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Pacelines - How to ride in a group*

One benefit of group riding is riding the paceline. It allows cyclists to travel faster with less effort and provides a better social experience. Pacelines do have some inherent danger and require communication among the riders. But a good paceline is a wonderful thing.

The basic SINGLE paceline is simple. The riders align behind one another to take maximum advantage of the "drag" effect of the cyclists to the front. The cyclist in the front will set the group's pace, when the lead rider decides it is time to change, that rider pulls off to one side and drifts back to the end of the paceline.

The new lead cyclist increases effort SLIGHTLY (just increases the amount of pressure on his pedals) to maintain the group pace. A good paceline is smooth. A good paceline is built on trust. The riders have to be confident that the others in the group will communicate well and ride safely.

Hold a steady, consistent line and pace. Maintain a gap of 2-3 feet between your front wheel and that rider’s back wheel. Strive to maintain that gap as consistently as possible. Stay away from people and pace lines with riders who don’t do this. If people are allowing gaps to form and then pedaling quickly to close the gap, this creates an effect called “yoyo-ing” which is to be avoided. Yoyo-ing can lead to overlapping wheels and accidents.

Communicate. Let people know you are on their back wheel. Announce “on your wheel”. They may not know you have come up behind them. If you are leading the line, communicate with voice and hand signals of upcoming hazards.

No more than 6 riders in a paceline. More than 6 riders can get pretty ragged in execution and increases the risk of accidents. If you have more than that, consider creating a gap of 6- 10 feet in the middle of the line thus creating 2 smaller pace lines.

Don’t make a large cycling event your first attempt at Paceline Riding. If you are not experienced with paceline riding, don’t start at a large event like RAGBRAI or Seattle-to-Portland, etc. It is better to practice with a few fellow cyclists and gain experience during practice rides.

Paceline Tips

When carried out properly, a paceline is an effective tool for a group ride: It enables cyclists to share the work of pushing through the wind. When performed poorly, the formation becomes counterproductive. "Most people are never taught the proper way to ride a paceline," says Ray Ignosh, a USA Cycling expert coach based in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. "So they make the same common mistakes that eventually become habits." Whether you're riding in a single or double formation, try these tips for taking your pulls and pedaling in line.

KEEP THE PACE The number one mistake riders make is picking up speed when they get to the front. "Some guys just want to show off; others are well-intentioned—they just aren't in tune with their effort and feel like they're supposed to take a pull, so they pull." As you're riding through the line, pay attention to the group's average speed and effort. When you get to the front, do your best to maintain those levels. The goal is to keep the pack together, not blow it apart or shell riders off the back.

DON'T STARE Focusing on the wheel directly in front of you is a natural instinct when riding in a line, but it gives you zero time to react should something go awry. "Keep your head up and check about 10 meters down the road," says Ignosh. "Look through holes in the leading rider—over his shoulder, under his arm or through his legs—and ride proactively instead of reactively. This will help keep the line moving smoothly."

MICROADJUST It's nearly impossible for everyone to put forth equal amounts of effort, especially on undulating terrain. You need to make adjustments along the way to prevent what Ignosh calls the Slinky effect, where the line alternately bunches together and becomes strung out, with big gaps. "It's better to make two small undercorrections than one big overcorrection," he says.

"Think of it like driving: You don't slam on the brakes, then hit the gas; you moderate your speed." To do that in a paceline, try one of these techniques:

Soft pedal: If you feel like you're getting sucked into the rider in front of you, take a light pedal stroke or two to adjust your speed accordingly.

Air brake: An easy (and safe) way to trim speed is to sit up and catch some wind. It'll slow you down a notch without disrupting the rhythm of the line.

Feather brake: Gently squeeze the brakes while continuing to pedal. You can scrub speed while shifting up or down as needed to alter your pace.

EASE OFF THE GAS Rather than accelerating when you pull, try to ride in the line at a steady pace and decelerate as you pull off and drift to the back. "This provides the right work-to-recovery ratio without all the punchy surges that tend to blow the weaker riders off the back," says Ignosh.

SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE Pacelines are designed to share the workload, so limit your pulls to a few minutes to stay fresh and give other riders a chance.

CONSERVE ENERGY If you feel tired, sit out a few turns until you're ready to take another pull. Simply open a spot for riders to rejoin the line in front of you, or come to the front and immediately pull off and drift to the back. You'll do the pack a favor by staying with them rather than working yourself into the red and falling off the back, which makes the group slow down to let you catch up


Types of Pacelines*

Single 

Which direction should the lead rider pull off? The single paceline picture right shows the rider pulling off to the left. But there are various reason to pull off either direction. If there is a cross wind the lead rider will pull off whichever direction the wind is coming from. This is because the riders in the single paceline will naturally line up as shown in the "echelon" picture to hide themselves from the wind. Some believe that the rider coming off the front and going backwards should not be in the lane of car traffic and should, as a general rule, pull off to the right. Basically, whichever direction the group is using, all riders should do the same thing.


Double

The DOUBLE paceline is a minor modification of the single paceline. In this setting there are just two single pacelines side by side. The riders on the front of each paceline pull off in opposite directions. As a general rules, the pacelines are far smoother if the two front riders agree and pull off simultaneously. Otherwise, one of the lines has to surge to get the front riders side by side.

Echelon

An ECHELON is a paceline ridden in a crosswind. The riders will naturally find cover at an angle as shown above. An Echelon can refer to either a single paceline or a rotating paceline. In either case, the lead rider will pull off INTO the wind.


Rotating

A ROTATING paceline requires more focus and greater skills but is very satisfying to be part of. In a rotating paceline there is an advancing (faster) line of riders and a retreating (slower) line of riders.

The retreating line is on whichever side the wind is coming from. If it is a headwind a tailwind or no wind, usually the retreating line will be on the right side and the advancing line will be on the left. (The opposite of the picture above).


The key to a rotating paceline is that when the rider at the front of the advancing line clears the rider who is on the front of the retreating line, the advancing rider moves into the retreating line and softens up his pace. The rider who was behind him continues the pace of the advancing line until that rider switches over. The rider in the advancing line should NEVER surge. The idea is that you ride to the front and float to the back in a constant rotation. 

You change your speed by "soft-pedaling" as you switch to the retreating line and increasing your pedal pressure as you switch from the retreating line to the advancing line.

Smooth switches, and keeping the distance between the riders in the paceline as small as possible will keep the paceline smooth.


* Adapted from Bicycling Street Smarts by John Allen, drawings taken from the book.

Community Bicycle Rides is a 501(c)7 non-profit organization in Boise, ID.

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