Riding in a paceline is one of the most efficient ways to ride in a group. Sharing the workload among riders allows each member time to recover, adjust, hydrate, and re-fuel. While maintaining the same power output, an average group can often increase their speed 20-35% simply by ‘sharing the front’.
No doubt this is a skill in which any serious rider should become proficient, yet all too often on Saturday Morning Rides everywhere, the front of the pack will simply ‘dissolve’. One strong rider will find his way to the front and make a ‘stirring’ gesture with his hand, indicating the direction of rotation. The riders nearest him gladly obey, taking their short but effective pulls at the front. Then, almost as quickly as it started, the organization collapses—one rider pulls through with all too much power, making it impractical for the person behind to follow; a punchy roller approaches, and half the group surges forward, attempting to maintain their flat-land speed.
Pacelines are an inherently ‘collaborative’ endeavor, based on the acknowledgement that the group has significantly more ‘speed potential’ than any one rider. This is important to remember, because oftentimes it may _feel_, while enjoying the quiet of a draft, as though you could just bust out of the paceline and ‘time trial’ away. Almost every time, however, this is simply not the case.
Below are what I believe to be the three most important things to remember the next time you find yourself in a paceline.
1.) Smooth is Fast and Fast is Smooth
Unless you’re attacking, sudden movements are almost never advisable while riding in a group. Part of it is a safety thing: grabbing the brakes or swerving is prime environment for a crash.
Just important, however, is the amount of collective energy that is wasted when riders have to ‘adjust’ to the sporadic movements of those in front of them. A sudden burst of speed by a rider in front creates a chain effect, where each rider behind must ‘catch’ the wheel ahead. This not only wastes valuable ‘speed potential’, or fuel, but it causes disorganization in the group.
Making ‘Micro-adjustments’—small changes in speed or position—allow those around you to respond on their own terms. This saves valuable ‘quick-response’ energy, which could be better used at more critical moments in the ride or race.
2.) Ride the Road
A neat, organized paceline is AWESOME on smooth, straight roads, but the fact is, your group is bound for some punchy rollers or technical descents from time to time. During these periods of the ride, it’s okay for the group to ‘break up’ a bit. I’m not saying you should allow gaps to form, but it’s _going_ to get disorganized in these sections. The important thing is that the group gets back together afterward.
When the group ‘reforms’ after some disorganization, don’t feel as though everyone needs to get back to the same wheel they were on. It’s fluid; sort of like ‘improv’. Just feel it out, and after a moment or two, everyone should have a good idea of where they can fit back in.
3.) Tight is Right
Once a paceline (specifically of the ‘rotating’ type) is flowing well, it’s time to start focusing on improvements. Of course, by this point the group is riding along rather quickly and comfortably, but we want to go faster with less effort right?! Here’s where your skillful bike handling comes into play–the idea is to not only be tight with the wheel in front of you, but also tight with the line of riders next to you. The closer you ride, the greater the effect of the draft, as you create a virtual ‘draft tunnel’ for everyone.
How close should you be riding? Well, that comes down to the confidence the riders have in each other–if every member of the group is a solid rider, there should be no problem riding with elbows well under a foot apart. (There are some steps to take which can increase confidence and safety, but that is another topic.) The important thing to grasp is that everyone in the group is helping to create draft and minimize aerodynamic drag, not just the riders in the front.
Whether you’re chasing down an attack during a race or just crushing the flats on an SMR, the goal is the same–go faster with less energy. So long as everyone is on the same page, half the battle is already won! Just remember to ‘ride smooth, ride together, and ride tight’. Your average ride speed will thank you!