BETTER PACELINE RIDING DON’TS AND DOS

Like many of you, I do group rides.  I do them with a small group of buddies, in larger groups with the club I belong to, and in centuries, fondos and charity rides with lots and lots of people around.

They are fun, at times exhilarating, and create community among cyclists you may have known for years and those you meet for the first time simply by showing up.

They can also be dangerous.

Riding in sync with a group, or specifically paceline riding, requires a discipline almost as demanding as synchronized swimming.  But unlike synchronized swimming (which I have only watched on TV, so I may be all wet about this), you seldom get to practice paceline riding before it’s time to perform.  You can also have a much worse outcome if you touch wheels in a paceline than if you touch arms in a pool.

I’ve become a self-appointed safety advocate within the several hundred-person club I ride with.  I send short messages or “drips” each week about how to ride safely to the member list.  Things like singling up when cars are coming behind you or not blowing through stop signs.  I analyzed a member survey of safety threats, worked with our board of ride leaders to come up with a bunch of initiatives and have followed up with them during the season to encourage they push the program forward.

I’m a nag, an irritant, a kill-joy.  “Dear Safety Officer” was the way a friend recently addressed an e-mail to me.  Ugh.

I’ve thought about changing my name, riding with a different club, growing a beard or even the hair on my legs to escape the reactions some must have when they realize that I’m that guy ruining their joy of riding by sending out all those messages about safety.

Riders want to ride, free themselves of the stresses of life and not be reminded of how it will all go up in flames if they put one foot wrong.  They don’t want to hear about all the things they need to do right, let alone all the things they shouldn’t do wrong.  And most people I ride with are good riders or at least fancy themselves as such and they know all about this safety sh*t.

They’ve been there.  Seen their share of accidents.  Been in a few themselves.

Well, perhaps.  But, there continue to be accidents.  Unfortunately, it’s part of the cycling no matter how long you’ve been riding.  And, new riders show up for group rides every week.  Every paceline is full of people with different experience than you have.  They may have learned from a group with a different approach or ethos than yours.  Or they may have never formally learned; they may have just jumped in the pool, tried to follow along and picked up a few things along the way.  (Yeah, I’m pointing to myself on that last one.  You?)

For all of you who know how to ride a paceline or think they do or would like to learn more, here’s the list of Don’ts and Dos I put together and sent out to my club recently.  They come from what I’ve learned riding pacelines over the years and even this year and they come from riders far better than me that have studied paceline dynamics, successes and crashes.

I won’t moralize further.  If reading this list saves you even a little road rash from a fall let alone the broken collarbone, 3 broken ribs and concussion that one of my club mates suffered recently from a slow-speed wheel touch, that’s good enough for me.  I can go back into my pain cave with a small victory and refocus on not falling off the back of my next group ride.

PACELINE RIDING DON’TS AND DOS

What’s been your experience?  What’s right, wrong, missing from this list?  Let me know in your comments below and enjoy every ride, safely!

15 comments

  • Three questions from a newbie in group riding…
    1. How far off the rider in front of you should you be when you first start this process. I know that the pros are only inches, but should start with one or two bike lengths, one or two wheels?
    2. How does the effect of drafting change as the distance grows. In other words, how far back until you are basically riding solo and how close do you need to be to have a significant benefit from the draft?
    3. Does the lead rider have any benefit because the vacuum is reduced behind the lead bike and if so, how much?
    Love all the biking insights you bring!!
    Thank you!
    Wheldon

  • Wheldon,
    1. How far depends on a lot of things. Group speed, rider paceline experience, terrain, length of course, etc. The B-group I ride with averages 18-20mph over the course of a 50 mile ride mixed terrain ride, most are pretty experienced and respectful, in it to ride not race, etc. We’re probably a half to a quarter wheel length between each other when we going at it at 20+mph on the flats, maybe a wheel length when we are riding more casually through turnier, rolling terrain. The A-group that is averaging 21-24mph over the course of the ride is made up of riders who are current or ex amatuer racers and comfortable riding closer together. The C-group going 16-17 mph is developing their pacing skills and probably riding a bike length or more apart. The D-Group <16 mph doesn't paceline. They are in it for the relaxing, scenic ride.
    2. Again, depends on quite a few things including speed but I'd say once you are 2-3 bike lengths back you don't feel much effect. On the other hand, some of the guys I ride with say I'm too small to give them much of any benefit even when they are right on my wheel. I think (hope?) they are exaggerating a bit because they are 180-200lb guys and I'm not! When I get behind them though, I do notice a big difference than when I'm behind a rider my size (150lbs).
    3. Yes, actually. You can see more on this question, how to ride faster in general and drafting in particular in the How to Ride Faster: Training and Technique post that you can link to just above the comments section or through this link here to the drafting section of that post here https://intheknowcycling.com/2015/04/15/how-to-ride-faster-on-your-bike-10-better-ways-part-1/#6
    Steve

    • Good evening Steve,

      Thanks for the response and the link!

      What is the etiquette for how close to follow someone that you are not “riding with?” I normally train solo on reasonably level roads between 17 and 18 mph (picked up some speed with my winter training 😀 The power meter and Training Bible are awesome ways to improve).

      Sometimes people pass me at quite a quick pace, maybe 3 or 4+ mph faster. When that happens I just smile as they go flying by. But sometimes people pass me only slightly faster, maybe 1 or 2 mph. As they go past me and pull back in front of me I can feel my speed pick up with the same effort to match their speed (sometimes I even start to pull up on them). I normally stay there for less than 100 yards because we don’t have any agreement for him (or her) to be pulling me along. Is there a standard distance that is considered non-imposing when out on the trail but not actually riding together?

      Trying to be a courteous rider… 🙂

      Take Care!

      • Wheldon, So first off, first thing is to ask “mind if I draft behind you” or something similar. Don’t ever ride any closer than 3 or 4 bike lengths behind without asking because a) it’s rude and b) if they don’t know you are there, they might make a sudden move that might ruin your day. They also might do it if you are drafting them without asking. It’s kind of like having a car ride right on the tail of your car. At times you want to hit the brakes to tell the driver to back off and at other times you want to speed away.

        After that, it’s all about how much you are willing to trust the person whose wheel you are riding. I wouldn’t get any closer than you need to react to what they might do in front of you. You don’t know the person or what kind of rider they are, only that they seem a bit faster than you. So maybe a bike length is the closest I’d get.

        You also might offer to “take a pull” if it seems you are well enough matched to alternate. It will help you both. Steve

        • Excellent advise!
          Thanks Steve!!

        • Here here! Never be an unwelcome parasite. Announce yourself and ask to be there, and if you can help.

          To the list, I’d also add:
          – Be prepared to shift the side to which you’re pulling off on, based on wind direction, but only if it’s significant. A dynamic paceline will change the side to which you pull off as you turn corners in order to deal with a changing wind direction. To summarize, it’s best to pull off away from the wind direction (this also gives riders who have just pulled shelter as they’re heading to the back).
          – Use the time between pulling off and getting to the back to drink, eat, stretch, etc.

          • Whoops – brain fart there… you pull off INTO the wind. Once another rider pulls off in front of you, THEN you’ll get a break as you drift back.

  • “Things like singling up when cars are coming behind you”

    Not sure I agree with you on this one, and it may depend on the size of the group. In most states, riding two-up is perfectly legal. I know most motorists don’t understand this, but it is to their advantage, particularly with larger groups, as it cuts the distance to pass the group in half. Too often, “singling up” means “get far right”, and I’ve found that by so doing, motorist may think they can pass the group without breaking the center line. This is a recipe for disaster. It’s not a hard decision for a motorist to make a choice between a head on collision with another vehicle or maybe taking out a couple of cyclists riding beside him as they try to squeeze their car by the paceline. I’m afraid I’m of the “make them go around us” school, “pass like we’re another vehicle. Double lines makes the passing distance 50% shorter.

    • John, Legal, group size, road width, etc. all aside it’s safest not to leave your fate in the hands of a motorist. Some don’t like cyclists, grow impatient waiting to pass them, get nervous when they see us, etc. so it’s best to reduce their risk of hitting you by safely getting to the right. This video of a recent accident says it all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsT1vlYcN9w. Steve

      • Completely agree. I’ve seen too many motorists get pissed when cyclists don’t move over, and even if they don’t take it out on the group they pass at the time, they end up doing it later (sometimes to a solo cyclist who’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time).

        The one thing I’d (sort of) disagree with in the list above is the second item — I think the point of doing a paceline is that it enables you to keep going the same speed, and share the effort. So, when I’m pulling, my level of effort goes up as I’m maintaining the speed I was doing farther back in the line, but it’s worth it, because I expend that level of effort only when I’m pulling, and get to recover when I’m behind the leader.

        • Todd, regarding the second item, point, I agree that you need to work harder when you are pulling than when you are further back in the line. The point I was trying to make, perhaps not well enough, is that once you are up front and pulling, maintain the effort. If you are pulling on the flat, maintaining the effort keeps the speed the same but if you are pulling on rolling terrain or going uphill, it’s hard to maintain the speed and better to maintain the effort to keep the group together. Steve.

          • Got it. Thanks — and thanks for the lists (and other posts … I’m enjoying them).

      • Not sure that’s a great example, as it would seem they may be riding in single file. Otherwise, how would the camera had filmed it? In any event, we shall agree to disagree. And I see your YouTube, and counter with this: http://bikeleague.org/content/where-should-i-ride

        • I am in agreement with John Tonetti. There is no way I am moving a double paceline of any significant size into a single paceline just because cars want to pass us but might have to wait a bit to do so until it is safe for them to pass us. Now if there are no more than four or five of us? Maybe, but it is always “do what makes sense given the circumstances.” Where the road is too narrow and riding on the far right would actually make things more dangerous by encouraging cars to try and pass when they should not? Take the lane. The middle of the lane. Always be courteous and move over ASAP, give a friendly wave to the drivers acknowledging their wait for you.

  • Kudos to you for taking this on!! Few enough do cause it’s no fun to be safety officer, especially as there are many who seem to think that inculcating safe group riding practices is somehow a bad thing. What’s with them?? Anyway, one suggestion, deputize the entire group as safety officers. That is everyone should be comfortable offering & listening to suggestions. Small helpful friendly comments during a ride are likely more effective than a pre-ride lecture. Also, many riders need bike skills classes – for instance just the basics of riding smoothly eludes many.

Leave a Reply