Cycling is a marvelous solitary activity. It can offer a way to get away from life’s stresses and give you more than just a workout. Group riding, however, is when life as a roadie really becomes fun.
Riding with a group presents cycling as almost a different sport. While riding alone your nose is always in the wind; riding in a group presents a number of benefits:
• You will cover more ground in the same amount of time.
• You will learn new routes.
• You will make new friends.
• You will be pushed to a new level of fitness.
• You will hone your bike-handling skills.
How to Ride in a Paceline
The first step toward riding in a group is learning to draft another rider. Drafting can cut your effort by a third—sometimes more—depending on how close you follow the rider ahead of you and how large that rider is. The bigger the rider, the better the draft. The best way to learn how to draft is to ride in a paceline—and they come in three flavors.
The simplest form of group riding to learn is the single paceline. Single pacelines are usually made up of a small group of riders—they can be hard to keep organized with more than 10 or 12 riders. Your turn at the front is like playing locomotive to a train and it is called “taking a pull.” This isn’t literal, of course, but your effort is referred to as your “pull.”
After pulling at the front for a period of time (some groups might choose 30 seconds, a minute, or more depending on speed, fitness, or other factors such as traffic), the rider will “pull off,” meaning the rider moves either to the left or right out of the line and drops to the back of the group. In this version, riders line up single-file and the rider at the front pulls the group for a period of time (again, the length of time may be dictated by speed, fitness, or road conditions) and then rotates off and drops back. For the safety of the group, it is generally best to pull off to the left after checking the traffic behind the group.
The pace should remain consistent when you get to the front. If the pace is high—higher than you are accustomed to—it is preferable to take a shorter pull at the higher pace than a longer pull at a slower pace. Do not slow until you have pulled off, that is, until you have moved far enough to the left or right that the rider just behind you may pass unimpeded. When you drop back, begin to accelerate when you are even with the last rider so that you move smoothly into that rider’s draft. If you wait to accelerate until that rider is ahead of you, you are likely to have trouble getting back into his draft.
Riding in a paceline is easier to learn if the other riders are experienced. Initially, the most difficult skill to learn is how to keep a constant pace that matches the speed of the rider in front of you. Many riders try to learn with other inexperienced riders; it’s nearly impossible to learn how to maintain a consistent pace if the rider you are following doesn’t know how to do it either. A single paceline is an easier circumstance to learn in because if you find yourself gaining on the rider in front of you, you can move either to the left or right of the rider.
Try to maintain a distance of three to six feet behind the rider you follow. As you become more comfortable drafting, you can shrink that distance. Experienced riders can ride inches from the rider ahead of them. Most skilled riders will maintain a safety margin of a foot to the rider ahead. Try to limit your side-to-side distance from their line to a maximum of one foot to either side.
Peel off before you feel you need to. Until you have a clear picture of your fitness, keep your pulls short. If you wait to pull off until you feel tired, there’s a good chance that you’ll get spit out of the group rather than making it back into the paceline.
In a double paceline, riders are assembled in pairs. It is essentially two single rotating pacelines assembled side-by-side. The rider on the left will pull off to the left while the rider on the right will pull off to the right. After pulling at the front for a period of time (some groups might choose 30 seconds, a minute, or more depending on speed, fitness, or other factors such as lane width), the two riders will pull off simultaneously. They slow and allow themselves to be passed by the group before moving back into the rotation at the back of the group. Double pacelines are the best way to keep a large group orderly.
Maintain your pace when the rider in front of you pulls off. The big mistake new riders make is to accelerate when the riders in front of them pull off. Just as with the single rotating paceline, unless the group has agreed to accelerate, etiquette requires that the effort remain consistent. So while your effort will go up slightly because you no longer have a draft, the pace should not increase. Changes in terrain, such as what riders call a false flat (a slight uphill grade, almost imperceptible to the eye, but noticeable to a rider) or a slight downhill, can result in a change of pace; the point is to keep the effort level consistent.
Maintain a consistent distance to the rider next to you. Experienced riders will ride one to three feet from each other side-to-side. This distance is easy to maintain if you follow the line of the rider in front of you.
Stay even with the rider next to you. If you pull ahead or fall behind the rider next to you, that is called “half-wheeling.” It is, in short, one of the cardinal sins of cycling. That disparity in distance will radiate through a group, making a mess of a previously orderly paceline. Worse yet, half-wheeling by pulling ahead can cause the group’s pace to rise because as the rider being half-wheeled tries to pull level, the half-wheeling rider will often increase pace, perpetuating the problem.
The rotating paceline is the most advanced of the pacelines. As a result, it requires the greatest care to execute. Like the single paceline, it is used with a smaller group of riders. This kind of paceline works best if the riders in the group are relatively evenly matched in ability. If there is a wide range of ability, it will be difficult to keep the rotation smooth.
The rotating paceline starts the same way as the single paceline. Riders begin in a single line. The difference is that riders pull off sequentially, with riders pulling off as soon as there is room to move to the side without brushing the front wheel of the rider dropping back.
One side of the rotation will move faster than the other. The rider at the front of the faster side will only pull as long as it takes to pass the rider in the other line, at which time he pulls off gradually. The rider he passes will call out “clear” when the passing rider’s rear wheel is ahead of the passed rider’s front wheel. Once in the slower line, the rider will gradually drop back until he can move into the other line. In particularly fast rotations after moving into the accelerating line, the rider will call out to the nearest rider, “last.” This will help the rider anticipate the acceleration that is required to get back into the faster line.
As you move forward in the faster line, the rider ahead of you will become the rider you pass as you pull off. This rider will call “clear” to you. After you pull off, the rider that pulls in front of you will be the one you call “clear” to. When you get to the back of the rotation, the rider that previously called out “clear” to you will now call out “last.” You will call out “last” for the rider ahead of you, the one you called out “clear” to. Done correctly, you’ll always call out to the same rider and will be called to by the same rider.
If the rotation becomes disorganized, allow riders to rest briefly by going single file. Once everyone has had a breather, you can begin the rotation again. Any accelerations should be gradual—don’t increase the speed during your pull by more than 0.5 mph.
Patrick Brady is the author of the forthcoming "The No Drop Zone, Everything You Need to Know About the Peloton, Your Gear and Riding Strong," published by Menasha Ridge Press, which will be released this May. When Patrick started writing about cycling 20 years ago Greg LeMond was still a pro and Lance Armstrong was an amateur hoping to make the Olympic Team. Since then he has served as an editor for Bicycle Guide magazine and publisher of Asphalt Magazine. In addition to his work as a contributing editor to peloton magazine, Patrick publishes his own blog, Red Kite Prayer.