Basic Bike-Handling #5: How to Ride in a Paceline

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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Bike-handling is integral to riding outdoors, and this series covers the basics — from cornering to descending to handling rough surfaces to riding out of the saddle and now how to ride in a paceline. While long solo rides are sometimes necessary, cycling with a group of friends can make you stronger and be a ton of fun — and it also makes the ride go faster.

Drafting and riding safely and predictably with a heavy dose of communication makes riding in a paceline standard practice during group rides. To ride in a group safely, you’ll need to be confident in your bike-handling and create an organized environment for all the riders in your group.

To make your next group ride as enjoyable as possible, follow these tips:

Before diving into the basics of riding in a paceline, riders need to feel comfortable in groups. One of the biggest mistakes cyclists make when riding in groups is not having everyone on the same page. Before your ride begins, make sure everyone on the ride knows the basics of what’s going on. This includes:

  • The specific route you’ll be riding.
  • Whether or not you’ll be using a paceline.
  • Spots along the course where you plan to regroup, such as the top of a specific climb.
  • An estimate of how long the ride takes to complete.
  • Any specific hazards to watch out for, such as heat or a dangerous descent.
  • The average speed cyclists need to maintain to keep from getting dropped.

Assigning a leader or two is also a good idea, and they can fall back and make sure everyone is following the plan during the ride. They can also watch out for new members or anyone who may be riding in a dangerous fashion, such as overlapping wheels or attempting to push the pace beyond the goal of the group.

To keep you and the other cyclists in the group safe, you’ll need to ride with the correct technique. These rules of the road should be adopted whenever you’re riding in a group:

  • Ride at a Consistent Speed: Pedaling hard and sprinting up to someone’s wheel only to back off and coast is poor form. Instead, learn how to keep a consistent speed and cadence with constant, smooth pedaling. This makes it easier for the group to stay together and makes the ride more enjoyable. In general, a higher cadence makes this easier to accomplish, allowing you to make slight adjustments to changes in speed without having to change gears like you might when using a lower cadence.
  • Be Careful When Braking: Adjusting your speed with constant braking can be dangerous, especially when you have other cyclists directly behind you. When possible, try to use more subtle methods to control your speed, like soft pedaling or sitting up to let the wind slow you down by exposing your chest. If you have to brake, feather the levers as lightly as possible. Remember, hard braking almost always causes an accident if those behind you aren’t aware you’re coming to a stop. Since you likely won’t be able to signal with your hands, call out to those behind you as soon as you’re aware a stop is necessary so they can follow suit.
  • Use Hand Signals: Voice commands are often necessary, but at times they can be hard to hear. Hand signals should be utilized when possible, and let those behind you without a clear view of the road know what they need to do to stay safe. Turns, hazards, debris and approaching stop signs or red lights are all things riders behind you need to be made aware of. If you aren’t sure what all the hand signals for road cyclists are, study this guide before your next group ride.
  • Be Predictable: Most group rides will be organized in either a single or a double (side-by-side) paceline. This involves riding directly behind another cyclist until it is your turn at the front. When riding in this fashion, certain behaviors are considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
    • Don’t overlap the wheel in front of you. If you do, and the rider you’re following has to make an adjustment, his or her wheel will collide with yours and potentially cause an accident.
    • Avoid sudden movements to the left or right. Riding in a straight line without veering is a necessary skill to master.
    • Keep your eyes up the road. Don’t look down at your wheel or your gears when you shift. You’ll need to keep your head up and stay alert at all times to make necessary adjustments and watch for signals from other riders.
    • Keep a consistent speed when it’s your turn to pull. Don’t up the pace when you’re up front.
    • Relax. It’s common to be tense and fearful when riding in a large group for the first time. Tensing up, however, can make you overcorrect and make accidents more likely. Do your best to relax, breathe and have fun.

A single paceline is the most common in small groups, and allows the cyclist on the front to pull for a set amount of time before moving off to the left and dropping to the back of the paceline. Stronger riders may opt to pull for a longer period of time, allowing the others in the group to rest longer.

A more advanced technique cyclists often use in larger groups and racing scenarios to maintain a higher speed is the double paceline. With this technique, cyclists continually rotate between a fast and a slow line, pulling at the front for only a few seconds before rotating off into the slow line. Here’s how it works:

  • As the rider on the front of the fast line passes the cyclist to his left in the slow line, the leader of the slow line slows their pedals to allow the leader of the fast line to move off and slot into the position ahead.
  • The leader of the fast line pulls only for about five seconds before moving to the slow line to the left.
  • When the last person in the slow line reaches the back of the fast line, he or she will move back over to the right into the fast line.
  • The key to this through and off technique is communication. Calling out “last rider” is essential from the last rider of the fast line to let the slow line know it is OK to move over.
  • Continual rotation is what makes this paceline the fastest and most efficient, but it must be practiced and is only recommended for experienced cyclists since lack of communication can make this style of riding more dangerous.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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