The Decline of the Group Ride?

This week, I got the monthly email newsletter from the Austin Cycling Association, a group I belong to. One item in the missive caught my eye: it said participation in the ACA’s “classic” rides has fallen off considerably. These are group rides the organization (It doesn’t call itself a “club,” so I won’t, either) hosts every Saturday and Sunday. The locations rotate among a couple dozen different spots, and riders can choose from several different distances for each ride.

“Ten or 12 years ago,” said the newsletter, “a typical ACA suburban or country ride would draw 50 or perhaps 70 riders; nowadays, they draw only a dozen or so.” The newsletter expressed bafflement as to why this would be the case.

The ACA is the largest cycling organization in the Austin area, with about 1200 or more members. The rides have always been one of the group’s attractions, so the news that participation was down that much was unexpected.

However, I must admit that although I’ve been a dues-paying member for several years, I myself haven’t taken part in that many rides. When I have, it’s often been because they’re merged with a ride some other group is putting on, such as a training ride for an upcoming charity event. For a couple of years, I’ve resolved to get out on ACA rides more often, because they go to places I rarely ride, and the change of scene would be welcome. But those different places are often 30 or even 40 miles from where I live. In my part of the city, the group doesn’t offer many rides.

Riders mill around before the start of one of our club rides.

Riders mill around before the start of one of our neighborhood club rides.

Those it does put on around my area are routes that I ride a lot — usually with my neighborhood cycling club, so I always go with my club rather than the ACA. And maybe that’s the reason for the decline in ridership. In the five years I’ve been riding, I’ve noticed lots of groups spring up that offer group rides. My neighborhood club is one example. We also have group rides on Saturday and Sunday, and lately, our Saturday rides have grown.

Then there’s the Austin Cycling Meetup group. Meetups are informal gatherings coordinated via a Meetup website — they exist for a wide variety of avocations. The cycling meetup sprang up about five years ago. I’m listed as a Meetup member, but I don’t ride with them anymore, for the same reason as above.

Several bike shops put on their own weekend or weekday evening rides. I’ve been on a few of those. And there are a number of other clubs in the area that all stage their own rides.

I can’t speak for any of the other groups, but my neighborhood club rides attract anywhere from a dozen to three dozen riders on Sunday mornings. That’s dependent on the weather, of course. In fact, I’d say our rides have grown over the last year or so by a little bit. Our Saturday ride had the reputation of being a “fast” ride, but some members will informally post that they’ll be heading out at about the same time, perhaps on a different route, at a different pace, and some of those rides draw decent numbers.

A bright spot in the Austin Cycling Association is the growth of so-called “hosted” rides. These differ from the “classic” rides in that a trained ride leader organizes the ride, they’re rated for speed and climbing, and they’re “no drop” rides. When you go to a classic ride, a ride “starter” furnishes you with a map and cue sheet, says a few words about the route and riding etiquette, and then the riders set off. They separate quickly, and it’s easy to find yourself on your own. I suppose that could be daunting for new riders, but anyone with some experience should be comfortable by themselves, especially with a map to help them out.

So, I don’t quite know what to make of this. Maybe it’s just that people prefer riding in smaller groups. Maybe it’s the early start time — most classic rides start at 8 a.m., which is another reason I’m not likely to drive 30 miles to get there. The ACA seems befuddled by the trend.

What’s your experience in your area? Have you noticed a falloff in group ride numbers? Or are yours flourishing? Are they large rides, or small? Do the routes vary, or are they repeated week to week? Let know in the comments.

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13 thoughts on “The Decline of the Group Ride?

  1. That’s disappointing, especially for such a popular cycling community as Austin. We’ve noticed a similar trend in our area. There were official rides that had good attendance, but they dwindled and most people have their own, smaller groups. There are mailing lists for smaller rides, which will usually attract at most a dozen riders. Of course this is probably just because people want convenience of riding near them with a tight knit group of friends.

    Sometimes people just need to be reminded. Maybe your “club” (or whatever they choose to call themselves) members will get reminded and make more of an effort to get out.

  2. I don’t know if the group here (Indy) has seen numbers go up or down, but most of their rides happen in 2-3 areas, all pretty close to each other. So for those who don’t want to drive 20-30 minutes to go on a ride where “no drops” doesn’t mean anything, it is tough to want to participate. Some of the shops here have rides, but not on a consistent basis. I most often see riders in groups of 2-5 vs large groups.

  3. I’ll be honest, if it wasn’t that the local club does, “work with the local and state governments for bicycling causes, we’d NOT bother being members. The rides are too fast paced and the “no drop” is a JOKE! It’s no drop as long as you “keep the pace”, if not, your left behind and get berated about “not keeping up”!! The ride schedule is a PIA, Sat. is just a “training ride”, Sunday is a social ride but it’s the “no drop” ride I stated above and it doesn’t START till 1PM, to late in the day. Personally I WISH there was a “neighborhood” club but we live in a pretty poor area, LOL, they tell us our bikes are “EXPENSIVE”, we have “entry level” (600 to 800 dollar) hybrids!

    We are recreational riders, not into the “Train for Pain” type rides that seem to make up the local club so we RARELY ride with them. We do go to club social events and help out for club projects but otherwise we can’t find other’s like US, we seem to be in weird bicycle twilight zone, LOL. I’ve actually TRIED to quit the club, turned in my club jersey, ect. but they wanted to keep us around as we are the “Token Car-Free” riders and they like using us as an example for some odd reason. Luckly the dues is very cheap. I’m glad you’ve got a “neighborhood club” to ride with! :)

  4. The fact that the reason for the dropoff remains a mystery tells me ACA has failed to do even basic research into what their group membership wants. This is typical of volunteer organizations, which rarely have the time or expertise to do proper market research and are then befuddled as to why interest in their “product” wanes.

    If you were to drop your cell service, cable company, magazine subscription, or many other commercial services you subscribe to, the company (a good one, anyway) would contact you to find out why you left and what they could do to earn your business again.

    ACA ride membership is 20% of what it was ten or twelve years ago. In the corporate world, that means bankruptcy. I think its time for ACA to start innovating and updating its “product” for today’s market or become completely irrelevant.

    • The ACA is more than rides. It’s a bike advocacy group, an education organization, a philanthropic organization (giving out free helmets to kids). And as I mentioned, their hosted rides are doing well. I think the ACA is far from “bankruptcy.” It’s just that one of its signature efforts is taking a hit.

      • I think I get it. All the same, I believe the analogy holds. If a major product line is failing, a company would be intensely interested to know why. They would then face the choice of either improving their product or getting out of that particular market.

  5. I don’t think it’s a decline in group rides but rather quite the opposite, the increase of group rides. There are a lot more to choose from than there was 12 years ago. The concentration of riders has been spread out among the various group rides that has popped up.

    Down here in South Texas I have seen the social group ride for Ciclistas Urbanos fluctuate in riders on a week by week basis. Many are out training (with other clubs) for the upcoming century rides while others are doing their bucket list and don’t have time for a social ride.

    One last comment, I don’t think any of the groups here charge dues. All of the groups are volunteer based even for those providing SAG. Is that a common practice in other areas?

      • It’s worth pointing out that you do not have to be an ACA member to attend their rides. I attended lots of rides before I finally decided that I should be contributing to the cause. I tend to prefer the ACA hosted rides over the classic because they are “no drop” (which is certainly true for the ACA hosted rides I have attended).

  6. I’m an ACA member and started doing some of their classic rides but no longer do. I also used to do some of the regular shop rides. I have recently done some o the hosted rides. They were faster paced than expected but with a large group we never had issues splitting the group.

    It’s probably true for many people that we find ourselves with less time than we would like to have for our hobbies. So unless I can ride to the ride or it’s a reasonable car trip to the start (if it’s an early start I drive,) I don’t attend many group rides.

    I do like the option of having a rotating schedule with a variety of group rides in scenic areas with nice rest or half-way stops but the reality is that if I have 2-6 hours to ride I can just ride from my house to many of the same destinations including MTB trails.

    ACA’s cake is the advocacy, the rides are the icing IMO.

  7. Maybe I should not have been surprised. Five or six years ago, a “classic” ride would draw 35-50 riders. But note that there were four rides per week: two on Saturday, two on Sunday. That figures to 120-200 “rider-days” per week. In 2012, ACA held almost 600 rides – that’s an average of over ten rides per week. We normally see 12 to 20 folks on hosted rides;
    that indicates total ridership is still somewhere around 120-200 rider-days per week. It seems we have just siphoned riders from the classic rides to the hosted. Since most of the hosted rides are in Austin proper, I had somehow expected the classic rides (usually starting in suburbia) to have stayed the same. Not so.
    For those who have not tried a hosted ride, they are quite a bit more social. They routinely start and end someplace where you can socialize and eat afterward – mine use Mozart’s Coffee shop. William Hudson’s generally stop at Houndstooth Coffee or Pacha’s. Eileen Schaubert’s usually end at Mellow Johnny’s where there is an excellent espresso shop. Our initial goal was to have so many hosted ride start locations around the greater Austin area that no one would ever need to drive to a ride start. We’re not there yet, but we’re still working on it.

    • Stanton is the president of the Austin Cycling Assn. (He was also my instructor way back in 2008 when I took the Road I course — now Traffic Skills 101 — offered through ACA.)

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