pedaling, savoring and knowing what the other will do, without a sound uttered.
That, my friends, is heaven on earth. It’s the perfect bike ride …with the perfect riding partner.
I wish that for you and for all of us this year.