By Craig Undem
Welcome to Cycle University! Our overriding goal is to teach people safe ways to have fun on their bikes. One of the most fun things to do is ride with a group and share the load and get challenged by other strong riders. This partial version of our Road 101 curriculum will give you safe fundamentals for your next group ride. Be safe and get ready to ride!
Why Ride in a Paceline?
Riding in a paceline is the most efficient way of cycling in a group. Riding third wheel or further back saves up to 30% of your energy. Since you get to rest a little, you can go longer at a faster pace than is possible riding solo. And riding in a fast-moving group is exhilarating!
Before the Ride
Discuss safety rules, pace and roles with your group before the ride starts. The most efficient line is one where every rider is of roughly equal strength. Failing that, the strongest riders should take the longest pulls as the leader. Weaker riders should take short (or no) pulls in line with their relative strength in the group.
General Group Riding/Paceline Skills
As a general rule, ride one to two feet off to one side of the rider in front of you. The exception is when riding at higher speeds you will often be directly behind the rider’s rear wheel to maximize draft. In this case you need to be ready to move to the side if the pace slows down. Keep your hands near the brakes with arms loose and elbows bent, so you are ready to break with a moment’s notice.
Be predictable. Even minor changes in your speed or direction can disrupt the riders behind you or even cause a crash. Maintain the flow of the paceline even if this means riding over small obstacles like sticks or pebbles. If you suddenly swerve it could cause a crash behind you.
Look past the rider in front of you, not at their wheel. Look further ahead in the group to anticipate upcoming obstacles, see condition of road surface or changes in pace. When dropping back in a paceline, move to the left unless the group has agreed to do otherwise.
To ensure your safety and the safety of others, make sure to let other riders and pedestrians know you are coming. Pass other riders on their left and call out “Passing” or “On your left.” When the group is passing pedestrians, loudly announce “Bikes passing!”
Emphatically signal when you slow down or stop. Always stop at stop signs and red lights. It is especially critical for the riders in the front to do this, so riders in the back don’t feel like they have to blast through so they don’t get dropped. Riders at the front should slowly roll away from stops so everyone can come together as a group before the pace is raised. The goal is to ensure your safety and to demonstrate courtesy and respect for car drivers. This will help cycling’s image, as well as make the ride safer.
Riders at the back shouldn’t lollygag, but should catch up quickly and let the front riders know when the group is together with a call of “all on.” When a car approaches from the rear yell “car back!” and ride single file until the cars have passed
It is also important to know and use hand signals:
- Point down = hole or object.
- Pat your butt = moving over away from hazard at body level on that side.
- Hand fanning back and forth = glass or gravel.
- Hand flat back = slowing/stopping.
Do not ride a bike with aerobars in a paceline. There is no better way to make your riding companions more uncomfortable than to show up to a paceline ride with handlebars that place your hands nowhere near the brakes. Well, maybe if you show up with an iPod plugged into your ears.
When you are in front, you are the leader. Anticipate hazards by leading the group away from holes or debris. Ride smoothly with no sudden turns or slowing. Communicate all obstacles you encounter at the front end of the paceline.
The leader is responsible for everyone behind him or her. The key is smoothness, as any jerkiness in pace is amplified down the line. Safety is the leader’s #1 priority, and he or she must point and call out hazards. It’s also critical that the leader doesn’t ride in such a way as to inadvertently guide people straight into a hazardous condition on the road. If possible, the first person in line should swing wide enough of surface irregularities, etc., so the following riders have a clear view of what they are approaching.
When you are in the lead, maintain the agreed-upon pace and effort level. When you are done with your pull, look left to make sure it’s clear. Then flick your elbow to signal to the next rider that you are done, and pull over to the left about two feet, keeping the same pace. After you are off the front, slow down enough to get to the back of the line. The last rider in line says “last” to rider dropping back. While at the back, take the opportunity to drink and eat.
If you encounter a hill, keep the momentum of the group as you start the hill. Pull over at the top of hills, get the group back up to speed, and then drop back. Do not end your pull at the start of a hill (or other major terrain change), as this will create chaos within the group. As a general rule, regroup at the top of hills.
As the second in line assumes the lead role, once again, the key is smoothness. Do not increase the pace. If you do, you may wind up dropping the person who was just on the front providing you a draft. The key is to maintain the effort level (not the speed, which will vary according to wind, road surface and gradient), so that when the ex-leader reaches the rear, he or she doesn’t have to dig deep to stay in a line that is now going much harder.
There are two ways for a rider to show strength when riding in a paceline, but only one of them will make you a hero. Nobody will thank a rider for stepping on the gas when it’s their turn on the front and dropping half of the group. Everybody should thank a rider who takes a really long pull and maintains the pace that the line has been travelling.
If the group wants to ride together, the pace should be the pace that the “least strong” rider can sustain. Prior to the start of the ride, agree on the maximum pace/effort level the group will be doing on flat roads. For example, “We’ll be riding at 20 mph on the flats.”
Don’t sprint or “attack” off of the front (except on hills). If people attack, the following riders have no idea what is going on, and don’t know if they should try and catch up or stay put. This can cause the group to split up.
Depending on the group and the agreed-upon pace, the ride will be easier for some folks and harder for others. Not everyone has the same fitness level. To keep the group together I suggest that stronger riders take longer pulls at the agreed-upon pace, rather than increasing the pace. As I stated earlier, it’s very helpful to discuss roles at the beginning of the ride.
Ideally everybody equally shares the work on the front, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Avoid the “slinky” by rolling off of stops and letting the group get back together. Leaders should roll easy until they hear the call “All on” from the back.
Remember, have fun, be safe, and get ready to ride Obliteride to end cancer!
About Craig Undem
Craig Undem is an owner/coach at Cycle University with lifelong passions for cycling and endurance sport. Craig got his start in cycling with a collegiate race in 1983, going on to race in the World Championships of Cyclocross – winning a World Cup medal in Mountain Bike Racing and placing second in the U.S. in Elite Criterium Championships – and racing Track and Triathlon. Off the bike, Craig has been a professional cycling coach since 1996 and is currently the Director of all Junior racing in the state of Washington. He’s also a coach with USA Cycling and a graduate of the Carmichael Coaching College.
The legal stuff: The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.