by Thomas Prehn, PCG Consultant

Peaks Coaching Group Four Types of Pacelines

The paceline is a rather honorable facet of bicycling, in that everyone shares the work of breaking the wind. Riders rotate positions in a line, each one taking a turn at the front where he or she pulls into the wind before swinging off. There are four basic types of paceline riding formations, and each one has its own practical application. Click through to find out more…

Straight or Single Paceline

Peaks Coaching Group Single PacelineThis is the most basic riding formation; all the other pacelines are variations of it. Simply put, this is one straight line of riders, each drafting closely behind the next. The rider at the front breaks the wind for a time, then eases off to the side and soft pedals until he can swing in at the back of the line. In the majority of training and racing situations, this is the most efficient way to ride in groups of two or more. Skilled racers can effectively use a single paceline with as many as fifteen riders; for cyclists new to the technique, four riders make a good-sized group for learning it. Breakaway groups in a race almost always use this straight paceline.

Double Paceline

Peaks Coaching Group Double PacelineThe best way to socialize on the bike in a training situation is the double paceline. Riding two abreast, cyclists can carry on a conversation, talk shop, or whatever. This riding formation works the same as the single line. When the two lead riders have finished their turn at the front, they pull off, one to the right and the other to the left.

Most professional cyclists log a majority of their easy training miles in this tight formation, in groups of up to about twenty-four racers. This is good practice for racing, too; not only can you work on drafting closely behind someone, but you can also practice riding elbow to elbow with the rider next to you.

Before training two abreast like this, you should be aware of your local traffic laws; it may not be legal in your area. For practical purposes, it’s not advisable to ride a double paceline on narrow or winding roads or when there is a lot of traffic that will be slowed by the paceline. If it is permissible to ride two abreast, make sure you drop back into the line quickly after taking your pull at the front. Motorists definitely don’t like us riding four abreast. In fact, one time I was stopped by the Colorado State Patrol while training with the Swiss team and riding a double paceline four abreast. The Swiss didn’t understand English, the policeman didn’t understand pacelines, and I kept my mouth shut, so he let us go our way.

Circular Paceline

Peaks Coaching Group Circular PacelineThe circular paceline is a bit more difficult, requiring more skill in controlling and handling your bike. The formation is like that of the double paceline, except the group rotates in a circle. This formation is best applied when there is a strong wind and it’s too tiring to stay on the front for a long pull. It also works well for large groups in a hurry. The rider in the front swings off, for example, to the left, then eases off the pedals a bit to drop back as a fresh rider begins to pull through. As soon as this rider has pulled ahead of the rider dropping back, he too swings off and begins to decelerate. This creates two lines, one on the right going a bit faster than the one on the left. When the cyclist in the slower lane reaches the back end of the line, he swings over to the right and reaccelerates up to speed. The cyclist in the front should spend only a few seconds pulling before swinging off, no more than about fifteen pedal revolutions.

It takes a lot of concentration to ride this paceline properly. All the riders in the group must be able to ride steady and smoothly, because just one rider out of synch can throw the whole group off and make something difficult out of what should be easy. A cycle computer on your handlebars could be helpful in monitoring your speed as you change lanes if you have difficulty riding steadily.

The critical points in the circular pace-line are when you swing off and decelerate and when you reaccelerate at the back.  After riding this way and getting some experience, you will find that after taking your pull, it is best to start to ease off the front while you overlap the slower rider on your left by about a quarter of a wheel. By the time you’re actually in position, enough space will have opened up so that he will be safely behind you. At the back of the line, start to reaccelerate as the leading edge of your front wheel is about parallel to the bottom bracket of the rider next to you. With these techniques, the transitions from faster to slower and slower to faster lanes will be made more smoothly and efficiently.

The critical concept is that each line—the one moving up to take a pull and the one with riders dropping back—are each moving at their own speed, and that speed stays constant. In other words, the riders on the left are all going 23 mph, even the rider who is taking the pull at the front. All the riders in the line drifting back are all going 21 mph. The most common mistake made is when the rider getting to the front of the line accelerates. This will cause the efficiently-rotating paceline to “yo-yo,” or speed up and slow down and speed up and slow down.

Echelon or Crosswind Paceline

Peaks Coaching Group Echelon PacelineThe echelon is the hardest, most dangerous, and most enjoyable paceline to ride (though technically speaking, all pacelines are echelons). It’s a circular paceline adapted for crosswinds. Instead of lining up one rider behind the other, each cyclist is staggered to the rear flank of the one ahead in order to stay protected from the wind. The rider on the front pulls off into the direction of the wind (for example, the right) and drops back until his front wheel has cleared the rear wheel of the next guy taking his pull. The cyclist in the decelerating lane then drops into the draft of the rider pulling just as he is beginning to drop back. When the cyclist reaches the last position of the slower lane, he then reaccelerates forward and into the slipstream of the rider ahead.

The echelon is, in all senses, a racing situation. You move diagonally forward and back, with riders situated tightly off your handlebar and hip, the riders directly in front moving in a different direction at a different speed. As you can see, all of this takes a good deal of timing, coordination, and bike handling. With a group of riders who know how to ride in a crosswind properly, this can really be a lot of fun, or at least as much fun as you can possibly have with a stiff crosswind.

Cautionary Words: Paceline Etiquette

Any time you ride in a group, you need to observe a few safety precautions. First, stay very aware of the riders around you and the road ahead. Never make any sudden moves or steer or brake suddenly, or you will certainly cause an accident. If there is danger ahead, alert the group and try to brake steadily so everyone in the paceline can react. Also try to steer gradually away from obstacles in the road rather than swerving at the last second. Remember not to overlap wheels with the rider ahead or behind you.

On hills, many riders like to get out of the saddle for better leverage on the pedals. Doing this often moves your body weight forward on the bike and pushes your bike back about six inches, and the rider behind you has to stay alert for this so he doesn’t overlap your rear wheel. (Many riders automatically get out of the saddle when they see the rider ahead of them do so.) Don’t worsen this bobbing back by easing off the pedals and losing momentum when you get out of the saddle. You can lessen or even eliminate this bobbing back by getting out of the saddle as you enter a power stroke on the pedals. Push harder on the pedal to keep the bike’s movement constant and rise out of the saddle slowly and smoothly. Don’t jump out.

 


Thomas PrehnThomas Prehn has been involved with cycling since he took up the sport in the early 1970s. He was instantly hooked by the speed and tactics of bicycle racing. Over the course of a long career as an amateur and professional cyclist, he won the 1986 USPRO road championship, and he is one of the few cyclists to have finished all thirteen editions of the Red Zinger/Coors Classic. A consistent top finisher in U.S. national championship races throughout his career, Prehn was also a member of the winning U.S. national time trial team in 1982. He represented the United States in world championships in 1982 and 1986.  

Prehn currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he is the global director of strategic partnerships and product innovation for CatEye Japan. He also manages an independent research and consulting company focused on the cycling market. He is a former vice president of the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association. Even with two full-time jobs and a family, Prehn still likes to mix it up at the weekend races, especially cyclocross.

14 COMMENTS

  1. My understanding was that group rides are typically single or double line (where legal). The person at the front (pulling) moves and/or signals (very from person to person) to indicate they’re retiring, moving to whichever side they’re comfortable with. There’s pros and cons for going left or right…

    There were two key differences between this and a paceline. The primary difference is that the person at the front doesn’t pull for a long time (5-10 pedal strokes MAXIMUM) before retiring. Doesn’t matter how strong you think you are, the constant change up keeps people fresh because you’re resting in the draft more than you are pulling. The second thing is that in a paceline, the person retiring does so INTO THE WIND (regardless of side) so you shield the group from the wind. Retiring/falling back is much quicker than a group ride.

    “No long pulls in a paceline” was made evident to me when we had an idiot who didn’t understand the mechanics. The group speed would fall as much as 5 KM/h every time he got to the front, but he thought it was a demonstration of strength/machismo/etc. Likewise, pacelines are great for making speed when you’ve been dropped but IME you need at least 3 people to make it work (assuming they know what a paceline is).

    At least locally, paceline pull changeup is indicated by wiggling your elbow. This is likely for aerodynamics and ease without taking your hand off the bars.

    TLDR: Yeah, I found the article a tad lacking

  2. Few other points
    Front rider: look ahead for obstacles (potholes, glass, sand, construction). Slowly make a correction while pointing downward in obstacles direction – early on.
    Pack: Its better to hit a pothole that swerve excessively.
    Rear rider: listen/watch for cars. Yell “CAR BACK” when one is coming. Other riders repat up the line. Riding in a paceline is technically requiring riding 2 abreast. This is not always safe to do.

    Most club member know each other. New riders: Introduce yourself. Don;t be afraid to be “weak”. My club would graciously let one pull off midpack, but this should be communicated first. But, do try an make a pull. Its fun. Just don’t kill yourself trying to pull at 30 mph into a 10 mph headwind. Most stronger riders will be very understanding.
    Experienced members – let new rider in on certain type of communication as well as the type fo ride that is going to happen and where you are going! Is it going to be a hammer fest to breakfast. Great. Just let new riders know so that they feel they can get dropped but catch up at breakfast instead of frantically trying to keep up.

  3. this sh*t never works in your local club rides because trying to get a bunch of weekend warriors to act pro is like herding cats. just riding your effing bikes.

  4. @ obligated
    I disagree about pulling off toward the wind (if its coming from right) and pulling off to the right (in US). We are riding on roads shared by cars with shouders that aren’t always perfect. One is much more likely to encounter an issue that can result in loss of control close to a curb. This can bring an entire line down, and/or push them toward upcoming traffic. The road left of a line is typically cleaner and in better condition – decreasing the risk of control loss to the one that pulled off and thereby decreasing danger to the group. The group as a whole can also ride closer to the line, farther from cars.

    Yeah, wind shielding is great. But we aren’t in a race. This is the same reason echelons of more than 2 are reserved for closed roads/races.

  5. @ 1Pro – AGREE. The only time I ride in a paceline is with my former club where members were well known firends doing rides together 3-5x wk. I hate when people I don’t know try to form a paceline with me on the road.

  6. @JBikes: I agree that safety trumps aero in a non-race setup, but it’s still pertinent in the discussion to know what is ideal. Because there might be a section of road/trail where you can safely changeup while going into the wind.

    As I mentioned, retiring to the left or right as pros & cons for both. To the left means you’re likely in traffic (assuming bike lane or shoulder), which some prefer because it’s more visible to vehicles. But there’s lots of drivers who are hostile, and will incorrectly tell you that is travelling two abreast (where illegal). Moving off to the right means you might run out of shoulder/lane/etc. But you aren’t in traffic if something happens – getting run over is far worse to me than going in the ditch. To each their own.

    The person at the front will call/signal for various things: wild life, runners, walkers, vehicles, glass/metal/potholes. That said, you should still be watching ahead because you can’t rely on people signalling or correcting in time. Just like when driving a vehicle… I’ve benefited in the past from others telling me to rejoin the group or risk a door “prize”.

    I agree that new riders should introduce themselves. Good groups will have “ambassadors” who will ride with new riders to talk, inform and advise. My introduction to pace lines went well because the mix was 60-75% riders who knew what pace lines were so there was lots of coaching. Riding in pairs, listen to the person you are riding beside for stressed breathing so you know to either back off the pace or retire if at the front – especially on hills. Unless you want to be a twit and burn the person out…

    For new people leading: Set your pace. The group should ride with you, because there’s no sense in burning yourself out to keep a pace you can’t maintain. Sometimes, people will overtake you if deemed too slow – you don’t always get to choose when you retire.

    Yo-yoing: Very annoying. If it’s constant, I will give space to minimize the stupidity for whomever is riding behind me.

  7. @Obligated,
    The reason for my stance is that when a biker is trapped between curb/road edge and paceline, that paceline is in danger of a mass pile-up or being “pushed” out into the traffic lane – in an uncontrollable manner – you don’t know what will happen when someone loses control or instinctively swerves to avoid something. And a paceline traveling 25+mph will encounter obstacles the front person can’t see in the time it will take them to fall back inline.

    Retiring from the front if fully controllable, electable action. Once can choose to do so when it is safe with respect to traffic. As such, this is a much more controllable situation and the roads are likely cleaner. Furthermore, the amount of people closer to traffic is diminished. Yeah, I know everyone is trying to save their bacon, but in reality a paceline is a group process and the safest for the majority should win out.

    That’s my opinion at least and I hope its at least something to think about.

  8. come on…all this talk about rotating pacelines and nobody mentions a “Belgian Wheel”?! and you call yourselves a cycling website…BAH! 😉

  9. Getting a good single paceline going with three or four people who know each other’s riding styles is one of the most amazing feelings. That moment it clicks in and everyone is pulling through without no communication because they don’t need too is one of my favorite parts of road riding.

  10. Didn’t pour through all responses – one tip I find handy: the guy in the back of the fast lane will usually yell “tail” or “back” so that the rider falling back knows. These rotating pace lines can grow or shrink in size as you’re in them, and if you’re concentrating (as advised), this will help you keep your concentration where it should be – in front of you.

  11. Disagree about going single-file on winding roads. Staying towards the centreline of the road allows other road users to see you from a greater distance. Additionally making use of the full width of the lane discourages unsafe passes and allows you some safety margin if someone does attempt such a manoeuvre.

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