Pacelines, Part 1: Knowing the Basics

You see cyclists riding in pacelines all the time and for good reason. Riding closely in a paceline can easily increase your efficiency by 15% or more. While experienced cyclists make this look easy, it is important to understand the fundamentals of riding in a paceline to do so safely. A big part of bicycle racing is trusting the riders around you. This is the first part of a series on pacelines, and these initial guidelines are designed to introduce you to how to draft effectively and safely so other cyclists can develop trust in your ability as a cyclist. Like many things, many nuances have to be learned before becoming proficient and comfortable riding in a paceline, but these basics are things all riders need to keep in mind.

Distance between riders
Riding closely allows for effective drafting, but too closely is dangerous. Generally, 6 inches is the minimum distance and—ideally—about 2 feet maximum. Staying within 2 feet can be difficult, but that's the goal. If you are not comfortable riding this closely, practice until you can become comfortable at 5 feet, then 4 feet, 3 feet, etc. As you develop your skills and confidence, 1-3 feet is a good distance to focus on. If you are a full bike length or more behind the rider in front of you, close the gap.

Also, don't follow more closely than 6 inches, even as you become experienced. This allows a little buffer in case the rider in front of you stands up—which usually results in their bike moving backward a few inches toward you—or if they make a quick move.

When learning to draft, the distance you follow behind a rider is most important, but as you learn to ride a paceline, keep in mind the space next to you. You don't want to leave 4 or 5 feet between you and the rider next to you, but 6 inches is uncomfortably close for most (and unsafe). About 2 feet is a good place to start.

Consistent speed, no hard braking
Drafting on a bicycle involves multiple riders moving as a unit. A big part of this is keeping a consistent speed. You should avoid hard accelerations and—more importantly—hard braking. Quick braking can easily cause crashes behind you as other riders brake or swerve to avoid a collision. So keep the braking to small, light adjustments in speed and—as noted below—call out hazards in case big changes in speed are needed.

Hold your line and look ahead
To ride smoothly as a group, the person at the front and everyone behind needs to follow one consistent path, referred to as a rider's "line." When riding in a small group, identifying a line is easy: follow the white line or some imaginary line that parallels the white line at a consistent distance. To stay along this same consistent path, you also need to look ahead and not stare at the wheel in front of you. By staring at the wheel directly in front of you, you can follow that person but are not aware of upcoming hazards or changes in pace, and it is harder to actually follow a straight path. If the rider in front of you moves sideways a little, you should remain on the same line you are currently riding, unless the whole group is changing lines to avoid hazards, make a turn, etc. By staying on the same line, the riders behind you can do the same, and you are able to help prevent the group from snaking around the road.

If you have a hard time following a straight line, find a road and ride on the white line for a while. Riding at a moderate pace (not slow) and always looking further ahead than you think necessary will make this easier. Looking ahead 15 meters (50 feet) is a minimum if you are by yourself but get used to looking ahead much further than that. With a group of people, it is may be hard to see past the lycra on the person in front of you, but focus on helmets, bikes, bodies, curbs, or whatever you can see—including your peripheral vision—to look ahead at least 10 meters (30 feet).

Never overlap wheels
If you are holding your line and maintaining the proper distance between you and the rider in front of you, overlapping wheels should not be a problem. But because overlapping wheels is probably the most dangerous thing you can do while riding in a group, everyone needs to remember to never overlap wheels. Sometimes called "half-wheeling," overlapping wheels is when your front tire is to the side and just in front of the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. Essentially, half of your front wheel is next to (overlaps) the rear wheel of the person you are following, thus "half-wheeling". This is dangerous because the person in front probably doesn't know your wheels are overlapping and if that person moves to the side and hits your front wheel, you crash.

So maintain the right distance, hold your line, and in the event you violate both of these basics, make sure you avoid overlapping wheels. You can ride next to people, and in certain situations a paceline will stagger sideways, but "half-wheeling" is never OK.

Communicate hazards and changes
All of this "hold your line and maintain distance" stuff sounds great and all until the group happens ventures off the pristinely paved byways and onto cracks, patchwork, and pothole infested roads. Holding your line takes on a new meaning as you have to follow the line the group sets around these road hazards. This is why it is important to keep your head up and look ahead. It is also important that lead riders signal hazards by pointing at them in advance so following riders can adjust in plenty of time. A simple point toward the ground in the general direction of the hazard works fine. Sometimes the whole group needs to move to one side and the lead rider needs to indicate that by motioning the group sideways. If other hazards arise, such as cars approaching closely, riders should also call out, "Car up!" or the like so that everyone is aware of the hazard and can ensure they are out of the way.

When it comes to hazards on the road, the lead rider in a paceline should always err on the side of signaling to trailing riders. Do it early, do it often.

Last items
Be aware that when you stand up on your bike, your back wheel usually goes backward about 4 inches. So keep this in mind and stand smoothly rather than popping up and slamming your bike backward which can scare or even hit the rider following you. This is just part of learning to ride smoothly, consistently, and predictably in a group.

Holding your line, looking ahead, riding a consistent speed, avoiding braking, calling out hazards in advance, never overlapping wheels, and maintaining a consistent distance to the rider in front of you, these are the characteristics that develop trust with the other riders around you and allow everyone to ride together quickly and safely.

These are just the basics to getting used to riding with other riders. Once you are comfortable doing all these things in a group, then you are ready to focus on learning how to ride smoothly in a variety of paceline formations and conditions. We'll cover how to ride in a rotating paceline, types of pacelines, adjusting for different wind directions, cornering in a group, and much more in future posts.