7 tips on training with a slower partner (or significant other)

Don't let mountain biking ruin your relationship. Instead heed this advice

How To
When it comes to riding with a slower partner, communication and empathy are the keys to keeping it fun for all.

When it comes to riding with a slower partner, communication and empathy are the keys to keeping it fun for all (click to enlarge).

The agitation starts to simmer. You watch your riding partner create more distance between the two of you every minute until the angry internal monologue starts running: “You never wait for me. I’m so slow. Why do I ride with you? This always happens. I’m tired. I’m not having fun. Screw this, I want to go home!”

Sound familiar? Almost all of us have had this experience riding with a stronger rider, and those heated thoughts intensify when it’s a spouse or significant other. People joke that the ultimate test of a relationship is to ride with your partner. During my nine years racing at the pro level, I’ve been in both situations (slower and faster). Both have taught me a lot.

Here are some guidelines on how to train or ride with a partner, spouse, or friend to help make your rides together more fun. First off know that in most cases, your faster partner likely has no idea they’re crushing your soul. Indeed, they’re probably oblivious to the fact that you are frustrated.

Ladies, this applies to you, too! It’s not always the men who are faster. But in my experience, men tend to deal with their frustration when they are falling behind in different ways. My husband Matt and I each have days where one person is riding faster than the other and both have had to figure out how to communicate.

A successful and fun ride with someone who is at a different fitness or ability level than you boils down to two key things: empathy and communication. Before you ride, it’s important to have a conversation about expectations. Don’t wait until you start riding when fatigue and emotions can make a mess of things. Here are seven more important tips to follow.

1. Assure Proper Bike Set-Up

This especially applies when riding with a beginner. Do not assume that they know about tire pressure or have mechanical skills. Ask them if they are comfortable on their bike and do a regular maintenance check just like you would with your own bike. Take note if they are on a hardtail and you are on a full suspension. Consider what the descents will be like for them with the equipment they have and choose the best option.

Before the ride starts, make sure your partner's bike is properly set-up and maintained.

Before the ride starts, make sure your partner’s bike is properly set-up and maintained (click to enlarge).

2. On-Trail Advice – Yes or No?

There’s nothing worse than someone giving you unwelcome, unsolicited advice when you are struggling. I personally love pointers or constructive feedback, but it can be really difficult to receive feedback if you have a tendency to get frustrated easily. If you want your more skilled partner to give you advice, tell them your expectations in advance so you don’t feel like you’re getting picked on if they start chiming in about your cornering technique or bike/body positioning.

3. Plan the Pace

First, decide if you are going to actually ride together. When someone invites me to ride, I expect to ride with them, not 30 feet in front or behind. If you both don’t care if one person is way ahead and one is behind, then communicate that. I have been guilty of telling someone to “go ahead” but ended up enraged on the inside because they either weren’t stopping to wait soon enough or they were simply riding too far ahead.

If you’re the slower rider, do not feel guilty for asking them to wait or ride with you. It’s okay to change your mind mid-ride, too. Or, if you want to just start and end together, communicate that as well. Pacing can be one of the most frustrating issues when riding (and especially racing) with a partner. I know it’s been my biggest hurdle.

One option is to have the slower rider go first on the trail, which allows them to set the pace so that they aren’t struggling to keep up with the stronger rider. Also, it takes pressure off the stronger rider because now they know exactly what a comfortable pace is for their partner. In the event that the slower rider feels nervous or anxious with someone riding behind them, it’s very important that the slower rider communicates to the rider in front regarding what pace to go. Ask them to slow the down if it is a little too hard.

Continue to page 2 for more tips on riding with a slower partner

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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  • Jake Schaefer says:

    This can be tough regardless of which side you’re on. Here’s a couple things I try to keep in mind when I’m the more experienced rider (especially when taking my kids or other newbies out)…

    1) It’s really fun to introduce people to the sport we love but, if you crush them on their first ride, it may well be their last. It may be fun for me to show off a bit but to them, it’s just frustrating. Keep it chill and don’t leave them behind.

    2) These rides are really about spending time with others and won’t be my typical workout. I try to go into the ride with the proper expectations for myself so I don’t get frustrated. I’ll often bring a single speed or rigid bike to keep it a bit more interesting and/or I’ll just schedule some extra time before or after the group ride to do my thing.

    I love riding with my kids and by keeping it their level, they’ll continue to love riding with me. I’m sure it won’t be too long before they’re the one’s waiting on me.

  • Christy Kunkle says:

    I like to let the slower person go first (some times that is me) so they can set the pace, for biking, running and hiking. It seems to really help!

    • Denis says:

      Tried that. Didn’t work for me. They feel “hunted” when they know someone who could be faster is behind them.

  • GiGolfer says:

    This is great advice for riding with kids. I’ve started to get my 5,6 and 8 y/o out on the trails this year and I ride intentionally slow and let them tell me to go faster. I believe success breeds success and if you newer riders can gain a little more confidence on every ride, they are likely to want to ride more. Great article!

  • eb1888 says:

    I buzz ahead but stop before every ‘feature’ segment. When my friend pulls up I go over what’s coming next and how I will ride it. Then on to the next one.

  • Lars V says:

    8. Try a tandem. Seriously, it can be so much fun.

    Disclaimer: When tandeming with your significant other: A wise man once said: “Wherever your relationship is going, a tandem will get you there faster.” 😀

    • Dan says:

      This is true! Tandems are NOT divorce machines. They are relationship accelerators. It is actually a GREAT way to enjoy riding with your significant other. Just make sure you have a skilled pilot (aka captain) and a trusting stoker.

  • Marc Fleisher says:

    This article is kind of worthless. I ride with my SO all the time. I know she is going to be slower than me and I know how well she rides. Maybe it should be titled How to Ride with someone you have never ridden with before.

  • uncaged says:

    This is me and my fiance in a nutshell. I am always waiting for her but I am just glad we are doing something together and she is improving each time.

  • Ms. FoldsInHalf says:

    What a FANTASTIC article. #7 on dealing with complaints should be laminated and put on people’s handlebars.

    I am always the slower rider of of the two of us, and I lead almost all of the time. Even though my boyfriend is well trained to wait at all decision points, my being in the lead eliminates even the possibility of anxiety over getting lost and less anxiety = more fun. Not getting frustrated trying to keep up is also a fast track to fun.

    Yet I hate having someone right on my ass, so he stays back just a bit, and has a small cowbell that tells me he’s back there somewhere. As for the comment about a slow leader feeling “hunted” because someone who could be faster is behind me–it doesn’t apply to me because I know that someone who most definitely IS faster is behind me but he’s chosen not to do that today because he wants to ride with me.

    It’s taken us 10 years to get to this point, where we ride together quite nicely, and almost all of the issues we encountered to get here are in this article. So I didn’t “need” this article but it was nice to read something and think yes!…yes!… yes!… throughout.

  • Scotch Hennesy says:

    Personally, I have to work with humans, raise them (my son) and live with one (the wife) day in and day out. I’ve continued to ride mountain and road bikes solo for over 20 years now. I believe that’s my time to reflect on the day and challenge myself based on how I feel. Just me and my tunes (Big Wreck)! Sound article though!

  • Rob Perez says:

    I was just having this conversation with a dirt bike buddy of mine who just bought a mtn bike. Since we were strong desert motorcycle riders and have being in great condition for it, my advice to him was, “we’re not on dirt bikes, so don’t push yourself because you’ll kill yourself”. Take it slow and build up your cardio and have fun because the last thing I want is for him to hate it. This was coming from my personal experience when I got back into mtn biking. I would push my self so far that my heart rate was thru the roof and took me days to recover from the headaches and dizziness. All I wanted to do was ride fast. And as Grant M said” it’s not like I woke up one day and…” so true! Great article!

  • Chicken_Rider says:

    What if you are the slower rider? It often sucks trying to keep up with Speedy McSpeedface, such that by the time you catch up, they give you 2 min to rest and then head off….

  • maverick says:

    If you are the stronger rider, let the slower guy go first and get out of the saddle for long periods of time and don’t ride his ass. You will get a great, different workout and be more equal in stamina, works great for snowboarding too, except there… ride switch and learn and be a much better rider for it!!

  • Dave H. says:

    I ride with new/slower riders all the time. My philosophy is simple: Put their needs ahead of mine. If I want to bomb down the trails, I’ll do that on my own time. If I have invited someone else, then it is about them, not me.
    Usually, I let them lead to set the pace. I seldom get bored because I’m with someone who’s company I requested in the first place. If I find I have “extra energy” then I just mess around. Sometimes I will:
    -Pedal in a gear that is to high or too low,
    -Pedal standing for extended periods,
    -Pedalwith my suspension in “downhill” mode the whole time, so it soaks up a bunch of my energy.
    -Concentrate on trying an unusual line on the trail.
    -Take my old rigid Ross for something different.

    The bottom line is that if I agree to ride with a rider who is slower than me (a newbie, my teenage kids, my buddy who can’t quite keep up), then it is my responsibility to figure out how to enjoy my ride while ensuring they enjoy theirs.

  • Yalerider says:

    Nice post! I am a 57 year old newb and anxious to try single track by myself but worried about getting run over. Maybe it will be better to start with experienced friends.

  • Karina says:

    I like this article. I’ve been riding bikes my whole life but only got into MTB a few months ago and I dragged my husband into it with me.

    He’s basically never ridden a bike before in his life so it was an eye opener for both of us. After I realised how much he was still learning I decided it would be best for both of us, especially at the beginning when he couldn’t even get out of his saddle properly, for me to stay behind him. He still manages to drop me on the shorter sprints between the descents though, I guess just being really strong helps there regardless of experience.

    I think we work pretty well together but I need to remind myself to cool my heels as sometimes I do get frustrated being held up sometimes but I know that in the coming months and years we’ll get up to the same level and in the meantime I’m just trying to help him get there. Once he gets there I’m sure his height and strength will turn the tables on me.

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