Introduction to Pacelines in Group Rides

posted in: Cycling News | 2

paceline
Etiquette, rules, and safety can vary from group to group. Let’s start off by saying that if you don’t know how a particular group does things, it is really your responsibility to ask before the ride gets underway. The following are some guidelines for pacelines with the Boulder Cycling Club, but should work for most other group rides.

If you have never been on a group ride in Boulder, please first read about Your First Group Ride. It is totally ok if you’ve never ridden in a group or a paceline before. Boulder Cycling Club is open to all riders of all abilities and not all of our members like to ride in a paceline. We’d love to show you the ropes and teach you some good habits and skills to help you become a better cyclist.

Efficiency, Not Speed

It’s a PACEline, not a RACEline. A paceline is more about efficiency than it’s about speed. The speed comes from working together at a pace that is most efficient for the whole group. Our Tuesday night rides have a few different route and speed options. Pacelines take skill and practice. It’s best to learn these skills at a slower pace. Your first experience in a paceline should be at an effort level that you can comfortably maintain for the duration of the ride without the benefit of drafting. Trust us on this one. It is significantly easier to master these skills when you are able to just focus on the mechanics of the paceline.

Don’t Half Wheel

dont-half-wheelHalf-wheeling is when your front wheel is overlapping the rear wheel of the bike in front of you. You’re either behind someone or next to someone, don’t hang out in between the two. Rubbing wheels is very dangerous and I have seen more accidents and close calls because of this than any other unsafe practice. If the best draft is slightly to the left or right or if you just want to see the road ahead a little, it’s ok to move to off to the side a little, but don’t creep up and cross wheels. This allows the person in front of you to move side to side a little to avoid obstacles or to get a better draft. An echelon is different than a paceline and is beyond the scope of this article. It can sometimes look like everyone is half-wheeling, but the dynamics are pretty different.

Communicate

Road hazards, turns, and anything else that may increase the risk to the group needs to be communicated. Hand signals are great, but sometimes you need to hold on in order to control your bike and instead speak up. Start letting others know as soon as you see it. Keep in mind that the rider at the back can’t see what’s up ahead. Remember those word problems in math class? You don’t have to calculate this one, but think about it for a moment. A paceline of 10 riders is going 18 mph. The leader spots a road hazard 0.25 mi up the road and signals to the person behind him. She then signals the rider behind her and so on down the line. Assuming each cyclist has a reaction time of 0.25 seconds plus another 0.25 seconds to signal, will the last person in the line be notified with enough time to avoid the hazard?

That said, if there is a hazard that you don’t have enough time to avoid, it’s usually best to rise up out of your saddle, relax your elbows, and ride it out. Announce it out loud so at least the people behind you know about it.

Pacelines are about the efficiency and overall speed of the whole line. If the pace is too fast for you to be able to recover before your next turn leading, speak up. It’s better to have the group slow down 5-10% now rather than slow down 25% later because you bonked.

Know How and When to Rotate

paceline rotation
There are many different correct ways to rotate a paceline. We use a clock-wise rotation on Boulder Cycling Club rides. The current leader (red) moves right and signals for the line to pass. The line passes on the left and the previous leader gets on at the back. The whole rotation should be done without interfering with other traffic.

How long you stay out front is ultimately up to you. We typically rotate every mile on rides longer than 40 miles. We use 1 mile rotations because roads usually have mile markers that are easy for everyone to see. Shorter rides usually have shorter pulls ranging from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Stronger riders may opt for longer pulls. Lead duration can vary based on topography, upcoming turns, traffic signals, and other road users. For example, it’s best to delay rotating if you are about to pass another cyclist or coming up to a stop sign. If you’re not feeling well and don’t have the strength for a full lead, it’s okay to skip a turn out front (don’t let anyone tell you different), but keep the rotation order. That means you’re out front for a couple seconds, then move right and rotate as normal. It’s courteous to warn the rider behind you as soon as you get up to second wheel if you plan to do this. The rotation is about predictability and safety, not rigid rules for the sake of rigid rules. Exceptions to the rotation flow can be performed safely if they are properly communicated.

Know How to Lead

Leading a paceline is not just about strength. In fact, it’s critical that you don’t pick up the pace. The leader also must keep pedaling, even if you only soft pedal and not coast (even downhill). Coasting causes the riders behind you to coast and causes a yo-yo effect. It’s also up to you to navigate the route, pointing out road hazards, communicating with other road users, and generally avoiding unnecessary risks. There are a number of situations the lead needs to watch out for that makes it easy to drop someone from circumstance. Getting back on the end of the line can be a little tricky for the previous leader if you don’t time it right. There are other places where the rest of the line is vulnerable to getting dropped.

Rolling terrain can break up a line pretty quickly. Check behind you as you are cresting the hill and don’t start bombing down if the line is a mess. Stop signs and intersections tend to break up lines as well. Allow the line to form back up before bringing it back up to full speed. No one should feel pressured to run a red light or blow through a stop sign in order to not get dropped.

Leading is not just up to the person in front. The second person in line is leading everyone behind him/her. It’s everyone’s responsibility to communicate with the people behind them, especially when slowing or stopping. Standing up to pedal? Give a little warning as this often causes you to momentarily slow down and your movements become a little jerky.

Know How to Follow

Learning how to draft is the most difficult of all cycling skills, in my personal opinion. It takes practice to maintain a consistent distance between yourself and the bike in front of you. Wind, changes in topography, fatigue, and cyclists’ different strengths all play dynamic roles in a paceline. The yo-yo effect is every paceline’s worst enemy. Be smooth, consistent, and predictable.

We already warned about overlapping wheels. Almost as important is: Don’t attack and shoot up to the front of the line. This really messes with the flow of the line and it can be very unsafe. Use the time while drafting to recover, hydrate, and refuel. Tip: Grab water and food with your left hand to stay close to your rear brake just in case. Find an easier gear and spin if you find yourself on top of the person in front of you. Move a little to the side or sit up a little taller to scrub off a little speed, but stay in the line. It’s tempting to take advantage of the “slingshot” effect, but don’t do it. This is about working together as a group, not going as fast as you possibly can in the moment. This might even mean feathering your brakes lightly going up a short hill, a seemingly counter-intuitive move. Can you pass on hills? Yes, but check behind you to make sure someone else isn’t about to pass you and communicate with the person you are passing.

The Double Paceline

double paceline rotationA double paceline is super efficient and can be pulled off safely and legally by a group that communicates well and when conditions allow. Everyone in the group should understand the law and when it is legal to ride two abreast. Merge into a single line like a zipper when you are required to ride single file with the front left cyclist (red) in the lead and the front right cyclist (blue) at second wheel. An easy rotation for a double line is the “volleyball” rotation. You stay out for two pulls this way so keep them a little shorter and be sure to communicate with each other.
Note: Boulder Cycling Club rarely uses a double paceline on rides since single file is often required to comply with local laws.

Descending

Descending as a line of riders has its own challenges. All of the above still applies, especially the bits about not half wheeling or jumping out of the rotation. Everyone is going faster, so the risks are inherently higher. Respect the limitations of the less capable and confident descenders in the group and do not push them too hard. Don’t rotate when going around sharp corners, wait until you have a relative straightaway. The lead rider should check in with the rest of the line after those sharp corners to make sure you don’t drop those who took the turn a little slower.

Drafting on a descent is more difficult because it’s harder to maintain your distance from the rider in front of you and the line the leader chooses through a corner may be different than what you are most comfortable with. You can lightly feather your brakes if you need, but you don’t want to touch your front brake while cornering.

Stop Signs and Bike Paths

Each bike in a paceline is considered a separate vehicle according to Colorado laws. Anticipate and expect the rider in front of you to obey the law. It’s ok for someone to announce that the intersection is clear, but please realize that may change very quickly. Be sure to thank any drivers that yield their right of way to let your group stay together.

There are many places where a paceline is appropriate. A bike path is not one of them. Don’t be a ‘pathlete’.

Other Tips & Etiquette

This post is by no means exhaustive. Let us know in the comments what you think.

  • Pentathius

    Pretty good discussion for pacelines, but there are a couple of clarifications that I think should be made. I believe that although technically there’s no difference between pacelines and drafting, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between when you’re trying to go as fast as possible and when you’re simply out with the group and getting the efficiencies of drafting. When I’ve been in pacelines, the front person only pulls for a very short time (seconds) before being passed by the next person in line. However, when I’m out with the group, the leads will pull for 5 or more minutes before moving out of the way. My experience with pacelines is that the lead moves over as soon as they get to the front and the next person goes immediately by. Given these two types of riding:

    1) For the less experienced, you’re right about half-wheeling. However, when riding with the group, it is common for the wind to be coming from the side of the person in the lead. In that case, the next person is often half-wheeling. I’m not saying this should be done in all rides, but it is something that’s done and people shouldn’t get the impression that it’s always bad. It’s the lead’s responsibility not to make sudden corrections.
    2) Normally, when riding a pace line, the pace line rotates into the wind. This is to take care of the half-wheeling issue (above).

  • toddatkins

    All excellent points. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. The club has unintentionally moved in a direction where a lead will pull for way longer than ideal. There are a number of group dynamics that we’re trying to address to get us back on track and is one of the motivations behind this article.

    Lead time is really dependent on the goals of the ride. Many groups will do a constant rotation because it’s basically short intervals. That’s great if everyone in the group has similar goals and fitness levels. Longer pulls tend to allow for a larger diversity of goals and abilities, in my experience.

    1) This is an echelon which I stated is different and beyond the article’s scope. You still don’t want to half-wheel or cross wheels in an echelon though. You still need a certain amount of spacing.

    2) There are pros and cons of basing your rotation direction on the wind. As I mentioned at the beginning, this is how BCC prefers rotate. Different groups will have different practices.