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How To Maximize the Benefits of Pedaling in a Paceline

A paceline can be a powerhouse for improving a cyclist’s performance and efficiency, not to mention conserving energy. It can be a little intimidating for new riders, but once you get the hang of riding in one, you’ll want to do it again and again.

That said, it does take some time to get the hang of pedaling in a paceline. To truly make the most of these group rides, you need to understand how to pedal safely and effectively and share the workload among the group. 

Coach Darryl MacKenzie has been pedaling in pace lines for decades. We shared his beginner paceline tips earlier this year, but now it’s time to go a little deeper. What does it take to become a true paceline master? Read on to find out.

The Beauty of a Working Paceline

The design of the paceline isn’t merely to foster group togetherness. It’s nice to ride with your fellow cyclists and chat along the way, but the bigger benefit is that it enables everyone to go faster with less effort. 

When done well, a paceline cuts down on wind resistance for many of the riders in the group, allowing each rider to conserve energy for most of the ride and then take one for the team by absorbing the wind when they ride out front. As the group rotates, each rider gets time out front and shielded from the wind. The faster the group goes, the more everyone benefits.

The total benefits can vary based on how much flat terrain is on the ride, where and how hard the wind is blowing, and the overall pace of the group. Two-up pacelines, in which there are two lines of cyclists side by side, tend to be more beneficial than single-file pacelines, because one side of the paceline can absorb side winds for the other. 

If you’re part of an experienced paceline, in which every rider is doing their part, you’ll notice the benefits immediately. Coach Darryl has seen his heart rate range from 108 minutes in the back of a 20-mile-per-hour paceline to 140 when pedaling in front. Keeping that heart rate lower for much of the ride means he’s exerting much less force and using less energy overall. 

Top Techniques for Paceline Efficiency and Safety

To realize those benefits, it’s important to keep a few general techniques in mind. 

Use a Continuously Rotating Paceline at High Speeds

In general, continuous rotation is the key to maximizing efficiency and energy conservation when you’re trying to go fast for a short period of time. With a two-up formation for speed, the group should be rotating constantly, with one side pulling forward and the other side drifting slowly backward throughout the ride. 

For the most effective formation, the side that’s pedaling more slowly should be positioned closer to the wind. That way, the riders who are pedaling harder to rotate forward will be sheltered from the wind and expend less energy. Since everyone rotates through all positions, all cyclists get to enjoy a reprieve from the wind at various points throughout the ride.

Rotate as Needed When Cycling Far

When you’re going for distance over speed, continuous rotation isn’t necessary. In this case, riders can hold their positions for longer periods and rotate as needed to conserve energy. As most of Darryl’s rides are long distance, he spends 90% of his paceline time in an as-needed rotation. 

Stop Rotating in High Side Winds

That said, rotating isn’t always the most effective approach. Constant rotation doesn’t work well for longer rides, and it’s especially ineffective in heavy side winds.

In that case, the best approach is to position the stronger, heavier riders on the side closer to the wind and stay fixed in that position. This still makes the whole group more efficient, and it protects smaller, lighter riders from wind gusts, which can push them around much more easily. 

You may not think those gusts are all that dangerous, but Darryl once even saw a 240-pound rider blow sideways about 8 feet, right into another cyclist. With that in mind, it’s especially important for the riders who are facing the wind to leave plenty of room for the other line in case anyone gets blown around. 

Stay Close to the Brakes

We mentioned this as one of our beginner paceline tips in the other post, but it’s worth reemphasizing here. This is the most important safety tip for riding in a group: Always have your fingers on the brakes so you can stop quickly when needed.

If your hands are positioned in such a way that you have to move your fingers to get to the brakes, even that small delay can be too risky for riding in close proximity to other riders. If the rider in front of you brakes, you’ll already be in a wreck before you can squeeze the brakes.

Dos and Don’ts of Riding in a Paceline

If you’ve mastered the above techniques, you’re already in pretty good shape for riding in a paceline. But to truly maximize the benefits, you should keep some key dos and don’ts in mind. We’ll break them down by different aspects of the ride below.

When You’re Behind Others 

This is your first priority — before you learn to lead in a paceline, you must learn to follow.

“Learn to ride effectively behind other cyclists in the paceline,” says Darryl. “The heart rate will be lower, the speed will be faster, and all riders will keep fresher.”

Here are some essential tips: 

  • Never stare at the bike or cyclist in front of you.
  • Position your bike slightly to the side, not directly behind the other cyclist.
  • Look over the shoulder or past the elbow of the rider in front of you so you can see what’s ahead.
  • Never cross wheels — if your wheels touch, you’ll go down before the front rider will.
  • Don’t fall behind when you’re in the back, as it’s very difficult to catch up and bridge the gap. 

When You’re Pedaling Out Front

In front, you’re not just absorbing the wind; you’re responsible for the entire group’s safety. Both jobs require attention to a few details:

  • Stronger cyclists should pedal for longer, not faster. Weaker riders should pedal for fewer minutes and cycle through the front positions more quickly.
  • Remember that you are the eyes and ears of the peloton while in front. If a hazard is not seen and properly dealt with, it’s your fault.
  • Inform those behind you of road hazards and oncoming traffic with hand signals, shouts or both as needed. If the paceline is long or you’re in windy or noisy surroundings, make sure those in the middle relay this information to those in the back.   
  • When approaching a hazard, the group must move in unison to avoid it — either everyone to the left, everyone to the right, or one line going around on either side. The two riders in front should discuss and decide which is best and communicate it clearly. 

When You’re Rotating

Rotating also requires cyclists to move in unison. You need to know exactly what to do based on where you are: 

  • When rotating, the fast line shouldn’t increase speed, rather the slow line should go slower to drift backward in relation to the other line.
  • Once you get to the front, be sure not to increase your speed or you’ll expend too much energy and others may fall behind.
  • When rotating from the front, you’re in charge of when the whole group rotates. Yell “Rotating!” when the time comes.
  • Before halfway to the end of your time at the front, yell “Rotating!” to move to the other side of the paceline. 

General Paceline Tips

Finally, here are a few general dos and don’ts, regardless of where you are in the paceline:

  • Always communicate with the cyclist next to you in a two-up paceline.
  • Don’t stay in the wind too long.
  • Always have the wind on the side of the line that’s going slower.
  • Don’t wander to the side, away from the peloton, or you’ll face more wind exposure and provide less protection for those behind you.
  • Maintain a steady pace. Surging and slowing in spurts will create gaps and annoy your fellow riders. 
  • Try to exert a steady, consistent level of force on the pedals. A power meter is helpful here.
  • Let other riders see that your hands are on the brakes and ready to engage. Yes, we’re reiterating this again. You don’t want a reputation as a dangerous rider. 

Keep Up the Pace

With these techniques and tips firmly in mind, you can become a true group-cycling master. Remember, it’s all for the good of the whole group. If everyone takes their part in the paceline seriously, the results can be magnificent.


Want to be the best group rider you can be? Check out more of Coach Darryl’s tips and learn from the pros. You can also find more of his insights on his website.

Photo by Pixabay