How to Make Adult Friends
Cycling has many benefits, whether you look at it from a fitness and overall health standpoint or an environmentally-friendly one. But it can also be a superpower when it comes to making friends as an adult, which is arguably one of the hardest things to do. Sharing a common interest in cycling can smooth the way to solid relationships at any age—if you’re willing to take the first step and strike up a conversation with a fellow rider.
Here, we talked to friendship experts and ride leaders to get the best tips to help you nail that first encounter with a potential new road riding buddy, avoid awkward “so, will you follow me on Strava?” moments on the trailhead, and turn a casual riding acquaintance into a lifelong friend.
First, though, let’s talk about why you should be here to make friends. (This is real life and not reality TV, after all.)
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The Benefits of Making Friends as an Adult
“Our longevity, our physical health, our mental health, and our happiness all come down to how supported we feel in life,” says Shasta Nelson, author of the Business of Friendship. “We need all kinds of healthy relationships, but it’s our friendships that we have the most of in our lives. Friendships make us feel like we belong in certain places, whether that’s at church or work or a bike race. There’s such a benefit to expanding your circle of friends. To me, it’s the most important thing we can do for ourselves.”
This isn’t just a feeling: The science backs it up. Even just one call with a friend can boost your daily wellbeing, according to a recent study. “A body of research has shown that sound friendships beyond our families enhance our physical and mental health,” says Irene S. Levine, psychologist and friendship expert, and producer of TheFriendshipBlog.com.
It gets harder, though, the older we get. Not only do we have tons of responsibilities (family, work, etc.), we assume that everyone else already has all the friends they could possibly need or want, says Levine. “As we age, there are fewer opportunities to make new friends,” she adds. But that’s where cycling comes in: If you’re already riding, you can use that time to build new friendships, and you have an easy entry point. “Having shared interests gives friends common ground to strengthen a friendship,” Levine adds.
So how do you actually strengthen those relationships and turn them into meaningful bonds? Follow these tips.
Tips for Making More Cycling Friends
Stop worrying about your first group ride
All of this is great in principle, but what if the idea of simply showing up to a group ride is terrifying, let alone striking up a conversation? “What folks need to realize is that a group ride is not a race, and that you are with like-minded people and friends, who will probably be glad to slow the pace or wait for you at the top of the climb,” says Barry Cox, who helps lead group rides for the Lapdogs Cycling Club in Toronto, Ontario.
If you’re not sure if you’ll be able to keep up with a group’s pace, email the club and ask! Look for beginner rides or no drop rides if you’re stressed about pacing. You can also look for demo days or workshops that shops are hosting, says triathlete and cyclist Carrie Jo Bradley. These events are more relaxed because you won’t have to keep up with anyone in particular, but you’ll still meet plenty of fellow riders.
Be consistent, positive, and vulnerable
It’s not as easy as chatting with someone on one group ride and—bam!—friends for life. Nelson explains that there are three key elements to friendship: consistency, positivity, and vulnerability.
“Consistency means repetition. You’re seeing these people on an ongoing basis—that could be a weekly group ride,” says Nelson. “That’s why cycling is such a great way [to make friends], because you don’t have to keep inviting each other [to do something] in order to see each other if you’re part of the same club. But just riding together all the time isn’t enough to feel close to each other: We’re drawn to the other riders that give us the most positive feelings and good emotions. When we’re around these people, we feel encouraged, we don’t feel judged, and we feel supported. And finally, we’re able to be vulnerable.”
Now, yes, vulnerability is an overused term these days, just behind authenticity. But seriously, opening up can be a great way to quickly create a bond.
If you’re nervous about the ride, say that! Nelson is a huge fan of telling the rider next to you how you’re feeling, even if you say something like, “I always struggle to make conversation at these things.” In that case, you’re actually creating an invitation for that person to help you out.
“By being a little bit open and vulnerable, you allow the other person to help you—or to share their own insecurities,” Nelson says. “One of the most bonding things in relationships is letting somebody else help you.” (Now, let’s be clear: Your first interaction probably shouldn’t be telling a stranger all about a nasty fight you had with your kid that morning—keep it light!)
This takes energy and vulnerability takes practice—but it’s worth it. “Focus on increasing those three areas a little bit at a time, and you are going to bond with people,” adds Nelson.
Strike up a conversation
Whether in the parking lot ahead of a group ride or while pedaling along in the peloton, it can feel intimidating to go first and actually introduce yourself to a potential new pal. “The nice thing about a situation like that is we immediately have something in common—cycling—and that can be a conversation starter,” says Nelson. “Ask, ‘Have you ridden with this group before? How long have you been riding with this group? Have you ridden this route before?’ Or even just a compliment about their bike can go a long way.
“You already know so many things about this person that you’ve never met, just by virtue of you both standing in the same spot getting ready to go on that ride,” Nelson adds. “So, start with commonality and let that be the beginning of your conversation.”
When in doubt, ride next to the chattiest person
“The best advice I can give you is let the extroverts adopt you. We will,” says Pittsburgh-based cycling coach Chris Mayhew.
Stick with your group ride for a few weeks and you’ll realize that you’ve managed to make friends without really noticing—extroverted cyclists are shockingly good at assimilating you into a group before you even realize what’s happening. The next thing you know, you’re covered in mud taking a beer hand-up on a cyclocross course, even though you’ve never had any interest in ‘cross.
Another great tip? Bring an extra snack and extra tube on every ride. You’ll quickly become someone’s savior/new BFF without having to say a word.
Take it to the next level
Like we mentioned, don’t expect a friendship to take off on day one. Instead, play the long game and head out on a group ride with the goal of chatting with a few people, slowly assessing who you want to befriend in a meaningful way.
“Friendships aren’t instantaneous; they have to be nurtured over time as two people get to know and trust one another,” says Levine. “Joining a group enables someone to make acquaintances that can turn into friendships. Seeing people on a regular basis allows you to see who might be friend-worthy.”
Cherish acquaintances, not just BFFs
You may be reading this and feeling like it’s a bit overwhelming: You don’t have time for a new best friend who you need to text all day and hang out with after rides, considering you can barely keep your head above water with your current to-do list. But Nelson argues that even a broad range of casual friends can be immensely helpful for your wellbeing.
“We don’t need to be so worried about finding the best friend, we just need to try to do our very best to develop as many friendships as we can,” Nelson says. “The happiest people have friends in every place they frequent. You can have friends that just exist in the cycling container and don’t go beyond that into the rest of your life.”
On the other hand, you can have more than one best friend, so feel free to decide on an MTB bestie, gravel bestie, and bikepacking bestie.
Accept rejection with the same grace
If you are rejected at first, don’t take it personally. Remember that everyone is fighting their own battle—you never know who had a lot of work stress and is just using this ride to catch their breath, or who had a fight with a spouse and is just trying to work through those feelings. “Or, they may have too many commitments or [they may] not be in the market for friends like you are. Take a deep breath and find someone else,” says Levine.
Make friends virtually
Good news: If you only ride with groups in the digital space, you can still reap the benefits of friendship. “We can build up meaningful relationships in our lives in the digital space,” says Nelson. You do need to make more of an effort than just hanging out in the group ride on Zwift though—this is where you hop on the Companion app (the app that pairs with the Zwift riding app and lets you chat with fellow riders) and strike up a conversation.
You could also join a Facebook Group dedicated to the kind of cycling you’re into if you don’t want to ride inside, but you don’t have a great local riding community in your area. “Online groups are great because all of a sudden, you have a group of people that understand that area of your life and can support you and help you feel witnessed and seen. You can feel belonging, and you can feel validation from that,” Nelson adds.
Don’t be afraid to dial it back
If you got a little ahead of yourself and ended up making far too many plans with someone who, as it turns out, just isn’t simpatico with you, it’s not the end of the world. You can still tone a friendship back down to an acquaintance level if you’re smooth about it, says Nelson.
If you’re not feeling great about a friendship, simply dial back on Nelson’s consistency/positivity/vulnerability formula. Maybe you skip a ride for a week or two, or purposefully move around the peloton so you’re not in long conversations with them. Or maybe, you simply stop sharing details about your life, and shift your chats back to being strictly about cycling.
“We rarely have to completely end a friendship,” says Nelson. “You can just tone it down to a level you’re comfortable with. Just because someone is annoying for a few minutes before the ride doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy cycling up the hill and egging each other on, you know, and so be mindful that it’s not all or nothing.”
Molly writes about cycling, nutrition and training, with an emphasis on women in sport. Her new middle-grade series, Shred Girls, debuts with Rodale Kids/Random House in 2019 with “Lindsay’s Joyride.” Her other books include “Mud, Snow and Cyclocross,” “Saddle, Sore” and “Fuel Your Ride.” Her work has been published in magazines like Bicycling, Outside and Nylon. She co-hosts The Consummate Athlete Podcast.