When you're get back from a club ride, or a sportive, and sometimes even a race, one of the first bits of grumbling that normally appear on any forum or Facebook page relate to the standard of group riding on that particular occasion. The ride or race might have been great but if someone didn't feel safe in the group they will probably mention it when they get home and so ensues the lengthy discussion on how to improve the standard of riding in the peleton of riders out each week.
I've found myself feeling less comfortable in certain groups of riders and as such, tend to cherry pick quite carefully which rides I go on based on who is going to be in attendance. In cycling you tend to find that a reputation is very easily built and very hard to change. There are definitely people who you choose not to follow on a ride and readily offer up their wheel to the next person, only for them to realise you're being as kind as they think.
When I first started riding, I did some club rides with a club that has been going for an exceptionally long time. The Sunday rides had everyone from the fresh faced like myself up to the over 65's that had been riding twice as long as I'd been alive. You would go out on a club ride with them and the instant you did something unsafe you would be told and they would keep telling you until you learnt, or you were no longer welcome. Feedback was always measured but firm enough to make the point about safety or etiquette.
The problem now though is that loads of new clubs have sprung up in the last few years that don't have the older, more respected riders around and as a result some of the key group skills don't get enforced as heavily. There becomes this though process that the stronger a rider is, the better their groups skills will instantly be. In reality that isn't always the case but there isn't anyone with enough 'experience' to set the record straight and sort everyone out.
As time goes on people start to pick out the people they feel safest riding with and will organise their own rides elsewhere, in order to feel safer or run a ride where everyone is of the same ability so it at least feels safer. This also tends to be the more experienced riders that go off and do there own thing. In turn, this leaves an ever bigger gulf of knowledge and things realistically don't improve in the original group.
Over time you tend to learn what makes safe group riding and the things you should do when you're in a group.
When you're in a group keeping the pace consistent is key. There is no need for sudden accelerations or braking, unless it's an emergency. Everything you do at the front of a group is amplified further back so if you're tapping the brakes then the person at the back is anchoring on.
Equally, being aware of your surroundings is pretty important. You'll have riders ahead, behind and to the side in most cases so it's important to call out any debris or potholes. You don't need to call out absolutely everything but if it's going to cause a problem or you'd avoid it, you call it. As well as calling out road hazards, it's best to avoid being one yourself; if you can't get out of the saddle without throwing your bike backwards then don't bother. Relax and be smooth.
If you happen to come across a group on the road and decide to jump on the back then announce your presence. The guy at the back of the group won't be expecting anyone behind them so probably won't be calling the holes and might be more relaxed so the last thing you want is to miss a call and end up wiping out a group from behind when you miss them braking to stop.
Like anything in life, group riding takes sometime to get to grips with. It's never going to be quite as intense as a 198 man peleton in a grand tour, but knowing enough to be safe is important. I'm lucky that a lot of the people I ride with take group etiquette seriously but I still find a lot of groups unsafe when I'm away from that bubble of riders. I'm far from a perfect rider and still have plenty to learn but I like to keep things as safe as I can.