Pace line riding

Pace line riding consists of two or more riders traveling in a tight group in the draft of the rider(s) in front of you. The front rider of the line creates a draft for following riders, which can be used for more efficient riding.

The draft envelope behind a single bicycle is about six feet long. The closer your front wheel is to the rear wheel of the rider ahead of you, the stronger the draft. Pace lining can save 20 to 30% of your energy output. This energy savings is what allows the pace line group to travel at higher speeds. Concentration on what you are doing in a pace line is essential; there is no time for sightseeing. Drafting behind one rider is the best way to start - someone you have ridden with before is best so that you'll already be familiar with his or her riding habits.

Group riding tips from David Cole

I've been cycling for a number of years, long enough to have encountered a variety of riding situations and to have matured some of my own group riding skills. I know from experience that riding as a newbie in an experienced group can be intimidating. I also know that inexperienced riders can pose a real safety threat within a group. So... I offer these group riding tips that I've picked up along the way, and hope they'll be helpful to others.

  • Hold your line No matter how large the group you'll tend to fall into single, double, or perhaps even triple-file lines. It is critically important that you recogize the structure of the group and fall into place accordingly. Cyclists who ride "between the lines" will almost invariably be overlapping their wheels with other riders, and any wheel contact will take both riders down. Maintaining your line becomes especially important as you round corners, as you don't want to cut other riders off in a curve. Perhaps more than anything else, riding safely in a group means riding predictably. If you hear someone behind you yell, "Hold your line!" know that they're doing you a favor, even if it may not sound like one at the time.
  • Maintain awareness To move safely within a group you must be constantly aware of the riders around you - ahead, behind, to your left and your right. When I ride solo I always ride with a mirror - I want to know what's coming up behind me. In a group of more than a few riders, however, I find that the mirror only helps on one side, and what I really need to know is who's immediately around me. In this situation glancing over each shoulder can keep you better informed of who's where.

    You also want to pay close attention to the rider in front of you. If he or she is riding erratically then you may want a larger gap between you than if the rider's a long-time riding partner.

  • Announce hazards When you're in a large pack only the first few riders can see the road. It is more than just a courtesy to point to and call out road hazards such as gravel and potholes. You should also announce when you're overtaking slower riders and if you're braking unexpectedly ("Slowing!"). Good group communication keeps everyone riding safely.

    I sometimes call out approaching traffic ("Car back!", or "Car up!") but do so only when it's out of the ordinary, such as a car pulling a wide trailer or a dump truck or the like. Announcing every car causes riders to become desensitized to situations which truly warrant their full attention.

  • Announce your moves When you're moving in or out of a line, point to where you're going so that riders behind you know what to expect. This is part of maintaining awareness of the riders around you and riding predictably.
  • Maintain your pace When you're drafting you gain about 1% efficiency per mph. You can ride in a group at 22-24mph at about the same effort it would take to ride at 20 mph solo. To ride efficiently the group needs to ride at a steady pace and avoid unnecessary slowdowns. Two common bottlenecks are:
    • descending/climbing hills If you're in the front while descending a hill, you need to remember that if you're coasting then the folks behind you are braking. As you approach the bottom of a hill you should accelerate to maintain your pace as you climb up the other side (otherwise the group will "bunch up" as the faster riders in the back catch up with the slower, climbing riders in front). I'm surprised at how many experienced riders simply don't know how to attack a hill. It's actually easier if you can maintain your momentum by accelerating at the bottom, and it keeps the group from compressing.
    • at corners It's only natural to slow as you go around a corner, but this can have a cumulative effect with a large group. The trick here is to cut a line through the turn which the group can follow and then accelerate smoothly as you go out the other side.

    One other situation to be aware of is when you get out of the saddle for a climb or sprint. It's easy to slow down slightly as you stand on the pedals, and this can be just enough for the rider behind you to collide with your rear wheel. You should practice accelerating slightly as you come out of the saddle to compensate. Since most riders aren't aware of this, don't feel bad about mentioning it when you see another rider do it.

  • Take your turn at the front Remember that drafting is much easier than pulling, and it's common for folks to feel the need to demonstrate their fresh legs when it's their turn to pull. Pay attention to the pace of the paceline. If the group is maintaining, say, 22mph on the flats, then that's the pace you should pull when you're in front. If you do choose to push the pace, try and wait until the prior leader (who's falling to the back of the line) is in line and back up to speed.

    The whole idea of the paceline is to share the load up front. If you have more than a few riders then you should limit your pull to a half-mile or so. Don't feel bad about taking a shorter pull if you think most of the group is stronger than yourself.

    It's generally considered polite to switch off at the top of a hill. This provides for better visibility to ensure you're clear of traffic, and it lets the next leader start out in more favorable conditions.

  • Keep your position This one's a bit of a pet peeve of mine, but some riders feel compelled to sprint every hill regardless of the pace of the rest of the group. These same riders will often then catch their breath on the flats, causing the group to ride faster, and then slower than what they'd otherwise choose. I realize that some riders are going to be stronger climbers than others, but if you have extra energy to burn I suggest you take a longer pull at the front. Otherwise, try and maintain your relative position in the paceline.
  • Be careful with aerobars. I ride with aerobars because I like having the additional hand positions. However, using the aerobars limits my bike handling; I'm less stable and I can't brake or shift as quickly. When I'm in a group I only use my aerobars if I'm in front pulling the paceline or if I'm in pursuit mode trying to close a gap. There are some folks that feel you should never use aerobars in a group because of the reducing handling.
  • Recognize when you loose riders off the back This is especially true when you have a small group. You want to make sure that riders who are dropped don't end up lost. You also want to ensure that they're not having mechanical or physical problems.
  • Recognize a rotating echelon Occasionally you may notice a situation where the lead rider in a paceline switches off almost immediately after pulling through. That is, almost as soon as the previous leader falls back, the new leader will likewise pull over and start to fall back. As other riders repeat this sequence, you end up with two parallel pacelines, with the outer line going a little more slowly than the inner line (since the riders in the outer line are all falling back). This is called a 'rotating echelon,' and it allows a group to move very quickly, since any one rider is pulling the line for only a short time. This seems to work best in groups of 10-14 riders and will quickly break down if anyone is unfamiliar with the protocol. If you're in a group that starts an echelon, just do what everyone else seems to be doing (like the way most of us learned to dance in junior high) and enjoy the fast, steady pace.

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Pace line rules from Cycling Weekly

  • Be predictable - Follow a straight line or the obvious racing line. Maintain a consistent direction of motion and avoid weaving.
  • Don't look back - It's what's in front that's important. The only time you should need to look back is when you are the lead rider and you are planning to fall back; in this case, you should look back briefly to ensure that there are no cars approaching; as you look back, keep your speed steady. Once you have cleared the front of the pace line, decrease your speed and get to the back quickly for a deserved rest.
  • Keep your head up - You should be able to see what is going on 120 feet up the road. Don't become fixated on the wheel of the cyclist in front of you. Look at the arms and shoulders of the rider in front of you. This gives you the best indication of a quick turn or change in direction usually associated with debris or obstacles. Keep your eyes up at all times so you can see what is happening. Regularly glance 3 to 5 riders ahead to see what lies ahead.
  • Go easy on your brakes - Use your brakes sparingly. Most crashes are caused by someone braking sharply and the rider behind touching wheels with them. If you are getting too close to the rider immediately in front of you, try "soft pedaling" instead of braking to adjust the gap. If you need to brake, do it gently. Never suddenly slow or attempt a quick stop without a hand or voice signal first - it results in pile ups!
  • Stay close to the wheel in front - With practice you will want to ride about 1 foot behind the wheel of the cyclist in front of you in order to keep the group tight and to take full advantage of the "draft". If you are brand new to riding in a pace line, you should begin by maintaining a longer distance (e.g., 3 to 4 feet) and gradually decrease the distance as your pace line skills improve. Also, stagger your front wheel about 6 inches to the left or to the right of the rear wheel of the cyclist in front of you; this wheel placement should provide extra reaction time in case the cyclist in front of you does something unpredictable (e.g., brakes suddenly or swerves). In addition, being slightly off to one side should allow you to see what is ahead. Back off when approaching a challenging rise or drop in terrain, when on a poor road surface with potholes or bumps, or when approaching curves in the road.
  • Signal to others - If you need to avoid a parked car or pothole, point it out in advance. Always signal gravel, debris, other riders, cars, pedestrians, turns, and pace line rotations. Pass the appropriate signals down the pace line from rider to rider. This keeps everyone alert to what is ahead of your group. You can use voice or hand signals. Our FAQ page explains the typical signals used for paceline communication.
  • Warn others of your intentions - If you need to stop or pull over indicate or shout your intentions and do it slowly. Move to the left or right and yell "slowing" or "stopping" before you brake.
  • Don't overlap wheels - Overlapping wheels with the cyclist in front of you can be a formula for disaster if he/she decides to suddenly pull out to the left or to the right in the direction of your wheel. The advantage gained by close following is not worth the risk of crashing. You should avoid overlapping wheels with the cyclist in front of you as an attempt to continually force up the riding pace.
  • Maintain a steady speed - Focus on maintaining a steady cadence and let your gears do the work. That is, no surging fast and then suddenly slowing (i.e., the bungee cord effect). This aids other cyclists as well as cars sharing the road. It's natural to slow for hills and headwinds. Keeping a consistent speed takes practice and awareness.
  • Pass on the left - Never pass on the right unless you are absolutely certain that there is plenty of room and the rider in front absolutely knows you are coming around because you yelled "coming by on your right" and you saw a visible reaction.
  • Be considerate of the riders behind you - When possible wait until you are at the back of the group before drinking from your water bottle or spitting. If you must spit or blow your nose move out of the pace line enough so no one is directly behind you.
  • "Secure your luggage" - Make sure that your water bottles, tire pump and anything else attached to your bicycle are tightly secure (i.e. able to withstand the jolt of hitting a bump or pothole and not moving). A loose water bottle flying out in the road can bring down the entire group as cyclists swerve to avoid hitting the water bottle.

Rotation frequency

How long do you pull the pace line before rotating to the back? The answer depends on the number of riders in the pace line and their relative strength. If you are struggling to maintain speed at the front of the pace line, then it is past the time to rotate to the back.

The length of each pull will decrease with more riders. In a typical pace line of five or fewer riders, the stronger riders will be pulling for 60 to 80 pedal strokes (e.g. for about a minute or so). In larger pace lines this should decrease to a range of 30 to 60 pedal strokes. Weaker riders should be down to 15 to 40 pedal strokes.

When riding with stronger riders, take a shorter pull.

Riding in the front

When on the front, keep your head up, call out the junk, and watch the lights. You are responsible for the safety of many riders. Don't let them down.

Anticipate stoplight changes - it is your responsibility to get the entire group through the intersection safely.

Go easy off the lights or around corners; give cyclists in the back of the group time to get going without getting whiplash!

Communicate changes in your speed both verbally and with hand signals. Alert following riders when you are slowing or stopping. Signal left or right turns in advance of the actual turn to ensure all riders are prepared.

If you stop after a turn, make sure you pull up to allow enough room for all following riders to stop safely.

Leader signals

Before the leader gets tired, he or she checks traffic behind, provides a hand signal, slowly moves to the left, and lets the next rider pull alongside to take the lead. Then the former leader eases up pedaling and drifts toward the back.

From a safety and efficiency point of view the next pace line leader is the rider directly behind the current leader. How does the current leader communicate to the immediate riders directly behind that he or she is pulling off? One of the best hand signals is the use of the rider's left or right elbow pointed straight out from the shoulder with the hand near the waist. This forms an arrow that will not get confused with left or right turn signals or on the road debris signals. This hand signal needs to be held for four or five seconds to give the rider directly behind the leader an opportunity to prepare for becoming the new leader. Normally, the current leader pulls off to the left of the pack. Move over gradually rather than swerving quickly to the side. As the current leader pulls off, his or her speed must remain the same before slowing to ensure the new leader an opportunity to safely take the lead of the pack. Once the retiring leader is safely over (typically to the left), he or she slows to efficiently return to the back of the pace line.

When giving up the lead and pulling out to the left, avoid veering out in the road more than necessary; try to stay relatively close to the pace line on your right. This way you may still get some protection from the wind.

As the retiring leader nears the back of the pace line, it is very useful for the end rider of the pace line to tell the retiring leader that they are approaching the end of the line (e.g., by yelling "last man").

Once the retiring leader gets near the end of the pace line, it is useful to get out of the saddle and bring the speed back up to the pace line speed. This out of the saddle approach serves two purposes. First, it helps the retiring leader to speed up and, second, it provides an opportunity to stretch their leg muscles.

The new leader must maintain the same speed without sprinting, speeding up or slowing down during the first few seconds of the transition. If the new leader wants to increase the speed, then the best results are achieved with a slow increase in order to keep the pace line smooth and efficient.

The new leader should signal his or her retiring before fatigue or slowing becomes apparent. The best result is to retire just before slowing occurs. That way, the retiring leader still has enough energy to get back onto the end of the pace line.

When on the front, don't talk. You have too much responsibility.

On descents, keep pedaling so that everyone doesn't stack up behind you.

Hand signals

Hand signals need to be held for four to six seconds so the riders behind you have a chance to react and signal the riders behind them. If you are the current lead rider of the pace line, then initiate your signal three to five seconds before reaching the location associated with its purpose. The current leader needs to plan and initiate a change in the travel path before the group encounters other riders, debris, rocks, pot holes, and the like. The leader must hold the new travel path well past the slower riders, debris, etc., until it is safe to move over to the right slowly.

General

If you must chit-chat in the pace line, skip the eye contact. Watch the rider in front of you and the traffic on the road.

When moving from a seated to a standing position, stay on the power so you do not fall back into the bike behind you. When standing on the pedals, give them a couple of hard pumps as you stand up. When you raise out of the saddle, you tend to slow down before picking up your pace. When this happens, your rear wheel can accidentally hit the front wheel of the rider behind you.

If you find that you can't hold with the pace line that you're in, signal, then pull out of the pace line and back off. If you are smart, you can jump back at the rear and get a break too.

When learning to ride a pace line, you may be hanging on the back for dear life, doing all you can to stay with the group. If you are spent and can't keep up, ask for an easier speed (e.g., "please slow down" or "can we go slower?"). If you are drifting off the back, make a huge effort to get back on a wheel to take advantage of the draft.

If you tire, sit out as many turns as necessary at the back. Let riders coming back know that you are resting, and give them space to move in ahead of you.

As the speed increases, gaps may develop because riders can't hold the wheel ahead or miss the last wheel as they try to get back on the end of the pace line. Strong riders need to fill these gaps in order to preserve the flow, even if it means safely "jumping across" and moving back up the line early.

In general, the pace line should remain in single file when approaching and proceeding through traffic lights. If some of the group is caught at a red light, ease up to allow them to ride back up to the group. Each cyclist is responsible for verifying that the way is clear before entering the intersection.

If a member of the group experiences a flat or other mechanical problem, it is common courtesy for the entire group to stop to lend a helping hand.

Regroup after hills or other difficulties such as turns to keep everyone together.

For safety and as a courtesy, if the group spreads out, the last two people should adjust their speed to ride as a pair. If either should need assistance they will have a helping hand.

Eating and drinking

Wait for a clear stretch of road and drift to the back so as not to get in the way. Use one hand to eat (or drink) and make sure the other is covering the brake just in case. Chopping up your food into bite-sized pieces and opening wrappers before you start will save you struggling to open a packet on the move.

Dealing with the unexpected

If you are riding in a pace line and experience a puncture, don't panic! Raise your arm and yell out "puncture" or "flat" and "stopping". Keep to your line, slowing down gradually by soft pedaling rather than suddenly braking. Avoid slamming on your brakes since there should be enough air left in your inner tube to avoid damaging your wheel. As soon as everyone has passed, pull over.

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