“We get riders of all ages and abilities, from local pros to guys on their first group ride at all. Our customers get to ride fast, get faster, and see what the word is on new products.”

Cody Sovis of Traverse City, Michigan’s Einstein Cycles is talking about Einstein’s shop-run group rides. His response to my questions is detailed, his excitement clear even in an email. It isn’t just Sovis who’s enthused about shop group rides. Many retailers are eager to share the ways that shop-sponsored rides have opened up new avenues for connecting with their customers.

Like bike shops everywhere, Einstein Cycles helps customers find the right bike, fits it to them properly, maintains it, and outfits riders with the accessories that will make riding it a comfortable, fun experience. This is the core function of a shop, of course, but even the youngest shop rat understands that a bike shop is more than that. A bike shop is an epicenter of the local bike community, a place for cyclists to get acquainted with the latest products, catch up with friends, tell war stories about epic rides, and create the local scene. A bike shop is a community in itself. Many stores serve coffee, food and sometimes even beer to encourage this aspect of their existence, and bike maintenance classes serve a similar function. Even so, it can be hard to find ways to connect with customers and still have fun. Many shops find that group rides are the sweet spot between their business and the love of bikes that powers it.

And that is where Einstein Cycles finds itself…in the sweet spot. “Guys are always looking over to see what everyone is riding, what new stuff guys have picked up, and to gather just some tips and tricks,” says Sovis. “We get a lot out of it as riders, too. A lot of us race, and it gives our race team a 40–45 minute hard effort before a race weekend. It’s also a sure-fire way to catch up with pals and meet new folks.”

Sovis seems like the kind of guy who would ride his bike most evenings and weekends anyway, so perhaps he’s getting as much out of it as his customers. But, he points out, “for the shop, it has done wonders to build a culture that people want to be involved in and we have a ton of sales directly related to this, from Bar Mitts and lights to bikes. We’ve found that if I’m using some new tires, or our owner is on a new seat, or JW is on a new bike, people have a lot of questions. It’s a great no-pressure setting to talk about the stuff they’re interested in, away from the shop.” Einstein has seen both cultural and financial payoffs from their group rides so they have invested in them, with regular rides year ‘round centered on different kinds of riding, some combining shorter and longer routes on the same ride to ensure everyone finishes around the same time. They even offer several different stage competitions, with a points system and winners posted to a leader board.

Not every shop has the means to take on such an ambitious endeavor, but even for those that do getting started can be the hard part. “We started our Tuesday and Thursday night training rides within one month of opening in March 2005,” says Tim Casady of Nebo Ridge Bicycles in Carmel, Indiana. “There was one night where I was the only one to ride. Another night I remember two of us.” But, says Casady, “for the past three years our Thursday night ride has topped out at 270 [riders] and averages 200 from May through August. Our Tuesday night ‘world championship’ averages 125 participants.”

One-to-two hundred riders for a weekly ride? Clearly they’re on to something. For many shops, the key is to target audiences and tailor rides around them. “Our Thursday night ride is one of the few training rides where there is something for everyone,” says Casady, “from the 13–14 mph fun and fitness 17 mile [ride] to the racy group which consists mostly of cat. 2–4 racers who will ride either a 30 or 36 mile course.”

Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin, Texas is another shop that builds rides for specific types of riders. “We try to make sure that we have something available for every level of rider,” says BSS’s Joyce Nugent. With rides throughout the week for all levels of rider, Bicycle Sport Shop’s group rides sound like a pretty serious operation. But, Nugent points out, most are ‘smaller’ rides, averaging 12–30 people, and spread out over three stores. Still, some rides prove to be more popular than others and it’s interesting to see how Bicycle Sport Shop’s focus on different types of riders has paid off for the customers as well as the shop. “Beginners and women tend to feel intimidated by many established group rides and we needed to give them more opportunities to come out, feel successful, learn some skills and ‘graduate’ to the next level,” says Nugent. “Two years ago, we started a women’s ride day once a month. During the 2013 season, we averaged between 100 and 150 women on this ride every month. The interesting thing is that we have a co-ed ride that leaves from the same store and does the same route EVERY Saturday, and none of these women participate in it. When we make it exclusively female, they come in droves.”

The results are impressive, illustrating success in something many shops struggle with: appealing to hard-to-reach customers. But while getting people to show up is one thing, keeping them is another.

There are several solutions. The first may seem obvious, but it bears keeping in mind: don’t leave anyone behind. At the start each ride share your route and identify ride leaders. A guide who knows how to set a proper pace for his or her group is vital, and for longer rides or larger groups it’s important to have a ‘sweeper’ to ride last or retrace the route to help anyone who may have fallen off the back.

Another key is to offer challenge. “Our Team Unlikely Cyclist is more than a standard shop ride,” says Lisa Kanno of Unlikely Cyclist in Costa Mesa, California. “This women-only team trains together towards a specific goal: a century, or a metric, etc.” Sovis and Nugent spoke of similar approaches, designing their rides to help people learn new skills and push their comfort level a bit.

Some shops offer discounts to regular participants to encourage sales (and sometimes to volunteer guides who keep rides manageable), and all can profit from sales before and after rides, but providing a complete experience is the real goal. Many shops combine rides with seminars or classes. Unlikely Cyclist, for example, hosts free workshops about relevant topics such as nutrition and training, as well as skills clinics for fixing flats, climbing, road safety, and more. Savvy shops foster the idea of their shop being a local cycling resource, as opposed to just a place to buy stuff.

Finally, of course, a proper group ride wouldn’t be complete without some camaraderie at the end. Some groups do little more than toss back a couple beers while others finish with barbecue cooked by the man or woman who fixes bikes during the day, but all end with easy conversation in the post ride glow.

Riding is such a basic part of shop life that it can be easy to overlook what group rides can do for your business. Some shops’ rides are more impromptu occurrences than actual events, while others invest in highly developed campaigns, but it doesn’t take an MBA to see that people like to ride together. Group rides engage customers and energize employees. In the end you have to do what’s right for your store, but regardless how detailed and organized your ride is, the benefits are easy to see on riders’ faces—and on your bottom line.

Tips For Successful Group Rides

Keep It Fun    You invited them, so make sure they feel welcome and safe. Don’t compete with riders, encourage them. Ride leaders should set a reasonable pace for the groups they guide. Take a head count or roll call before and after rides of medium-to-large groups. Also crucial is a ‘caboose’ or ‘sweeper’ to make sure stragglers are not left in the dust. And try to set distances and ride pacing so that riders finish together.

Provide Challenge    Some shops offer race-training rides while others keep track of stats and progress. Seek feedback from participants and adjust your approach to keep them interested so you can help people develop their skill and confidence.

Educate    Whether you offer classes and seminars or simply engage in casual conversations as you ride, information is one of the main reasons riders show up.

Offer Variety    Plan rides for different skill levels. Mix up the types of rides you offer. Plan new routes for established rides.

Tailor Rides    Target racers, newer riders, and underserved cyclists. The results may surprise you.

Promote Your Rides    Utilize your website, social media, newsletters, and one-on-one conversations to encourage participation.

Consider the Possibilities    Most rides tend to run about an hour. Consider offering longer rides such as half day supported excursions or guided overnights. Another idea is to use rides as an opportunity to let people ride stuff you sell. Einstein Cycles maintains a demo fleet to give participants access to bikes and equipment they’d like to try before investing in.

Legal and Medical Concerns    Carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Bring a cell phone. Check with legal resources in your state for waivers and advice that will help you mitigate issues of injuries to your staff and customers.

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