What is a Different Spokes Ride?

What is a typical Different Spokes ride? A cursory glance at our ride calendar shows a variety of road rides, in fact only road rides. In 2014 there wasn’t a single mountain bike ride listed—all 108 rides were on the road. The shortest ride was the Three Bears at 23 miles led by Stephanie Clarke and the longest was an ALC Marshall Wall ride at 105 miles led by Joseph Collins. If you tally up the mileage for all the club rides in 2014, you’ll discover that the average length of a Different Spokes ride was 55 miles. The average terrain rating was 3.25, where 3 means “moderate hills with some challenges” and 4 means “hills, some steep climbs, with some relief”. In other words, the typical ride was a bit more than moderately hilly. Finally, the average pace was halfway between B and C, i.e. between “moderate” and “brisk”.

So, it appears the typical DSSF ride was a road ride with a B/C-3-55 rating. If you think about it, that kind of ride is beyond what most recreational cyclists would do on a regular basis. They might do a ride like that as a challenge, as something atypical and extraordinary but not as, say, a default ride. A little closer look at the details shows that of the 96 club rides (I didn’t include Jersey Rides because they have a varied rating depending on the route taken), 57 were B rides, 19 were C, 18 were D, and a measly 2 were A pace rides. Most the rides were listed as B very likely because that’s the “sweet spot” for rides, i.e. supposedly not too hard, not too easy. But well over a third of the rides were either C- or D-rated, i.e. for strong, fast cyclists. If you were looking for a leisurely ride, well, you had a grand choice of just two rides, Ron Hirsch’s Bike to Bakeries ride or the Fall Social Rosie the Riveter ride.

The apparent majority of B rides would lead you to think that most Different Spokes rides are at a moderate pace. But the number is deceptive because, in my experience, many of these rides attract quite a few strong riders and the average pace can actually be quite high. I suspect that there is also some subtle pressure on ride leaders to list their rides at B pace; we’re a small club and a ride that is listed as a B will likely attract more riders than a C or D ride. The B ride has become the default “everybody” ride and more people will show up because in unspoken DSSF culture an A ride is interpreted as “slow” and C or D is interpreted as “race pace”. But this subtext isn’t available to newcomers to the club so a first ride can end up being a slap in the face. On the positive side club B rides always have a few regroups so that slower and faster riders can regroup and hang out, albeit for a short time. But being “dropped” and riding alone might discourage a newcomer from attending another club ride. And, there aren’t slower rides they could try given the dearth of A rides.

Although I haven’t looked at other clubs’ ride listings in detail, I suspect that they have a similar distribution of rides, i.e there aren’t enough easier rides. For example, the Valley Spokesmen club recently sent out an email to its membership asking for more leisurely paced and no-drop rides listings. And this is from a club that is much larger than Different Spokes and even has a dedicated new/slower rider subgroup, the Feather Pedals. As I mentioned in a previous post, ride leaders are likely to be the avid recreational cyclists and the more dedicated club members. So, given their limited time for riding they’re going to list rides they want to do, which are rides at their ability level.

There are really two issues at play here. One issue is the type of rides offered—our ride calendar is slanted towards harder rides—and the other is an ‘accurate’ description in the ride listings. I’ve written at length on the former and the effect it has on some newcomers and slower riders, and here I want to focus on the latter. A ride that ends up having a pace faster than the listing has two effects. First, it introduces some uncertainty in the minds of those perusing the listings. Will that ride really be conducted at a B pace or will it be faster? Riders who can’t keep the pace don’t get to socialize as much or otherwise enjoy the company of LGBT riders if they’re off the back for most of the ride. Those persistent enough to return might, through time, figure out which ride leaders lead fast rides regardless of their advertised pace and avoid those rides, or they learn to enjoy socializing only at regrouping points. But most people would just stop coming on club rides and look elsewhere for socializing. Second, it “raises the floor” for other rides: ride leaders get used to a certain perceived pace as the “B” pace regardless of any objective measurement such as average speed or average speed on the flats. And, if the same people keep showing up and accepting the pace, then it becomes the de facto “B” pace. For ride leaders there is also herd mentality at play: ride leader X lists his rides as B rides and I can keep up with him, so I should list my rides at a B pace too.

The club ride code has morphed through time. Here is the old club ride code (circa 1980s):

Terrain

1 – Mostly flat, easy grades, suitable for beginners (25-miles Bike-A-Thon route, Sausalito bike path, Sawyer Camp Trail)

2 – Few low hills, a challenge (e.g. Cañada Road, Tiburon Loop)

3 – Moderately hilly, some challenge for the average rider (e.g. Twin Peaks, Marin Headlands)

4 – Hilly, some steep climbs with some relief (e.g. Mt. Tam, Berkeley Hills)

5 – Very hilly, steep climbs, for strong riders (e.g. Mt. Diablo, Mt. Hamilton)

Pace (speeds assume a flat ride)

A – Leisurely, with many stops (10-14 mph)

B – Moderate, with occasional stops (13-17 mph)

C – Brisk, with few stops (16-21 mph)

D – Steady, strenuous, with very few stops (20+ mph)

The old club ride code attempts to provide something other than subjective guidance. If you’ve ridden some of the example routes, then you have an idea of how hilly the ride will be. Most people know how fast they can ride on the flats and can determine whether they can keep a B pace or not. If there is one fault with the old ride code it is that the pace categories are very broad: 17 mph is much faster than 13 mph yet both are “moderate”. Nonetheless ride leaders can check their pace against the pace categories to figure out if they’re pushing it or going too slow, at least for flat rides. One problem with the old ride key is that pace on the flat doesn’t reliably translate to pace on a hillier ride. For example, generally a heavier person may be able to keep the same pace on the flats as a lighter person but that is usually not the case when the route becomes hilly: the lighter person usually is faster. So, what might be a “moderate” pace for a lighter person ends up being “leisurely” for the heavier person!

On the current club website the ride calendar has a different ride code. The terrain key is mostly the same as the old ride code although the example routes have been eliminated. I think we would do better to add them back. But more importantly the pace key has no objective speeds. The B pace is “moderate, occasional stops”. Now, what does that mean? Moderate means different things to different people and provides essentially no guidance at all except that it’s harder than “leisurely”. “Moderate” and “leisurely” can only be interpreted subjectively, i.e as perceived effort. The word “pace” is ambiguous because it can be used to refer to an objective rate, e.g. 15 miles per hour, or to a subjective assessment of speed, e.g. “moderately fast.” Without objective guidance, words for pace end up being interpreted subjectively as perceived effort. Two individuals can rate the same objective pace (15 mph) as leisurely, moderate, brisk or strenuous because it’s dependent on their conditioning. A subjective pace key is not going to be very helpful for riders in deciding whether they should attend a ride, i.e. whether they’ll be able to keep up with the group: how would they know how fast a ride is going to be led on any particular day?

If, however, you delve a bit deeper into our website you find another ride key linked to “About Our Rides” (i.e. at http://www.dssf.org/dssf_html/ridekey.php). I’m not sure where this ride key came from but it’s actually better than the one in the ride calendar. Again, the terrain key is the same as on the ride calendar but the pace key includes not just average speeds but moving averages as well:

Average speed                 Moving average speed

A – Leisurely, with many stops                     (5-7 mph)                                (8-10 mph)

B – Moderate, with occasional stops            (7-9 mph)                               (10-12 mph)

C – Brisk, with few stops                                 (9-13 mph)                             (12-15 mph)

D – Steady, strenuous, with very few stops (13+ mph)                              (15+ mph)

Note that the speeds for each category are significantly lower than in the old ride code. That actually accords fairly well my own experience and correlate well with my Garmin data. Those average speeds look very low but keep in mind they include stops and incorporate flats and hills.

One could argue that both subjective and objective descriptions of pace have their flaws and neither is better than the other. Objective average pace suggestions obscure the significant difference between a ride done at a consistent speed versus one that oscillates between very fast and slow—both might have the same average speed. The best job I’ve seen for trying to provide guidance to participants is the Grizzly Peak Cyclists ride code. GPC suggests that you time yourself on the Three Bears loop in Orinda. Your time determines the typical pace you would be comfortable riding according to their ride key. Yet nothing prevents a GPC leader from inaccurately listing the pace of a ride and only corrective feedback from participants might encourage the ride leader to change the listing the next time. In other words despite having a more objective way for determining your pace, you still are at the mercy of the ride leader’s skill at accurately listing the pace of their ride and their zeal in sticking to it.

Ride pace may technically be independent of ride length and hilliness but it’s not surprising that they actually go together. Cyclists who are stronger generally prefer to do longer and harder rides, so a faster paced ride is likely to be longer and probably have more climbing too. So what happens when the B ride starts to inflate? Not only does it get faster, it also might get longer and involve harder routes, and I think that is happening as well. That means for the B-paced rides, they also become longer and hillier overall.

So why do so many rides get listed as B rides regardless of their difficulty? In all the years I’ve been in Different Spokes I’ve rarely if ever heard a complaint that a ride wasn’t led fast enough vis-a-vis the ride listing, but I’ve certainly heard complaints about rides being led faster than some riders felt they could handle. Was that misjudging one’s ability, being fooled by the ride listing, or the ambiguity of the pace key? Perhaps all three. Of course participants can ride at whatever pace they’re comfortable doing as long as they know the route or have a map, so the real concern behind the complaint isn’t the pace per se but that getting dropped is lonely and discouraging and not the social experience one is looking for in a group ride, as if being LGBT in the first place—even here in the Bay Area—wasn’t isolating enough. Group rides are inherently social, so when riders can’t keep pace, no matter what the listing, they’re probably not getting the socializing they were hoping for. I’m not blaming ride leaders for this situation: ride leaders who list challenging and fast B rides really do think they are riding at their B pace. But the assessment of pace has been skewed that “moderate” now encompasses such a very wide range of speeds and it isn’t a helpful label.

In my opinion the B rides have become problematic. They’ve become faster, a bit longer, and overall a bit harder. It’s the “moderate” ride but acts more like a “brisk” ride. With the current dearth of A-paced rides, this leaves those who are discouraged by our “moderate” B rides with no alternatives. Has there been a similar speed up on A pace rides? Unfortunately we don’t know because so few A rides are listed these days. Perhaps if enough A rides were led, we might see that they too have undergone inflation and become faster than originally intended. Newer riders probably should be cautioned about B rides even though they are the only viable options in the club given the lack of A rides. Increasing the number of A rides will be difficult given the general lack of interest in leading rides at all coupled with the club’s lack of a core group of ride leaders who like to ride slow(er).

The solution for the meager number of easy, leisurely paced rides, awaits. But the solution is easier for the “fast” B-paced rides. Ride leaders can take a look at the recommended moving average speeds at the club website (and included above) and use it in selecting a pace label rather than basing it on solely on how difficult it feels. If this had been done last year, I suspect that quite a few “B” rides would have been classed as C (or even D!) Note that I’m not suggesting that rides be led slower, just that ride leaders who are entertaining listing a ride at a B pace attentively evaluate whether they are actually going to end up having a ride that conforms to the DSSF ride key—there’s nothing wrong with listing your ride as a C or a D if that’s the pace you plan to take.

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2 thoughts on “What is a Different Spokes Ride?

  1. Ride leaders can post and label their rides according to the speed they anticipate, or according to the type of riders they hope to attract, but in the end the actual speed of the ride will usually be determined by the riders who show up. If mostly slow riders show up it is going to be a slow ride, and if mostly fast riders show up it is going to be a fast ride. If both types show up, you are likely to get riders spread out all over. Most cyclists are going to ride at the speed they are comfortable with regardless of what the post says. And it is probably distance and elevation gain that are the main determinants of what type of riders will show up. Longer rides with more climbing will attract stronger and faster riders while shorter rides with less climbing will attract slower riders.

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  2. What Sal describes is how some Different Spokes rides actually take place: the pace listed in the ride posting has little bearing on the actual pace. But I would hope that ride leaders would describe their rides accurately and that includes the ride key. The ride key is meant to provide guidance for prospective participants just like a menu provides guidance for a diner; imagine ordering fish and then being brought apple pie. Um, this isn’t what I ordered! Riders who can’t keep the actual pace (or handle the actual terrain for that matter) often don’t come back. That’s why the club has a lay reputation for being for fast and “serious” cyclists. If the listed pace is irrelevant to the actual pace, then what purpose does it serve to include it? It would be better to acknowledge that and eliminate it from the ride listing altogether.

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