This Article was written by 15 year professional cyclist and top 10 finisher in the Tour de France, Tom Danielson.
Whether you are a road, gravel, mountain bike, or cyclocross focused cyclist, riding in pacelines is a big part of your sport. Despite it being such a crucial part of the sport, few master it. You may be surprised to find out that your experience level that determines your skill on a paceline It doesn’t matter if you are a Tour de France veteran or a first-time rider, we all make mistakes in the paceline. You may have even been yelled at a time or two in a paceline for something another viewed as improper etiquette. But don’t feel bad we’ve all been there.
Even the top professionals oftentimes struggle to execute the perfect paceline, just look at the highest level pace line-ing possible, the team time trial in the Tour de France. If you’ve watched this stage on television, you will recall the wide range of misfortune that teams and riders experience in less than an hour of riding. Few teams nail it completely and many struggles with crashes, and dropped team members resulting in the same negative verbal and hand gestures you experience on your local ride. Why? Because it’s hard and most never take the time to learn it properly.
So how do you properly execute a paceline? Let’s begin by defining its purpose.
The function of a paceline is to work as a group, together, to use the least amount of energy to go the fastest speed possible over a given distance.
Say what? You mean a paceline is not used to hurt other riders and show everybody how strong I am?
In fact, when you hurt the other riders in your paceline, you slow the group down.
Use these ten tips to yield faster, more efficient, and safer pace lines.
1. Avoid surging and quickly raising the speed of the group at the start of your pull. I know, you are chomping at the bit to have your moment of glory on the front. But try to avoid slingshotting off the rider that just pulled and raising the pace at the start of your pull. To do this, begin by watching the speed on your bike computer while you are behind. When the rider pulls off, start your pull by holding the same speed as they were. If you can easily do that, target a longer pull at this speed (1-2 mins). If you think the riders behind you can maintain a faster pace after you pull, raise the speed gently at the end of your pull.
2. Flick the elbow on the side you want the rider to pull through on before you pull off.
A big mistake that is often made is when the rider who is on the front sharply moves off to one side when their pull is finished. What usually happens behind is the rider on their wheel follows them, causing the entire group to swing dangerously to the side. The result of this kind of riding is a group now in the middle of the road, the speed drops as the rider in the front has slowed, and massive confusion on what to do next. The best way to avoid this is to signal which side you want the rider behind you to pull through on by flicking the elbow of the side. Then, after you have signaled, check over your shoulder if it is clear to pull off. If it’s clear, gently swing to that side. This helps avoid crashing the rider out behind you by moving across their front wheel if they are overlapping it. The flick of the elbow shows them where you are expecting them to go, and then the pause before moving allows them time to shift to that side if they are not already there.
3. Move like a bishop chess piece when you change your line. The two main times you should be changing your line during a paceline are when you are rotating off the front, or rotating back on to the rear of the paceline. To do this most safely and efficiently possible I advise moving in a diagonal way, similar to that of the bishop piece in chess. The diagonal shift is a smooth and predictable motion that others can easily react to. As opposed to moving side to side where overlapping wheels becomes a real danger and often results in crashes. But when moving diagonally, riders can ride closer together, overlapping wheels safely, and have time to react to changing sides as needed. One last benefit to moving diagonally is when you are dropping back to get on the back of the paceline, you’re afforded a little extra wind protection which will make the harsh effort of getting back on much easier.
4. Ease off the pedals after you rotate off the front of the paceline. Many riders make the costly mistake of continuing to ride the same speed after they rotate off the front. This makes it difficult for the rider who is next in line to come around them. Often in a moment of panic causing the rider to raise the speed to quickly to get around them causing a harsh acceleration for the rest of the group. By easing off the effort when you finish pulling, you save energy and you make it a little easier for your comrade behind you. Ultimately, keeping the group moving fast using less overall energy.
5. Stay seated when you are in or on the front of the paceline. Save the standing for when you are accelerating to get on the back on the paceline. Staying seated makes it easier for the riders behind you to follow your wheel. Often when someone transitions from seated to standing, there is a slight dead spot in their effort. This dead spot gives the appearance of a backward bike throw to the rider behind you. The backwards bike throw usually causes people to react by slamming on the brakes and swerving off to one side abruptly. By reserving the standing for the back of the group, you can stand longer and take the time to stretch your back, legs, and move your head around to avoid the common stiff neck.
6. Use your front brake as a clutch. Just like a clutch works in your car or motorcycle to disengage the engine while you are driving, you can do the same with your front brake on your bike. Disengaging your effort while still moving helps to even out your effort. No matter how hard you try, pacelines are not going to be perfectly steady. There are going to be times when you will need to ease up to avoid passing the rider in front of you, and equally, there will be times where you will need to accelerate to keep up with the rider in front of you. But you don’t want your physical effort to be at the mercy of the guy in front of you. Which often leads to burning excess energy during the wrong times. Apply the front brake gently, but keep pedaling the same amount of force, when the rider in front of you slows. Use just enough brake so you stay in the same position in relation to them as before they started slowing. Then, as you see them start to reaccelerate, ease off your front brake while still pedaling the same effort. With the draft and your previous speed, you should be able to stay in the position with the same effort. Viola! No more costly surge-filled pace line riding! Oh, and the riders behind you will be clamoring to ride on such a smooth wheel!
7. Ride slightly off to one side of the rider that you are behind. The paceline police will probably incorrectly want to “educate” you not to do this when they see you, but riding directly behind someone is not how you ride well in a paceline. When you ride off to one side of someone you are setting yourself up to be smoother and safer. If the rider in front of you slows down abruptly, you do not need to react abruptly because there is room for their wheel to go backwards. Thus, you don’t need to be always braking and then accelerating. The next advantage of positioning off to one side is that you can see where you are riding, not using tremendous focus fixating on trying to hold a tight gap to the wheel in front of you. Most accidents are due to riders looking down and not enough in front of them to see holes, rocks, or riders changing speed/lines in front of them. The final piece of riding slightly off to one side is that you must commit to it. This means first making sure it is safe. Look in advance to see if there is a safe place to bail out if the rider in front of you swerves, crashes, or flats. Knowing your exit strategy in case of an emergency is pivotal to avoiding crashes. Keep in mind you may have to change the side you are on during the ride, just avoid constantly doing it.
8. Take long, steady pulls in the headwinds. In a headwind the key is maintaining the speed. No matter how smooth you are, every rotation is going to result in a slight drop in overall speed when the rider pulls off and the new rider gets hit with the headwind. The fewer rotations, the smoother the group will be, resulting in faster time throughout the headwind section. Keep in mind, if the group is uneven in strength, the strongest riders should take long and steady pulls, with the weaker riders sitting on.
9. Take shorter, harder pulls in the tailwinds. In contrast to a headwind, with a tailwind, the name of the game is raising the speed. With the wind pushing the group from behind, it is easy to maintain speed. Thus, the objective of each member in the group needs to be short, explosive pulls. With this strategy you can dramatically raise the group’s speed, and maintain it for the duration of the tailwind section. But one area of caution, the tailwind also reduces the effect of the daft. So the weaker riders will need to be ready to dig deep on this section to stay in the group, a further argument for sitting on during the headwind sections.
10. There is nothing wrong with sitting on. I know, I know. It is embarrassing to sit back there and not “help.” But listen, pacelines are about the group going as fast as possible working together. This means different abilities have different roles and responsibilities. Do what you can in the right areas to help the group, and in the areas you cannot help try and be patient. It is not your role to drop yourself because you are not as strong as the others (as many believe it should be). You are not a kamikaze, you don’t need to take that pull if it means blowing yourself up. It is the responsibility of the stronger riders to decide if you being there is a threat to them and strategically how they are going to handle it. Most riders don’t mind less experienced athletes sitting on or missing a pull. But in case they do yelling at you and shaming you into dropping yourself is NOT an acceptable strategy. It’s not your problem if you are still with them, it’s there’s.
To make these ten tips work, it is important to practice as much as possible. Just like anything, getting better takes work and time. Local group rides or organized rides with your friends are the ideal environments to work on paceline riding. Now get out there and start making your pace line riding more fun, safe, and effective!
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