Riding In A Paceline
A major component of group riding is drafting, which is when the cyclist in front pushes through the air so that everyone following closely behind benefits from reduced air pressure. Following riders use less energy to keep up the same pace. Also known as “sitting on a wheel” or “sucking wheel”, drafting is an equalizer for a group of cyclists of varying abilities, especially on flat roads. The main advantage of riding in a paceline is increasing speed without using additional energy. The essence of a paceline is to take turns at the front of a single-file or double line of cyclists, push hard or maintain an agreed upon speed and then “peel off the front” as the other riders pass you. Cycling in the “slipstream” of another rider is much easier than “breaking the wind” all by yourself. At 20 kph or faster, a paceline is an effective way to cover ground with higher speeds and lower energy output. A paceline is also useful when riding into the wind as it gives you a periodic rest from the work of pushing through a headwind.
In able to participate in a paceline you must be able to ride in a straight line, maintain a steady pace, and have good bike handling skills. Normally the distance between bikes is 12 to 24 inches. The closer the better – but a tighter line requires more practice, skill and concentration. While experienced riders often ride within a few inches of each other, it is neither practical nor safe for most of us. At 12 to 24 inches you can maintain an effective and safe distance. Never get closer to the wheel in front of you than your ability to respond to any situation allows. If your wheel touches the wheel in front of you, you (and some of the riders behind you) will go down while the rider in front of you usually will not.
Safety is the number one concern when paceline riding. The most important consideration is the responsibility of the lead rider(s) to make all following riders aware of any up-coming danger. The leader(s) can either point to a problem or call out the nature of the obstacle while avoiding it. Common call outs include “glass, hole, rough road, stopping, and runner up”. When the line passes a single rider or another group, the lead rider(s) and the rest of the paceline should announce themselves as they pass by calling out “left” or “on your left”. When the lead rider(s) is careful to make all the followers aware of what is coming, sudden unexpected reactions are usually not neccessary.
No sudden moves! Sudden or quick moves in a paceline could put other riders in danger. It is each riders’ responsibility to maintain the smooth flow of the group. Sudden movements of any single rider can be disastrous. Abrupt braking, swerving and any type of erratic riding are very dangerous bike handling techniques.
Never overlap another riders’ rear wheel. If the rider in front of you swerves and catches your front wheel, you may go down. If you begin to pass the wheel in front of you, “soft pedal” or briefly coast until you regain the correct distance. Another method to reduce speed is to sit up to catch the wind.
Be aware that you may “drop kick” the person behind you if you rise too quickly to pedal out of the saddle. When you rise out of the saddle and pull the bike under you, your bike will be thrown backwards. This maneuver could throw your rear wheel back into contact with the front wheel of the following cyclist. If you want to pedal out of the saddle when climbing a hill, gently move your torso forward towards the handlebars without pulling on them. You may also shift into the next higher gear before standing to compensate for the slower cadence. Beginners should not ride directly behind a wheel; stay an inch or two to the side. If there is a sudden deceleration you can avoid touching the wheel in front of you. You will also have a better view of the on-coming road.
Use the smallest gear possible to maintain a constant speed. It is difficult to make small adjustments in speed in a big gear. Using a big gear will create a yo-yo effect. If you find that you are constantly overtaking the cyclist in front of you, shift down one gear and increase your pedaling cadence. After gaining steady experience as a paceliner, try looking down the road about fifty yards instead of focusing solely on the wheel in front of you. This is referred to as “looking through” the rider in front of you. Use your peripheral vision to keep track of the distance between you and the wheel you are following.
Invariably speeds change up and down the paceline due to terrain elevations. When ascending a hill the speed of the paceline will naturally reduce. If you are the lead cyclist don’t try to maintain the same speed as on flat terrain. All cyclists in a paceline climb at different speeds. Shifting down and maintaining the same effort when climbing hills will help the paceline remain intact. If you are a following cyclist and cannot maintain the ascending speed, call out, “I’m off the back” to the cyclist in front of you. When this information reaches the lead cyclist(s), the leads’ speed will reduce so you can regain contact with the pack. On descents the lead cyclists should continue pedaling to minimize the braking of following cyclists.
How long you stay on the front of the pack depends on your comfort level and/or an agreed upon limit among the riders. Pace yourself by maintaining the same speed as the former rider at the front. Never stay out front to the point of exhaustion. You must retain enough energy to catch on to the line when you “peel off”. When you are ready to drop off the front, check for oncoming cars, signal to inform the following cyclist of your intentions and ease over a few feet to the left (or to the right depending on the type of paceline). Pacelining novices may swing too far out after their pull at the front. Reduce your speed 2-3 kph as you drift to the rear of the line. Stay close to the passing paceline to benefit from wind protection of the other cyclists moving ahead. With a new leader the group will maintain speed as it overtakes you. When you are parallel to the last cyclist, accelerate slightly so you can hook onto the line without using additional energy. Once on the line you can safely rest while being carried along.
When it becomes your turn to lead, resist the temptation to increase the speed and maintain the agreed upon speed of the paceline. Remember, you have been benefiting from the slipstream and you will feel rested and possibly energetic but the cyclist who has just completed a turn at the front will be tired. If you increase the speed of the paceline the cyclist who has just peeled off may not be able to remain in the line. It is not poor etiquette for weaker or tired riders to skip a turn or to take a shorter turn at the front. Stronger riders will understand that you are doing all you can to just hold on. However, if you are capable of taking your turn and fail to do so, you have committed a major breach of etiquette. You may experience annoyance from other riders and may even be labeled a “wheel suck”.
The best way to get good at “following a wheel” is to ride with experienced cyclists. Practice, practice, and more practice will make an effective paceliner. Other than in a club ride, if you choose to ride in another cyclists’ draft, it is proper etiquette to inform them that you are behind them and to ask permission to ride there.
Riding in a paceline has two important rules:
1. Take care of yourself.
2. Take care of your paceline buddies.
Be safe and enjoy!