Let's assume we all agree that when exercising you need a plan. So, when exercising on a bike, you need to leave the house for a ride with a goal in mind. Not just a general goal, like I want to lose weight or I want to get into shape. But a specific goal that you can commit to and accomplish during the ride. Since we all can agree on that: let's focus here, instead, on the how of goals and bike rides.
To begin with, cycling goals need to be realistic but challenging, and they must also be possible, meaning that you must provide yourself a path to success. An impossible or unrealistic goal is a recipe for motivational disaster. The same can be said for a goal that doesn't challenge you to improve and learn. Of course, all of this requires you to accept who you are and commit to this personal acceptance at
at all cost. You can't change your mind once you get out there. You can't suddenly become unrealistic during the ride and push through that interval just cuz you're feeling good or skip the last hill repeat just cuz you're feeling... less than good.
To this point, try making every bike ride fit into one of these 3 categories; from there, you can make your own personal goals even more precise. But these 3 categories should be as distinct as possible.
1. Endurance ride - pushing the limits of time and distance. This is when you are riding for whatever is "a long time" for you. It should be gentle, smooth and not-at-all hard until well into the second half of the ride. These can be great to do with other people because stronger riders can help others push their limits by pacing and breaking the wind (creating a sleepstream).
2. Workouts - similar to working out in the gym. These rides are either really hard (intensity and speed) or focused on practicing form and technique. The length should be shortened to accommodate for difficulty. You want your workouts to push your limits but because of this, doing workouts with other riders can be discouraging. Remember we must be realistic!
3. Tests - group rides, races, time trials and personal best type rides. The kind of ride where you'll find out what you've got and how the training's been going. This is when you use what you've gained on longer, easier rides as well as harder workouts. This is a do your best effort, so lay it all out there!
So remember to be realistic. Admit to yourself where you are in your riding. This will help you stay focused on the right kind of rides to keep you improving. Also, remember not to change your mind during a ride. Just because you're feeling good is no reason to blow up on an endurance ride. You only want to test yourself every so often. Don't make every ride into a race, or every race will become just a ride. (And you won't have any friends!)