Ride SMART Paceline Tips
Pacelines are not for everyone! Below 16-18mph the benefits of drafting are minimal and greatly overshadowed by the increased danger of crashes that can result in serious injuries. Pacelines are not relaxing – they require greater attentiveness and a mental shift from solo to group riding concerns.
A well-functioning and organized paceline allows cyclists to ride farther and go faster than riding solo. How to safely ride in a paceline is the most advanced skill many of us will learn in our cycling lives, so great care and attention must be paid to the details of this powerful formation. A paceline is a string of riders following closely behind one another and benefiting from drafting. The higher the speed, the more the paceline shelters riders from the wind and delivers faster average speeds. For the novice, however, there is much to learn about riding safely in this formation.
How to ride in a paceline
- ALWAYS ask before joining a paceline AND join at the rear/end, NOT the middle.
- Ride a straight line. Avoid overlapping your front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider ahead of you – should they swerve suddenly, taking your front wheel, you could to down and bring other riders behind you down.
- Avoid jamming your brakes! Control your speed by slightly drifting out of the draft, or by gently “feathering” the brakes without disrupting your pedal stroke (the latter causes the rider behind to tense and over-slow).
- Start with a bike length gap until you are comfortable riding close to another rider’s rear wheel. The ideal gap is about 12 to 18 inches: the slower the speed, the shorter the “wind shadow”— at 25mph (or behind a tandem) the “sweet spot” may expand to 36 inches. Start out where you feel comfortable, and as you gain experience move closer.
- If you allow too big a gap and lose the draft, close the gap gradually rather than abruptly.
- When feasible, keep your front wheel 6 to 12 inches offset to either side of the rear wheel in front. That way, when the rider in front slows down, you can drift up alongside instead of braking or hitting the rear wheel.
- Remain alert – there’s a tendency to over-relax because the physical effort is so much less when drafting. Never ride with earphones or earbud(s). Pull off and stop when using a cell phone.
- Never use aero bars IN a paceline (there’s a reason that they’re banned in racing except for time trials).
- Don’t focus on the rear wheel – try to see the road ahead, or at least look at the road through the knees of the rider ahead and try to anticipate movements, turns, slowing and acceleration.
- Don’t look behind by turning your head – unless you have trained not to, you will drift left (or right). Consider investing in a mirror.
What to look for in a good paceline
- Smoothness: a steady pace with no jerky, accordion-like movements.
- Gradual avoidance of obstacles; no abrupt turns, swerves or braking; gentle slowing for stop signs and traffic lights with gradual resumption of the pace – not a sprint.
- Above all, there should be a sense of ease and not of danger.
A good paceline leader will
- Ride further from the right edge (18 to 24 inches) than when solo.
- Look further ahead to anticipate obstacles (the faster, the further) and then “snake” around them with greater clearance than when alone.
- Both call out and point out hazards.
- Signal turns, slowing, stops sooner – the faster, the sooner.
- Always think of the safety of the group (e.g., when passing walkers or cyclists, instead of just announcing “on your left,” the leader will add “large group” or “paceline” or “ten riders” on your left). When it’s time to move off the front, the leader should look back for traffic, (the initial alerting “your turn” signal for the following rider), accelerate slightly, move to the left and then signal the rider behind to take the lead with a flick of the elbow or a hand wave. The following rider should maintain the same pace and avoid the natural tendency to speed up as he or she takes the lead. The duration of one’s time on the front should last only as long as the pace can be maintained without tiring, or the average time of previous leaders. When drifting to the back of the line, fill any gap of more than 1 bike length. The last rider should say “last rider” to the one drifting back.