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Paceline Riding


You’ve certainly noticed cyclists riding in close formation who seem to maintain an awesome pace with relatively little effort. These cyclists are riding in a paceline, which can significantly reduce aerodynamic drag (i.e., block the wind), thereby lowering exertion levels for a given riding speed by up to 30 percent. Even the lead rider gets a little “push” from the riders behind. Want to join in on the fun? Here are a few tips to keep in mind. There are three essential characteristics of safe paceline riding—be smooth, be predictable, and be courteous.


First, practice on your own. Being smooth and predictable means, among other things, riding in a straight line without swerving or wobbling. Try riding on the white line at the road’s edge. Relax your upper body, keeping a light grip on the handlebars. Keep your focus out front—use your peripheral vision to track the white line. Remember, where your eyes go, so goes your bike.


Second, practice drafting one other rider. Position yourself 3 to 4 feet behind the rider you are following (who, of course, is an informed and willing participant in this activity). Try to maintain a uniform gap. If you drift back, gradually accelerate to close the gap. If you get too close, reduce pressure on the pedals, but don’t stop pedal rotation (called “soft pedaling”). If necessary, use your brakes lightly—just enough to do the job. Sometimes simply sitting upright will slow you enough without applying the brakes. Take great care to avoid overlapping wheels (i.e., allowing your front wheel to come alongside the rear wheel of the lead rider). Overlapping wheels greatly increases the risk of wheel-to-wheel contact, which may make you crash. Don’t stare at the lead rider or his/her rear wheel. Rather, look past him/her, so you can see what he/she sees. As you get more proficient at this, try to close the gap, shooting for 1 to 2 feet between wheels.


Now you’re ready for the real thing. There are many types of pacelines--we discuss only one here: the single paceline. This is the one you’ll use most of the time on public roads. As the name implies, riders in a single paceline ride single file. Every 30 seconds to 2 minutes or so, the lead rider (after checking carefully for traffic approaching from the rear) pulls to the left while maintaining a steady pace. He/she then slows slightly to allow the other riders to pass on the right. (This is one of the few situations in which it’s OK to pass on the right.) As the (former) lead rider approaches the end of the paceline, he/she gradually accelerates to the speed of the line and drops in behind the last rider. If traffic should appear from behind during this process, the rider pulls into the middle of paceline, with the cooperation of the other riders. And so the process repeats itself.


In the Pack

  • Don’t make sudden movements. The riders behind you are counting on you to maintain a predictable line.
  • Aero bars have no place in the paceline - ever.  You should always have your hands in a spot where you can access your brakes immediately (i.e. not on the flat center part of a road bar either!).
  • Use brakes cautiously, if you brake hard in a paceline you’ll cause everyone behind you to pile up.
  • Communicate. Call out actions and conditions i.e. TURNING, SLOWING, STOPPING, DOG!!!
  • Don’t focus on the rear tire of the bike in front of you. Instead look forward several riders to see what the paceline is reacting to.
  • Don’t overlap the wheel of the bike in front of you. If you do overlap, move away until slow down gradually. Protect your front wheel.
  • Wait until you’re in the back of the paceline to drink, eat that energy bar or peel that banana.
  • Stay relaxed, loose and fluid, keep the pedals spinning and soft-pedal if you have to.
  • Headphones are taboo. If you want to listen to the radio, stay at home.
  • If you have to slow and drop out of the line, signal, move to the side and sit up and catch some air.
  • Relax. This one is really important. If you have tense arms and get bumped from the side, the shock will go directly to the front wheel and you will swerve and possibly crash. Plus, if you are tense, you are using energy you need to pedal your bike and keep up with the group.


When at the front

  • Remember, you are the eyes of the group. Pay close attention to what’s ahead, and pick a smooth, safe, and predictable line.
  • It’s helpful to signal your intention to drop back by flicking your right wrist or elbow to waving the next cyclist forward. (Do this before you pull to the left, or the line may simply follow you to the left.)
  • Pull to the left before slowing so that the line can maintain a steady pace.
  • Avoid the tendency to accelerate when your turn to lead occurs. Keep track of the pace, and maintain this pace when leading.
  • Don’t pull too long—drop back before you get tired.
  • Don’t leave stragglers. If you get separated at intersections, as a matter of courtesy, the lead group should soft pedal until the rest have rejoined. No one should be left alone-remember, this is a group ride.
  • Know your limitations. If you are not strong enough or too tired to take a turn at the front, stay near the back and let the stronger cyclists pull in front of you instead of making them go to the back of the line. This will keep them from having to pass you when you create a gap.
  • Change positions correctly. A common beginner faux pas is to stop pedaling just before pulling off the front. This creates an accordion affect toward the rear. Keep a steady pressure on the pedals until you have cleared the front. After pulling off, soft pedal and let the group pull through. As the last couple riders are passing through, begin to apply more pressure to smoothly take your position at the rear.


When at the back

  • Keep a careful eye on traffic, and announce “car back” whenever a vehicle approaches from behind.
  • It’s helpful to announce “last rider” as the rider dropping back approaches. That way, the rider dropping back knows that it’s time to accelerate to catch the end of the line.
  • If you’re tired and don’t want to pull, rest at the back of the line. Let the rider dropping back know that you’re resting, and open enough space so he/she can pull in ahead of you.

Paceline Etiquette

  • Don’t accelerate when taking the lead...unless you really did mean to drop the guy who just finished pulling! Gradually increase speed if appropriate.
  • Swing wide of pot holes and debris. (A near miss is too close!) Point them out.
  • Short pulls of 30 seconds to 2 minutes benefit the group better than long, time-trial like efforts. The overall speed of the group increases thereby improving everyone’s spin practice.
  • Weaker riders should "pull through" by spending very little time at the front.