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Don't Fear the Sweeper: The Fine Art of No-Drop Rides and Skates

roadskater's picture

We roadskaters have at times had social skates at Country Park and elsewhere (NYC Central Park in Manhattan, Philly, Miami, DC). These events are great fun but it is always hard for us to find a true sweep who doesn't mind being at the back. In Manhattan, I have fond memories of a man a bit older than even myself who rode his bike quite happily at the back of several hundred skaters. He was always smiling, wearing his Aqueduct tee, with his nice easy way.

Sometimes at Country Park, we'd have trouble going slowly enough to keep the group together, so we found that waiting at the tops of hills worked pretty well. But it was hard for the speedsters to wait for the back skaters, then give them some time to catch their breath, too. Of course, sometimes would just count on us all being there at the same 1.6 mile loop and just blast it individually.

But that's not a no-drop roadskate, so when we encouraged people to come out and promised not to drop them, it was important to:

  • Stop often to regroup at tops instead of bottoms of hills.
  • Keep a governor on the skaters up front.
  • Lacking cue sheets, have at least one person at each turn wait for the sweep.
  • Never never never have the sweep ahead of anyone else.

Never having the sweep ahead of anyone is important if you want people to enjoy the ride and to come back. If you don't care about them, just leave them; problem solved. Even if that isn't what you meant, that's how they'll take it.

By the way, in New York City, I recall that the one who waited at turns often would sprint to the next turn then wait.

We failed plenty of times. Sweeping is the hardest and most important and sometimes thankless job available. But it can change someone's life, too, for the better.

We went to events like the Philly Freedom Skate and were amazed at the organization and the shepherding. It seemed they had rotating sweeps so nobody was at the back all the time, and once relieved, a person who had been sweeping would sprint to the front. The Philly Landskaters and National Skate Patrol really showed it could be done with hundreds of skaters of differing skill and fitness levels.


Leader, Sweep and Rover

Last weekend we got a glimpse of the similarities among skating and cycling groups when eebee and I participated in two of the Up2Speed rides. I stressed the "no drop" feature on RSN2.com and we talked a friend who rides into joining us. Eebee and I had fun on both skrides, more fun on the Sunday ride I think, though the Polar 720i HRM says Sunday was a harder ride by 300 calories or about 30%, at least for me.

I want to make it clear that I appreciate the time people volunteer, and we skaters sure do appreciate you letting us join you. But we'd like to share what we heard from various people and what we observed, plus we are offering to help.

Thanks to the ride leaders, all of them. No matter what else I might say, thank you. We appreciate your time and effort. And we'd like to help you help others. When we can join in, we'll help with sweeping if you need us to. But every Up2Speed should have a real sweep, or maybe two.

Perhaps what the successful skate leaders have done is have a leader, a sweep and a rover. I seem to recall this. The rover could drop back or speed up, and eventually become the sweep, so the former sweep can play rover for awhile, maybe even going up front to be leader. Seems like a fun solution that I'm sure I must not have come up with just now. I seem to recall skating by Grant's Tomb with a group configured thus. Hmm....

For those considering an Up2Speed ride, in case you're wondering if they'll drop you, the answer was yes on Saturday and not exactly on Sunday, where the back group or some contingent of them decided on a shortcut. This means the slowest rider who wanted to do the whole route might have ended up unsupported had they not opted to shorten their ride. But I don't believe this happened.

That does not mean you will be dropped on every Up2Speed ride. There have been Up2Speed rides where nobody was dropped and I believe no one abandoned, either. I submit that getting dropped leads one to abandon...to take the shortest known route back to the car saying stuff like, "Fool me once...."

Saturday, leaving from Cycles de Oro

On Saturday, we joined the ride with a team member on a new commuter bike who was going to enjoy a nice easy roll, knowing there'd be no pressure to be faster and that even if she would have been last, on this ride she'd be tied for last.

It didn't turn out that way, and I made a crucial bad decision which we regretted later to just trust that the sweep would take care of our buddy. We made this selfish choice in spite of the fact we saw the sweep behind us at a traffic light, but there had to be at least four other riders behind us at that point...nowhere in sight. Again I appreciate the sweep being there for the ride, and it is my bad not to go back to the back of the group or at least to ask what was going on.

We should have at that moment just turned around to become the sweeps without even commenting while this group trying to get up to speed was still trying.

There had been a point where we would have been lost from the route downtown without a cue sheet, as we were too slow for the fast group and too fast for the slow group it seems, and nobody was waiting at turns. Knowing this, we still selfishly continued on our merry way believing there would soon be another group-up soon.

Perhaps we could have kept the slow group going and not exposed to traffic, but our experience is that traffic gets less upset with cyclists at the back of a line than they do skaters. That was our excuse. As it was, we figured four riders and a sweep were behind us.

Out into the country we had a nice time, passing one rider who had a flat tire. Knowing there was help coming and that we had neither tools nor expertise, we continued on.

Kudos for the leader and sweep who handed everyone cue sheets, because we were alone a long time. It helped to know how far it was to the next turn. That was a huge help and probably saved a few people from becoming lost from the route. Nice job.

We caught up with the fast group along the access road beside I-40 at Lee Street at a hotel, then tried to reach our teammate on the cell, but there was no answer. After many minutes, the ride leader decided to go back on the course to find the sweep and the rest of the riders, telling the frontsters how to get back to the shop with someone as new ride leader, I guess. I'm sure they all were fine and had a nice ride back as they were similar in speed and didn't seem like new riders.

We decided to stay and wait for our teammate, the leader, the sweep, the flat tire rider and, we thought, the rest of those getting Up2Speed. I got a call back from our teammate but didn't hear the ringer, so eebee called again to find our friend was home, having ridden back across town alone to get the car and go home. Not exactly what a new rider or a rider coming back after the winter is expecting from a no-drop ride.

As far as we could tell, four riders abandoned and made their way back across the city alone or in very small groups maybe, without the rest of us knowing. I really wish we had been back there helping out, and I'd like to apologize to all of those who gave up without any help. Send site feedback or email me and we'll go out on a skride at your pace. Just don't give up. Then help someone else get started.

As we sat out by the Interstate on the access road we finally saw the leader and sweep returning. I never asked if they had spoken personally with any of the other riders or just decided they must have gone back to the bike shop, but somehow they must have spoken to at least one person who passed along a message from our teammate.

Thanks to the sweep, leader, and flat-tire rider for sticking with us to the end. We made a nice group of five and while they might've been able to go faster, I don't think I could have done much more near the end, particularly after the long wait at the hotel. (Excuses!)

We skated the rest of the way back from I-40 at Lee Street east of town, back along some nice roads south of the Interstate and back into town by Bennett College, the train station, up Church to Fisher Park, across to the doggie day care on Battleground and up Battleground Ave to Mill Street, where we turned left to go to CdO.

We had a nice day, but regretted leaving our teammate, so we drove up to Bur-Mil to do a skride (skate-ride) for just the three of us and had a nice time there on Owl's Roost Road and along the trail.

Sunday, leaving from Jaycee Park

We managed to get ourselves going in time for the 1pm start from the Spencer Love Tennis Center and were happy to see some of the same faces, with some new ones too. It's really nice to have these shorter rides available, and I think 15-milers are a nice length for Up2Speed rides.

We asked the sweep if they were going to remain at the back and we also offered to be a real sweep if they needed that. They said no, they were really going to make sure not to drop anyone. We were glad we could continue in our selfish ways.

There were not enough cue sheets for everyone, but we managed to get our paws on one from the leader, who had one extra and very happily offered it despite my protestations.

When a new rider asked how long the 15 miles (turned out to be 16) would take, the sweep estimated no more than an hour and twenty minutes. I thought this an unusual bit of optimistic precision, and it sounded like these new riders were expected to go 11.25 mph average including stops.

I knew from the day before that anyone getting up to speed, not riding a multithousand dollar bike, not wearing Lycra, not used to the roads and the hills even around Country Park and Battleground, and perhaps with not enough electrolytes along, would find 7.5 to 8mph or so to be fast enough. That would be two hours. So I wondered how that would work out.

We went through Country Park and over through the Battleground Park, which was a treat. Much to our great pleasure the ride leader had us all wait as we exited the park at Old Battleground. As the last rider arrived, there was the sweep. Perfection!

We headed out Lake Brandt to Air Harbor the usual way, and actually grouped up at Air Harbor in the turn lane. Once again the sweep was last as far as we could tell. Excellent.

Heading out Air Harbor there was some Slinkying but this was to be expected in a group where the leader is keeping the group together in nice order. We were passed some on the uphills, then on the long, gentle downhill to Church Street, we floated out along beside the riders and coasted along past the front, as did a tandem on the ride. Roadskaters seem more similar to tandems on the ups and downs as we have less air resistance and can join our masses together (my mass being the greater portion most often) to overcome that resistance.

At the old brick house or school or church (anyone know what the old part of that structure was?) we apologized for getting ahead of our leader, who said no problem. I went on and he said well when you pass us again we're turning at so and so street, smiling.

He knew what I should have known: we were heading for the downhill to the lake, where we would fly away from this leisurely peleton (who likely was taking it very easy and maybe even had brakes on some to stay grouped) only to be caught and destroyed on the other side. What great fun for us on the way down and for them to have us as targets on the way up!

We headed back into scenes of prior pain and that long slog up to Pisgah Church along Elm Street. Memories of Gatorades past, skating into the store on a helmet-frying day for some brainfreeze. After the light greened, we dropped over and down nicely most of the way it seemed to a right on Willoughby, whereupon we found our group gathered and smiling. We had maintained contact with the front group most of the way on this section, and we noted how nice it was to find someone at the turn to help us see it before going by.

After many minutes it seemed we got word somehow that the sweep had led a group back via a shortcut, along Pisgah Church we think, more directly back to the park. So that's how you get back on a 15-mile ride in an hour and twenty. The important part is the shepherding, so kudos to the sweep for taking care of the most important riders in an event like this...the ones at the back.

Unfortunately after waving at passing cars and making jokes and taking photos and goofing off instead sitting under a tree, locking up a bit during the wait for the slower folk, "knowing" we would not be last, we ended up being last again. It's a situation we don't like because we don't like to hold up the ride. Nobody does, I guess, which is why it is so hard to get new riders to come out for fear of being last, then dropped.

This time, Tour to Tanglewood veterans Jeff L and Jeff W became our champions. Jeff L became the de facto sweep, and Jeff W marked a tricky turn and stayed with us most of the time back to Lawndale. I needed a couple of minutes along the way to gather my heartrate, then we made it back to Lawndale left and right into Country Park's south entrance, up one hill and left to Jaycee Park's rough lot to the rest of the riders that remained.

Afterward we talked with the ride leader, Eddy B, and thanked him for the nice, steady pace and wonderfully friendly atmosphere of the ride. I asked if he had been watching his speedometer, but he said he had just been looking in the mirror to try to keep the front group together. He did a fine job, I'd say. 

Hopefully this year we skaters will start doing a slow skride starting from the Depot where we stay together and regroup more often. The sprinters can sprint and wait if they like. We want to do a historic route that we've been testing, finishing up at a nearby eating establishment with much fried foods. We'll see if we can get any riders to come along. We hope so.

Overall, we had three nice skates in two days, and the Up2Speed rides were fun for us, even if we ended up at the back after others abandoned. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have calories to burn before I sleep.

It's all part of getting going enough to hang on at the Tour to Tanglewood training rides and hopefully not be at the back, and to be ready for the 90 miles in two days of the Tour to Tanglewood and the 87 miles in one day of the Athens to Atlanta Roadskate in Georgia.

The Up2Speed rides are a great idea and we enjoyed them. With a little more focus on gathering up more often and on sweeping, the rides will be a wonderful service provided to new riders.

Thanks again, GVC, and thanks again to ride leaders and sweeps everywhere. And of course, as always, thanks to Dale Brown and Cycles de Oro for all they do for cyclists from beginners to local pro riders.

As for me, I need to do a better job of encouraging beginners, and the best way is to hang out and talk and share the road. 

Skateylove, Blake


eebee's picture

Glad for the opportunity of the Up2speed rides!

What a great way to get in some intermediate roadskate training in the Spring, sandwiched between cyclists. It's hard to find such long uphills in a park or other closed course, or trail. I am very thankful to the cyclists for letting us join in.


It's tricky and I agree wholeheartedly with Blake's comment about motorists being less tolerant of skaters on the road in front of them than cyclists, but I wish we had become the sweeps on Saturday also. And for the first time in several decades I found myself wishing I had a bike to ride so I could have kept those four or five company who abandoned the ride when the sweep got about half a mile ahead of them.


In this country people are so darned sedentary, or sit-entary, since we have to sit wherever we go. Exercise is mostly socially approved if it takes place on a machine that doesn't go anywhere inside a gym, and we journey to these gyms by sitting in our vehicles. So whenever anybody wants to go outside to get in shape, it makes me want to shout from the rooftops, or help them by accompanying them so they don't give up. Sweeping kindness was extended to me when I was a beginner skater, by various members of either the Atlanta Peachtree Roadrollers, or the Atlanta Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training skaters. These speed-skate veterans donned their old rec skates for the occasion (newbie 'group training session', or 'Monday night beginner skate', as I had seen advertized on their website). On their rec skates were the most ratty, worn-out and miniscule wheels ever. This made it much harder for them to be 'fast': i.e. the newbies didn't lose heart and nobody ever, to my knowledge, was abandoned. They switched back to their speedskates of course for their own intense and vigorous training sessions.


When I first started taking part in downtown group roadskates, I yearned to be as fit and fast as the others, and even to look half as competent and stable as they did. Knowing that at that point I was far from it, led me to feelings of inadequacy and fear of not fitting in. Without the sweeps and patient souls encouraging me for many months, I may very well have given up, deciding 'well this isn't for me...who did I think I was, coming out here all flabby...and look at them, all fit...' :-)



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