Are You Ready for Your First Paceline? Here’s How To Be Sure
An efficient paceline is a thing to behold. When cyclists are working together in harmony, it makes the ride better — and faster — for everyone. Each rider takes a turn at the front, doing the hard work so the rest of the group can pedal a little more easily. If you’ve never joined one, you’re missing out on one of the best experiences of cycling.
That said, a paceline isn’t something to pedal into without preparation. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s dangerous for everyone involved. Longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie once saw a single paceline rider take down four other cyclists and cause six broken bones among them. Because of the risks, experienced cyclists are understandably wary of letting a new rider into the paceline.
If you’ve never joined a paceline before, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. You just need to go in eyes wide open and ready. Here’s what you need to know to join a paceline safely and confidently.
The Benefits of a Good Paceline
Lest the risks of joining a paceline for the first time scare you away, let’s make one thing clear from the outset: It’s worth it.
“It’s one of the best experiences in cycling to be part of a fast paceline,” says Coach Darryl. “These people can work well together and make you go farther with less energy and faster at the same time. It’s amazing.”
Forming a good paceline is simply a more efficient way to ride than going it alone or in haphazard clusters. Everyone in the group takes a turn bearing the brunt of the wind, and the entire group benefits from this protection by pedaling faster with less effort. Whether you’re going for speed or endurance, everyone is better off.
In fact, the biggest benefits can go to the groups trying to go faster.
“The faster you’re going, the harder the person in front has to work, and the more the people in the back benefit from being sucked along,” Darryl explains.
By some estimations, the riders in front of a 25-mph paceline are working 27% harder than the cyclists behind them. You can tell this is true by observing your heart rate at the front vs. back with the group — it will probably be faster by 7–9 beats per minute out front. But that also means that, for the majority of the ride, you’re exerting that much less energy by riding with the group.
Paceline Formations and Goals
Before you ever consider joining a paceline, it’s important to know a little bit about what you’re getting into. Different riding groups have different goals, and some formations work better than others.
The biggest distinction lies in the overarching goal of the paceline. And there are two basic aims: go farther or go faster. Although any paceline will help you do both, different styles are suited for each of those goals.
For a speed-focused paceline, rotation should be constant. Because the riders out front will be working especially hard in this setup, no single rider should stay out front for too long, so riders will be moving steadily from back to front and vice versa.
That approach won’t work for a long-distance paceline, though. It’s too difficult for the entire group to stay focused on rotating for 100 or 200 miles, so it’s much better to space out the rotation cycles. In this case, the front riders may stay out front for several minutes, then yell “Rotate!” when it’s time for a change.
Pacelines can also be single file or double file. A double line is much more efficient, as the line that’s moving toward the back can position itself closest to the side from which the wind is blowing to provide extra protection for those moving toward the front and working harder to move the group along.
How To Successfully Join a Paceline
Once you know a little about what you’re getting into, you’re in a better position to join the paceline. But it’s also important to go into it with best practices in mind.
“Many cyclists get into a paceline and don’t like it because they can’t figure out what’s going on or they don’t trust the other riders, or they’re just not observing what everyone has to do to be safe,” says Coach Darryl.
Before we get into the details, it’s important to note that a change of speed in a paceline rarely involves strong braking. If someone feels they must slow down, the first thing they’ll do is pedal with less intensity. If more rapid deceleration is needed, they’ll stop pedaling, and that will get the attention of those around them. Other cyclists will then stop pedaling to identify how much of a slowdown is needed. Occasionally they’ll need to gently feather the brakes, but only rarely will they need to brake abruptly.
Regardless, going in prepared will keep not only you but the other riders safe. And it will put them at ease to see you know what you’re doing. Here are three things they’ll be watching for if you try to join the paceline.
Position Your Hands Correctly
This is by far the most important practice when pedaling in a paceline — and experienced riders will notice. Your hands should be right by the brakes, such that all you need to do to operate them is to quickly move your fingers. Taking a few extra seconds to move your hands may not sound like much, but it’s significant.
“If somebody in front wants to slow the pace, a 2-foot gap is going to close pretty quickly,” Darryl explains.
To show the group you’re ready to go full speed ahead, make sure they can see that you’re prepared to react and slow down whenever needed.
Move a Little to the Side
When you’re surrounded by other cyclists, you have to make an extra effort to ensure you can see the road ahead. Don’t ride in a perfectly straight line behind another rider. Instead, move a little to the side so you can see around them and watch the road for any potential hazards that might cause them react and slow down. That way, you’ll be ready to gently adjust your speed as well.
Don’t Get ‘Road Hypnotized’
Alertness is always important on the bike, but it’s especially so when you’re riding in a group. And it’s that much easier to zone out when you’re behind another rider, too. Inexperienced paceline riders can get “road hypnotized,” staring at the back wheel in front of them or just looking down at the pavement as it rushes by below.
Instead, focus on keeping your eyes ahead, as noted above. If you’re not ready when the group needs to slow down, all it takes is a brush of your wheels to set up a bad crash.
Get in the Paceline
Pacelines can be intimidating, and it’s important to take the risks seriously. But that shouldn’t stop you from joining the group. The benefits far outweigh the risks. To make sure you’re prepared, practice rotating with a friend before you try the real thing.
Once you’ve got the above three things mastered, you’re all set. Don’t let another paceline pass you by.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash