Starting out in a new anything requires a period of learning and some uncertainty with stepping into the unknown. Being okay with making mistakes and generally stuffing up a few times definitely makes it easier, and this is certainly true with cycling.
Purchasing the correct bike and equipment and learning how to use it is where the journey begins; clipping into pedals, changing a tube, bibs, knicks or baggies, shaved legs.....and then there is the etiquette required when riding with others. This is particularly true when riding in a road bunch.
HOW TO FIND YOUR LOCAL BUNCH
Finding a bunch is certainly applicable to new riders, but also for the experienced arriving in a new city or just travelling and looking for a good ride. Finding people to ride with ain't rocket science, yet if these tips assuage any uncertainty or fear then all is well.
1. Local Bike Shop
Definitely your first stop in any new location. Bike shops are full of avid cyclists and many offer shop rides; road and mountain. When approaching a bike shop be aware that some stores have areas of specialization. For example, in my home town there are MTB stores near the forest and road bike shops along the main road arteries. It makes sense!
2. Google and social media
What can't you find online these days? BikeRoar, Google, Facebook etc. are a handy place to look for your closest LBS online. (BikeRoar has mapping functionality specifically for this purpose - see image). Many stores notify of regular shop rides on their website and Facebook page. It is always a good idea to make contact first and let them know you're coming.
3. On the road
Go for a spin early on the weekend and scope out potential riding routes. Cyclists love the challenge of a climb, so this is a good place to start. This is easier in some places than others of course. Find someone riding and go have a chat. Experienced cyclists often have a wealth of information about their local area.
WHAT TO ASK
1. "What level is the bunch at?"
It is important to get in with the right people. In my experience bunches split into groups of stronger and less strong riders. If you're new go for the beginner or intermediate group. A more casual group is the best place to get a handle on things like hand signals and learning to brake and accelerate smoothly without a "surge". Also getting used to keeping one eye one the wheel in front and one eye on the rest of the road....this is the skill of riding in such close proximity.
TIP: Picking a bunch isn't only about fitness and ability to maintain high speeds; it is also about your bunch riding ability which is a learned skill itself. It's pointless being able to keep up on a climb with the big boys if your riding is so erratic that you take one of them out on the first surge.
2. "What is the typical average speed?"
You should have a fair idea of the average speed you sit on riding alone. Generally it is easier to maintain a higher average than this when sitting on a wheel in a group of riders. Adjust accordingly.
3. "Is it a flat, hilly or mountainous ride?"
Even the strongest of us on the flats go out the back when the road tilts upward. Always ask about the route and see if it is suitable to your ability. There is nothing worse than being dropped on a climb desperately trying to hold someone's.....anyone's wheel. When asking about the bunch just keep in mind what sort of ride you would like to participate in. If you're a mountain goat but did ten bergs on your own yesterday, perhaps an easy flat bunch ride to the cafe would be more the ticket.
4. "Usual Duration?"
Always find out how far the ride will go and for how long. You want to make sure you have adequate water, food and money. Also knowing if you will be home for a shower before going to work is good to know!
"Newbie rules for bunch cycling etiquette" is a good read and outlines some key points to be aware of.
Riding in a large group of riders can be daunting at first, but with some practise becomes easier. Pick your fellow bunch riders brains for advice and pointers to make riding in such close proximity safer and ultimately more enjoyable.
It is your responsibility to ride in a safe manner. A lot of other cyclists depend on it! Following bunch rules ensures everyone is looked after. Leave the hero at home. It is also your responsibility to know your bike and equipment.
MY TWO CENTS: TT and tri bikes have no place in a bunch. These bikes are designed the way they are for a reason: to be aerodynamic because you can't draft when using them in a race! So why are you riding one in a bunch? Makes no sense and is just plain dangerous.
You should always wear a helmet and be self sufficient with food and water and always carry a pump, mini tool and a spare tube. Although your fellow cyclists will lend a hand when in need, it is important to have the skill to look after minor repairs like a punctured tube yourself. Cyclists are a friendly lot and should be approached confidently in the knowledge that you will be looked after.
If you have any other tips for finding a bunch let us know, and please share your own bunch riding beginner stories.