To the average pedestrian (maybe auto occupant is a better description), you may be wondering what its like to ride a bicycle as a hobby and sport, especially on a dangerous road or in the middle of the woods. I'm sure nearly everyone has ridden a bike at one time or another and I'll bet you have fond, but vague, memories of what it was like way back when.
Cycling in adulthood is not exactly the easiest sport to adopt, especially if you really want to take the sport seriously for all the fun, fitness and danger it offers. You need to embrace the mentality of those that ride as well as be able and willing to invest time and some money. But, in my mind the payoff is well worth it.
Cycling, like running, is something that is almost all about doing. The learning comes first from experience and then from tips and wisdom of other riders. So, the first principle is "put in your miles". That's the only way to get to know and decide if its for you - and to get better at it. There is no rule book or guidebook. There isn't even classes to join. You are on your own, or you join up with one or more individuals in a ride group and share the experience. People who commit to the sport say they "ride". Or you might ask another, "Do you ride?", to see if you may have a potential riding buddy.
Basically, there are two types of rides, one where you go out alone and the other where you ride with others. Going it alone means you need discipline and some objectives to keep you going and to get comfortable with the road you are on. Its riding with a group where wisdom, support and challenge can take you further in the sport.
Probably the biggest obstacles for riding are time, weather, experience, skill-level and motivation. Money is secondary. The money you spend need not be significant, since most equipment can last a long time, and through several seasons. However, riding does factor in technology, whether one wants to believe its important or not. And, of course, it ultimately is important and there is a cost to take advantage of it.
A group ride normally starts out slow to get a feel for the pace and to warm up. A group of riders, referred to as a "peleton", usually forms into a paceline at various points. The paceline is simply Riding a a single line somewhat closely behind each other. This takes advantage of the physics of air movement and the "slipstream" that it causes. Rear riders have less resistance to deal with so energy is conserved.
The distance behind the rider in front of you should be based on how good a rider he/she is and how comfortable you are in tagging along. This distance can vary from six inches to several feet. But the point to keep in mind is the closer you can be to someone upfront the easier it is for you to keep up and to exert less energy. With every foot further back you are losing some of the benefit of being in a close slipstream.
To someone new to the sport the proper form in a paceline might not seem worth the concentrated effort and possible accident of following close. But another principle of riding is that small things are important. Saving small amounts of energy over a 25, 50 or 100 miles adds up and the longer the ride the more it matters.
Riding in a group requires understanding the level of skill of the riders and how far the group wants to push the riders. The way a ride goes is, more often than not, a spontaneous thing. Typically, a group of riders will ride together or split into 2 or more groups, usually based on the pace set and how the group attacks parts of the course, especially hills. A general match of skill level is also important.
The paceline shifts in position based on the group. Again, often spontaneous, the front rider who is the hardest worker, gives up his position after some minutes and pulls aside the group, slowing down, so the group can pass and then quickly falls back into the rear of the paceline, and so the paceline continues in the same pattern. A typical casual group ride will fall in and out of a paceline frequently and informally. One problem of a paceline is that it's mostly work and concentration. Whereas, riding side-by-side in a group makes it easier to talk and enjoy the scenery.
Riding in a group is a unique feature of the sport. Cycling is more about waves of energy and effort with slower paces in between. So, the group might fall into a paceline for awhile, then into a relaxed ride, then into a challenge sprint or hill climb. There is rarely a predictable schedule of events. But what that allows is some time to get to know fellow riders in a very relaxed way. Also, the constant movement of the pack, means you can jockey around to anyone in the group and strike up a conversation or avoid someone if that's what you want. There is definitely an attractive friendly side to the sport.
On the other hand, you'll almost always see some signs of pent up energy and challenge as riders break away at a faster pace then reel back. Ultimately, the group becomes whole again, repeating and responding to the changing dynamics.