Saturday, January 21, 2023

"Managed" Finishes: Good Or Bad?

The Gorge Gravel Grinder has three distances
Over the past week a few media outlets in the realm of cycling have been promoting a story about a new "managed finish" (my words) element to an event in the Oregon Gravel series called the Gorge Gravel Grinder

Essentially how it works in a nutshell is that people who sign up for this will get a lead rider who is to set a predetermined pace and there will be a follow-up rider who will help to keep said paced group together. 

This is being done to, "help participants stay on track to reach a specific finish time, help take the nerves out of gravel riding and racing by offering an inviting and inclusive, beginner-friendly supportive riding environment while promoting the camaraderie that makes the gravel community so spectacular", according to an article from

They call these "pace groups" and they market them as "freight trains of fun". Other objectives of this initiative are to "... ensure participants complete the course and meet their goals", and to raise the level of female participation to 50% of field limits.  

Comments: First off, I was a bit puzzled by the author of the linked article when the so-called "pace groups" were suggested to be analogous to gravel riding/racing because, "The experience of gravel racing is often likened to running a marathon."

I've been around gravel riding and racing for many years and I have never heard this before. If anyone reading this can give me some context for this quote, I am all ears and eyes here. Maybe I am out of touch....

Riders in a group from T.I.v10
Secondly, the idea of "pace groups" in gravel racing is not new at all, despite what the article, the event, or anyone else seems to think.  It's just that previous to this event's announcement, those "pace groups" were allowed to form organically. There never has been any need to make "pace groups" a managed part of an event because event organizers did not make rules against this, and in fact, many early gravel races and rides actually encouraged such behavior. 

Also, having been in these groups inside events before, and having observed how they have worked in Trans Iowa over the course of 14 years, I think I can speak to a few points concerning this effort by Gorge Gravel Grinder.

First of all, let me say that I have no real problem with the idea of "pace groups", but trying to manufacture and manage such things is a bit of a problem, in my opinion. I have done "managed pace groups" while doing several "no-drop" events over the years, and so I think I can speak to this with some authority.

And that's a great point here. That being that, whatever you want to call this which is to occur at Gorge Gravel Grinder, it is essentially a "no-drop" ride within the event. Or, maybe several no-drop rides, depending on how they break things up. No-drop rides are not at all uncommon, and they do exactly what the organizers are after- They help ensure riders meet goals and finish rides. So, really, that's all this is. 

The problem is that if their groups get too big, they are going to need more leaders and more sweepers for each "pace", or speed of group. And I would imagine Gorge Gravel Grinder has a time stamp, (they mention "specific finish times") so you need to herd all these cats within a certain time frame. What is "too big" in terms of a group? Well, for best results? I'd say 20 riders, or less, for a leader and a sweeper. Especially if you are rolling within a larger group. 

But I have even more questions about this idea. How does a time limit affect riders? (Gotta pick up the pace if there are too many stops?) Can groups stop or is that not allowed? What if one or two have mechanicals? Does the rest of the group stop? Do you lose your sweeper if that happens? What about a rider that is having a bad day? Or a rider becomes too slow for the group because they over-estimated their ability to hold the specified pace?  Do you shed riders and leave them to fend for themselves? (Doubtful, given the stated goals here for the Gorge Gravel Grinder)

A "pace group" ride I used to put on called "The Geezer Ride'.

Here's a "for instance" from a "pace group" ride I used to put on called the "Geezer Ride". It was for those who did not want to race, who wanted a "no-drop", no rider left behind experience, and at a casual pace. I ensured people would finish, and at whatever cost that came at, that's what was going to happen.

At one particular Geezer Ride we had a rider that was inexperienced, a "virgin" gravel rider, and was not a finely tuned athlete. In fact, this rider was already telling me to go ahead and leave them behind at the ride's start because they did not expect to be able to keep up. But I was committed to seeing this person finish. And I was successful in managing this for that rider and all the others there that day. 

But we were sloooow! We stopped. A lot! So, because a Geezer Ride had no time stamp, no "finish" to make in a certain time, I could leave that part to chance. But when you have event volunteers, infrastructure to tear down after an event, and after-event things like social activities or podium ceremonies, can you allow a managed group to have that sort of luxury? 

To my way of thinking, you have to game plan for things like slow riders, over-zealous riders, mechanicals, and making time cuts for end-of-event reasons. You cannot expect volunteers to just hang because a managed pace group is slower than they thought they would be, unless.....

Unless you are willing to allow for failure. In my mind, in an event like Gorge Gravel Grinder, the element of failure should be a part of that event. Failure to finish should never be seen in a negative light, and actually, it can be the best thing that ever could have happened for some riders. At the worst, it should be a lesson for a rider to learn from. But, if the goal is to "make sure everyone finishes", then you lose a valuable asset that gravel grinding, and well, life, has in store for us. That being the chance to learn, to grow, and to have clarity from failures that you otherwise wouldn't have gained. 

And that is an essential element of gravel grinding. Without failure, you lose a big part of what makes gravel riding and racing what it was, and has become. That said, I think there is a part to play for no-drop rides as well. It just shouldn't be considered a part of, or analogous to doing, any racing event or challenge. Failure should be an option, and it shouldn't be feared, or held against anybody. That's being "inclusive".


Nooge said...

I think their heart is in the right place, but I agree the execution is questionable. I don’t see how many people unfamiliar with the course and it’s condition would accurately determine what finish time was right for them. That alone will make it difficult to form reasonably well-matched groups.

I think they would be much better off just letting the groups form naturally on the road. Do 3 to 5 starting waves based on self selected category. Something like “super fast”, “fast”, “spirited”, and “social” would do. That would reduce congestion and the smaller groups will form naturally from those larger ones. And of course some people dropped from the faster groups can hang on to the later groups.

Jon Bakker said...

To put the best construction on what they seem to be trying to do...I have seen in some big marathons (especially big ones people use to qualify for Boston, etc) that they have official pacers who actually run with big signs showing their intended race pace (3 hrs; 3 hrs 10 mins; 3 hrs 20 mins; etc.). Keep up with that person and they will take care of the pacing issue. I can see its appeal in a cycling event, too, but have never heard of a back-of-the-pack sweeper in a marathon pace group. My understanding is that if you are in the 3hr group and start having problems, you might end up running on with the 3h10m group when they catch you...then the 3h20m group...and so on. I imagine they sweep after the race is complete to ensure no racer is left behind and to clean up, just like in many cycling races.

Where I see this failing is that you can't really make (or keep!) a promise that a group of people will finish at a pre-set time. There are just too many variables. If the group must stay together, then a flat or a cramp could throw the group off the pace. If they have to stop for 10 minutes unexpectedly, and then try to catch back up to the pace to finish on time...that's a recipe for disaster of another kind. Goals are great, but as you said, planning for failure is important. And cycling race pacing is a pretty safe spot for people to experience failure - and then learn and grow from that. Failing at meeting a goal does not make a person a failure, and there's no better environment than cycling to find people who will champion and encourage you to keep going, building that resilience in you. If we don't fail sometimes we aren't really challenging ourselves or pushing ourselves to grow.

NY Roll said...

I will save mycomments for the podcast, because I imagine we will chat about this topic.

Guitar Ted said...

@Nooge - Yeah, I think how things fall into place organically during these events is a big part of what makes gravel riding and racing so special. When we try to make things happen to mimic what happens organically we often fail at the task and create something else altogether. That can be a good, or a bad thing, but it most often is not what the original intentions were about.

Guitar Ted said...

@Jon Baker - Thanks for that explanation of pace groups from a marathoners viewpoint. I did not know about any of that.

This seems out of touch with what made/makes riding gravel or racing on gravel a special thing. In my opinion, the smaller "pace groups" that form organically stop together, help each other out with flat tires or mechanicals, and are kind of a rolling therapy group there to help encourage you. I'd find that to be sorely missing if the group was left to being a large one, or had to just shed off riders that weren't keeping up. (Which reminds me of my roadie group ride experiences) and would be a terrible experience compared to my experiences in gravel over the years.

And failure: I agree with you there. It also comes in with the group when riding in gravel events. Those hard times when the group has to let someone go to keep pace. I've heard and read accounts from Trans Iowa dealing with this, and it is a thing that touches not only the person getting dropped, but the group as well. It's a very precious thing, in my opinion, and managed pace groups would be hard pressed to organically replicate this effect because everything would fall to the pace leader to decide. (Another major downfall of this idea, to my mind)

Thanks again for your help in explaining this idea from the marathon world.

Guitar Ted said...

@N.Y. Roll - Oh yeah! And I have more to say that I did not say here. Like: "How does a managed pace group invite more women to sign up for an event and isn't that idea a bit demeaning?"

teamdarb said...

This sounds more like a randonneur influence...aka Flechè.