I’ve been to, witnessed, and experienced some great community bike rides. Enough so that I wish everyone was just as fortunate to have such shared communities of support. I thought I’d take this opportunity to dive into what is ultimately a labor of love; building a community bike ride.
There are plenty of questions to answer: What do you need to do to lead a swell community group ride? Should things look a certain way? How do you create a feeling, a sense of how to be? What do you want to hear? Where are we even going? How do you share this? What is happening?
Let’s talk about how to build a ride like this; a place where people can go, something they can count on, an escape, and a reminder of why we love bikes.
If you take away one thing from this post, please make it this:
Communication + Consistency + Bikes + People = Community Group Ride
Monday Night Gravel
Monday Night Gravel was an idea I stole from District Bikes (the crew behind Land Run). I asked them if I could do Monday Night Gravel in Iowa City and they said, “HECK YES.”
I started the ride three years ago in the parking lot of World of Bikes in Iowa City because I needed a weekly ride to get me on my bike. Deciding to lead my own ride was exciting and terrifying, with expectations that I’ve never shared much about until now. Here’s is a list of questions to get your brain rolling—things to notice, do, and think about:
Those questions are at the heart of how I started Monday Night Gravel, though a majority of the success happened naturally. In the end, the reality is that it all happened because I really wanted it to. It takes a lot of strength to move yourself on a bike, let alone another bunch of folks. So how do you do it?
Before we dive into the “how,” a quick word about the “why.” Start drilling this into your head now:
Now for the “how,” the part where I don’t answer any of the questions, I just ask more questions and drive you crazy making you think harder than you want to about bikes. You don’t have to worry about every single one of these, but they’re fun to answer. Get your pen and paper out, it’s time to think before we act!
What kind of ride do you want to lead?
What is your community missing? How many people are you hoping will show up? Are you targeting a certain kind of rider? Why? Instead, could you broadcast pace, tire width, route, locations, and anything related to the ride that you do together at the middle/end (farmers markets, competitive events, recreational events, potlucks, parties)? Do you want a particular ride leader? Is that you?
What does your ride support look like?
Where are you starting? Do you leave from a business? A backyard? The corner of 5th and Main? Do you end at a certain place, or just scatter back into town? Are riders responsible for themselves? Drop or no-drop? Is there a designated leader and sweeper? Is there a place where people can always find information about the ride? A phone number to call? Facebook group or page? Instagram? Email?
How do you make people feel included? Here, I will give you some of the answers.
Introduce yourself to new faces and ask them if they live in town. Ask them about their bike or where they got their cool jersey. Talk about the types of riding they like to do (road, gravel, mountain, ‘cross, commuting). Ask them if they’ve ever ridden in a group before. Invite them to the Facebook Group. Think about what information can you share with them as you are inviting them to be a part of this community.
What is expected from your community? And what should they expect?
What gear should your riders bring for this group ride? Do they need flat kits, food, water, camping stuff, a hatchet, bow and arrow, a swimming suit, fireworks, extra clothes? How far are you going? How fast? What does that mean? Do you just have an “A” or “B” ride? Does it conflict with other rides? Do people want the group ride to share more than just the group ride? Do people want to compete or travel to events together? Do they share goals? Are they going to ride on the weekends together?
On the topic of safety
I’m here to say Safety Rules. You may think having a safety talk is dorky and embarrassing and leaves little to the imagination, but you will be glad you considered it when 30-plus people show up for your ride. Simply put, your group ride needs to keep people as safe as possible, physically, mentally and emotionally. Never be afraid to call someone out for safety’s sake.
Here’s a simple safety cheat sheet:
When do I get to relax?
Remember that you did this for you, and if you want to ride, there is a good chance someone else does too!
Since starting this ride 3 years ago it has grown tremendously and exceeds my expectations every Monday.
Let me answer my own questions that I posed earlier:
What kind of ride do I lead?
Iowa City’s Monday Night Gravel is a no-drop gravel ride. It is no less than 20 miles, and no more than 35. No-drop means no rider is left behind for any reason; mechanical, pace, getting lost, needing to eat, share water, put a foot down, or pet a dog. This happens by having a distinct leader and sweeper. The leader is at the front of our ride, calling out directions, cues (slowing, stopping, turning), and communicating with the sweeper. The sweeper rides at the tail end of the ride, making sure everyone is together. If any rider is in front of a leader, or behind a sweeper, that should be communicated with those leading or sweeping. The no-drop is not dependent on pace, but on those hosting the ride. We leave at 6:15pm, from the same location and always end at the same location. Iowa City has a very strong cycling community but this is the only true no-drop ride in our town. It complements the other existing group rides in the area very well. And, to be honest, this no-drop ride is just as hard as any drop ride in town. It’s just a different kind of uncomfortable.
What does the ride support look like?
We leave from the World of Bikes parking lot, which gives us the chance to utilize a full-service bike shop before and after the ride if needed. People rely on the shop for water, a bathroom break, a place to park, and quick mechanical fixes. Afterwards we always end at Big Grove Brewery down the street. We are lucky to be in such close proximity to a local watering hole. Since it’s a no-drop ride, we lead the ride all the way back in to town—or as best we can (group rides are hardest getting out of and back into town, so practice this!). The ride information route, times, locations, and rider expectations) is always posted on Instagram and Facebook. Before the ride leaves, we always point out leaders/sweepers and any other necessary information, such as road conditions.
How do we make people feel included?
The ride’s biggest draw is the no-drop aspect. This gives people the chance to talk to each other, to show up in their work clothes, to look around, to ride slower or faster, to pay attention to themselves and each other at the same time! Community rides should challenge people. Doing things together might be intimidating at first but will help you grow. We have seen people crash, get flats, be mad at hills, forget food, get lost, and break their bikes. We work through and solve these difficulties together. As a leader or sweeper of the ride, I make sure to introduce myself to the group and talk to people I haven’t seen before. One new aspect we added to the ride is a stop mid-route to ask anyone if this is their first group ride, and to introduce ourselves as a group.
What are the community expectations?
Wear helmets, bring charged lights, and understand the no-drop ride pace.
When do I get to relax?
Remember why you started doing this in the first place—starting a community ride is a labor of love.
My Monday Night Gravel group ride is sometimes ridiculous, but with hard work it has become a natural part of everyone's week, a reason not to schedule appointments on Monday nights.
And so will yours.
It won’t happen overnight and there is no reason to start a community ride if you do not plan to keep it going for at least a year. Communicate with your community and yourself, think about how to create the most natural progression of riders, learning and growth. Stay consistent and realize that even if only one rider shows up, it’s better than none.
Treat others how you want to be treated! The riders who come to your ride are just as excited and nervous as you are about how to be the best rider, no-drop or drop, fast or slow, spandex or cut-offs, ice cream stops or forging fitness. A community does not always look the way you think it will. It will often knock your socks off and humble you.
Monday Night Gravel reminded me what it’s like to be in love with riding bikes. Riding is better with other people, and best when we don’t have to talk the whole time. I learn something new on every single ride and working things out together will only strengthen our knowledge.
Now go answer those questions! If you want to send me your answers for more guidance, or just a picture or two of your group ride, please do: firstname.lastname@example.org.
An always-growing list of community group ride inspiration:
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I live, work, and play in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa may not have epic mountains or vast skylines, but it boasts hundreds of miles of gravel. That is where I found my true calling. In 2012 I attempted my first Trans-Iowa, got lost, and was instantly hooked. I have been there every year since. I am constantly looking for that next adventure to keep me teetering on the line between insanity and clarity. Bring it on! andreafromiowa.wordpress.com.