Today, we’ll look at a skill some think of as advanced: pacelines. And of course, the question will arise, “Why would I want to do that?”
Knowing how to ride in a paceline is a valuable skill to have–it’s not just for professional racing teams. On many group rides, a scenario may arise where the paceline is the best option.
In fact, a paceline and pack riding are not too different. The immediate vicinity surrounding you while riding in a pack is very similar to riding in a paceline. In a paceline, you have yourself, the wheel of the person in front of you, another rider behind, and quite possibly someone to your side. This is very similar to a pack environment, except a paceline is more disciplined and specific.
There are a couple scenarios where a paceline is a good idea. Pacelines might be a good idea on narrow lanes with heavy traffic, where you’re forced into single file. The paceline allows you to cover this section of road quickly allowing you to get off to less busy streets. (Of course, if the lane is too narrow to fit both you and the car at the same time, I believe in “taking the lane“.) Days where you’re riding into a ferocious headwind may call for a paceline. And some days, the riders around you just get the urge to ride fast and get in a good workout. They might form a paceline and get moving.
In any event, it is a good idea to know how to ride in a paceline to simply improve your own bike-handling skills. Improved skills will allow you to feel more comfortable and relaxed on the bike (do you know how to respond when your front wheel hits someone else’s back wheel?). This, in turn, makes you safer and allows for a more enjoyable ride.
As with everything in cycling, there is not just one way of riding in a paceline, but in fact, there are several different types, each having specific pros and cons.
Also called a Single Paceline, this is the most basic form and contains all the skills necessary to correctly execute the others.
The basic idea of a paceline is to rest and recuperate from your efforts by riding closely behind the rider in front of you while they block the wind. Then, it is your turn to block the wind while the riders behind you get a break. The whole group works together in this endeavor. Simple.
To begin riding in pacelines, find a group that is willing to go slowly with you at first. Just let them know that you’ve never ridden in one before and ask if they could ease into it. It’s very likely they’ll help you out.
The more detailed instructions are as follows:
Follow the wheel in front of you closely. One of our group ride rules is to not follow more closely than you are comfortable. This is so you don’t get stressed out and react to situations poorly because of this stress. However, in pacelines, you really need to buckle up a bit and get used to riding close.
The more distance there is between your front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, the more wind you are pushing under your own power. This takes energy. The more energy you expend, the sooner you’ll “blow-up”. When you blow-up in a paceline, you can no longer contribute to it’s speed. You’ll drift backwards and out of the line.
Two things could happen from here: 1) you’ll lose contact with the other riders as they quickly pull away and vanish down the road and you’ll finish the ride alone; or 2) the group will slow down to wait for you. Now I know, it’s a nice gesture for other riders to wait for you. But remember, they’re trying to go as fast as they can. You making them wait just because you didn’t know your limitations and manage your energy is a bit presumptuous rude.
Don’t overlap your front wheel. Because of the speed and closeness of the riders behind you, if you fall, the whole group can ride into you and also fall.
Ride smoothly. Do not suddenly speed up or slow down–this could be disaster for those following. Even if the rider in front of you speeds up and creates a gap, do not jump hard to close it. Ride smoothly, only slightly increasing the power to steadily–but smoothly–close the gap.
Remember above about riding closely? Another consequence of leaving a gap between you and the rider in front of you is the “yo-yo” effect. As you don’t pay attention and slightly slow down off the wheel in front of you, a gap develops, and you accelerate to close it. Sounds reasonable. But, what often happens as you close it? First, you’ve now used a little bit of energy that you didn’t need to and the rider behind you has to also accelerate, using some of his/her own energy. Riders don’t like it when other riders unnecessarily tire them out. This habit then repeats itself the next time you’re in line. All this wasting of energy leads to you “blowing-up” sooner than you should or would like.
Do not accelerate when the rider in front of you pulls off. You maintain the same speed you had prior to him leaving. It is up to him to slow down in the recovery line. This concept cannot be over-emphasized.
How long you stay on the front depends on several things:
Is your speed the same? Get off the front as soon as your speed starts to decrease.
How strong are you? Do not accelerate when pulling through. If you’re feeling strong–possibly stronger than your companions–then you stay on the front for a longer period of time. In any event, you do not speed up.
How many people are in the paceline? The more people you have, the shorter your time on the front. If you have enough, you should think about establishing a Double or Rotating Paceline. Generally, you’ll want to stay on the front as long as the other riders in the group, if you can. If you’re new to the group, new to riding, or one of the weaker riders in the group, it is definitely acceptable to take shorter pulls than the others.
What’s the terrain like? Do not get off the front until there is a smooth, straight portion of roadway to do so. Moving to the recovery line while you’re in a corner can be dangerous. Wait until you’ve come out of the corner. If the hill is short enough, pull everyone to the top, then get off. If you’re nearing the end of your pull and approaching a hill, get off just as you start up it.
Are you new to pacelines? You might want to pull off the front sooner rather than later until you’ve ridden a few and understand the basics.
Pull off to the same side as the other riders ahead of you. In the U.S., the recovery line almost always forms on the left. This is due to traffic concerns. The definitive rule for pacelines, however, is to form the recovery line into the wind, giving further draft to the riders pulling through. This will be one of those “group decisions”. If you’re not sure, ask someone near you as you get started, or just follow the example of the rider in front of you.
Flick your elbow as you pull off the front of the line and move into the recovery line. This tells the person behind you to take over as you’re slowing and recovering. If you pull off to the left, flick your right elbow and vice-versa. And this flick doesn’t have to be huge. A little one–as long as the rider behind you can see it–will do.
Be aware of the last rider’s position as you drift back, one of the harder skills of paceline riding. As the end of the line approaches, stand on your pedals, accelerate slightly and slowly begin moving over into the pulling line without cutting them off. If you match their speed correctly, you should be able to get in line behind them without a gap forming. If you get passed by the last rider too quickly, a gap will form between you and the line. You’ll have to sprint hard to catch-up, wasting your energy, and limiting your usefulness to the rest of the group.
When the group you are riding with is unusually large, a double paceline can incorporate many riders at once. This is strictly two pacelines riding side-by-side. The line on the right recovers to the right and the line on the left recovers on the left.
Usually, both active lines (in the middle) will start to match each other’s speed. And, in fact, you’ll find yourself having a riding “partner” who moves up the line and recovers to the back of at the same time.
An advanced variation of the Double Paceline has only one recovery line and two active lines: both riders on the front move off to the same side. For instance, the left lead-rider, moves left and begins moving to the back. The right lead-rider, also moves left, crossing in front of the left active line, and joins the recovery line directly in front of his partner. When the left lead-rider gets to the back, he accelerates and moves now into the right active line. When his partner, the right lead-rider gets to the back, he accelerates onto the back of the left active line. Both (former) lead-riders have now switched lines they were riding in.
Perhaps the most efficient and fastest moving paceline, a rotating paceline requires constant attention. Riders here are given the most time to recover from their efforts. Riders also spend little to no time on the front of the pulling line, pulling off almost as soon as htey got into the front position.
As a rider does pull off the front, he slots into the recovery line directly in front of the last person to recover. His draft is now sheltering that recovering rider. As the next rider comes off the pulling line, you stay right on their wheel, also sheltered from the wind and gaining valuable draft. At the end of the recovery line, you again move over gracefully into the pulling line like you would in any other paceline.
In effect, there are two pacelines: one just faster than the other.
The echelon is quite possibly the most advanced skill. It is a paceline done into a strong wind from the side. Drafting directly behind the rider in front of you is little help as this strong wind easily cuts in between the two of you, taxing your efforts. The best position is off-set to the side away from the wind, and slightly behind. Not completely, though: there is only some wheel overlap. This overlap is okay as the rider next to you is slightly behind you, allowing you room to maneuver away if necessary.
After your effort at the front of the pulling line, you drift straight back a bit so that you are behind the diagonal line of riders, and then down the line to the end. As you approach the end of the line, again you stand and slightly accelerate back into position in the line. Keep in mind, chances are good that this will be a form of a rotating paceline: riders will be right next to you in the recovery line as you move down wind to your spot in the pulling line.
Also, of important note, is the danger of echelons. An echelon can easily spread across the full width of a lane, blocking traffic from behind. If there is a bump in the road or a sudden narrowness, the echelon can also “push” the last man over the yellow line or the other way, into the curb.