If you ride in groups, you've surely asked yourself these questions. The kind of group that's right for you can vary by the season or day by day, but the first question we ask ourselves is usually, "how fast is the bunch?", followed by "can I hang with them?"
If you choose rides that keep you at your limit and just hanging on (or not), then your fitness will almost certainly improve and these all-out efforts can be the most rewarding. The pace on these rides is driven by the fastest riders at near race pace and often includes attacks at recognized sprint points on the route and hammering the hills, marked by occasional breaks in the pace as riders sit up to take a drink and slurp a gel. Group riding skills are imperative and you often don't know everyone on the ride, so constant attention is required.
On the other hand, I often don't want to hammer my brains out while getting my ass kicked out on the road, so I enjoy small group rides that allow for some chatter and relaxation. Everybody contributes to doing some work and determining the pace. The degree of difficulty is determined by a natural consensus. These rides are are a good workout, usually well within your limits, but can be as hard as you make them.
I also enjoy some of the event training rides, which are often large groups, very social, and riding at an easy pace.
Event rides, like Tour de Rock, land somewhere in between hammerfest and lovefest. They can be very fast and challenging, but differ in that there is a lot of cooperation to maximize the speed of the group. You don't want to drop anybody that can contribute to the work and you sure don't want to get dropped. These rides are great fun and you can go just as hard as you want, due to the fact that there are groups of every speed. The fastest make few, very short stops, so be be prepared and don't expect to enjoy many of the rest stop goodies if you get on the express train. If you are joining these rides without taking advantage of the efficiency and teamwork of the pace line, I think you're missing out a lot of the fun; however, my darling bride often does long stretches solo, stops at every rest stop and has a lovely time. I'm more inclined hop on the fastest group I can stick with and try to get it done!
Right now, the set group rides around our town are either pretty fast by my standards or very casual.Rides tend to evolve in that if a ride gets a reputation for punchy and fun, more people show up bringing more punch and the ride gets faster and more competitive. That may leave some folks out, but small pick-up rides happen every day and over time, they tend to fall into a pattern so people know when to show up. Next thing you know, you have a new group ride and the evolution begins anew. You can almost always find a ride to suit your mood-of-the-day.
Pick your ride to suit your purpose. It took me a while to not feel compelled to jump in with my favorite fast group every week. I do it from time to time, but I don' t want the pressure of the pace and the big pack a couple of days a week. That was the most fun for me for a couple of years, but I had the experience and often want a different kind of ride these days. It really depends on your goals. My only ambition on the bike is to enjoy riding it.