The Art of the Paceline
It doesn’t matter what form of cycling is your thing, at some stage, whether by good planning or by good fortune, you will find yourself in a paceline, a group of riders, well… riding fast. There is nothing more intoxicating in the cycling world than to find yourself amongst riders of similar ability, strung out and battling for status from strangers brought together by a loose common cause. Whether charging towards an imaginary finish line, or looking for that moment you feel you have achieved the sense of a victory. Every town has them, the drag strip where riders form unorganised groups on the road, to structured training group rides at speed, to the club criterium or race.
From the outside these groups appear daunting, but once inside the micro culture, you quickly find your feet, moving through the group gaining confidence. Before you know it, you are blasting through showing your strength and speed. But here comes the bad news, that’s not what a paceline is about, it’s about a group maintaining the highest possible speed from the riders available. Like all things, there is doing it, then there is doing it well.
I love a good paceline. I joined the sport through a school’s program over 35 years ago, 5 kids hurtling down the road, working together to set a time. What followed was years spent in team time trials and road races, where fastest momentum mattered.
So, what is fastest momentum? It is a group of riders working together to build, and then maintain, speed over a distance. Sounds easy? In principle yes, in reality no. Have you ever watched a Tour de France stage, where a group of riders from various teams, band together to escape the peloton? Successful breakaways work as a group, committing their personal effort as a resource to achieve, then maintain a gap, looking out for each other, before an individual plays their hand for the win. Unsuccessful breakaways never settle. Stronger rider’s surge, making weaker riders nervous, therefore conserve energy, soon leaving gaps in the line and missing a turn at the front. The breakaway is doomed, they won't build the fastest momentum.
There are two types of pacelines. Rolling Turns is most common with one line moving up towards the front to take a turn into the wind, with the other line moving back after taking a turn. Then there is Track Turns, mostly used in smaller groups, where each rider commits an effort on the front before peeling off and moving to the back, in a single line.
The Art of Rolling Turns
Rolling Turns are great for larger groups, with each rider only committing a small amount of time in the wind, before spending the next minute or so sheltered moving through the group. The downside is they are a finely balanced environment and often require leadership to achieve the best results. Surges are the enemy of the group, splintering the line, causing weaker riders to miss turns and gaps to form.
Steady wins the battle in Rolling Turns, and keeping as many riders in the two lines, one moving up with riders ready to take a turn, a faster line, then one with riders slipping back from taking their turn, the slower line. All committing energy, working together, will create the fastest momentum. As you work your way up the faster line towards the front, the key is to maintain the existing momentum of the line for your turn. Then as you take your turn, move gently to the side, and reduce pace slightly, allowing the rider on your wheel, next in line to take a turn, to maintain the same speed and pass you without increasing effort or speed. As the rider overtaking you slowly moves in front of you, prepare to lift your speed slightly again to claim their wheel, therefore keeping the group tight.
Now you in the slower line. Here's where you rest, have a drink and prepare to come back to the faster line. As the back of the faster line approaches you need to focus, as this part of the paceline is where most accidents occur, as riders switch from one side to the other, and snaking and speed variations are most felt. A good tip is to remember the bike of the rider you have been following, as your eyes will be on wheels and the road, not up at faces and jerseys. As the rider you are following moves up beside you again, start lifting your pace to prepare to gracefully slide over to the faster line, moving forward for another turn on the front.
Easy! So, what stuffs it up? Strong riders quickly exposing the weak riders.
Being the Strong Rider
Strength comes with responsibility. Stronger riders often get frustrated with the group, but unless you think you can ride quicker on your own, your best bet is to commit to the group and use up its resources. Any shows of strength will make the group nervous, so use your strength to benefit the group, not a short burst of ego.
Keep your turns strong but steady, any surges will ripple through the group and cause cracks to appear, that’s gaps in the line. Any burst of pace as you take your turn, causes the rider you are taking the lead from to waste energy, chasing your wheel as you move over. Behind you, riders looking to move from one line to the other at the back, will miss the wheel also. And in most cases, you are less likely to drop the pace enough to let the rider taking the turn after you to complete their turn without putting extra effort in to pass you. So, from one simple surge in pace, you have put three riders at risk of pulling out of the line to rest and gaps appearing. Your job is to keep the line smooth, and if you’re stronger, look to fill gaps that appear in the line moving up, slotting in to the paceline to keep it steady, while riders are resting.
Hills are no friend of the paceline. The aim is to ride each hill at comfortable speed. That allows most riders to reform in the lines, and begin to take turns again, once over the top.
A strong rider ahead of riders strung out for another 200 metres further back on the climb spells disaster for any group. Often a paceline breaks down on a climb, so as a strong rider sets a sensible tempo, and once over the top, uses their strength to take an extra-long turn, that builds speed back up gradually, allowing the paceline to reform and the bulk of riders starting to work again.
Being the Weaker Rider (These are the days you the nail and not the hammer!)
We all find ourselves in groups, that for one reason or another, have us struggling to take regular turns in the paceline, that’s ok, you still have a job to do. Just as the role of the strong rider is to keep it steady, so it is with the weaker rider, any turn you take must maintain the speed of the group. If you can't take turns at the group speed, then rest until you can. Slow turns hurt the momentum and are often followed by speed surges.
As soon as you find yourself struggling it's time to get some rest. Continuing to take turns until you explode and drop off the back doesn't help the group. Rest up, and take turns when you can. You also may find you start to feel stronger or the overall group pace drops and you are more comfortable and contribute more.
Taking that rest on the back of the group is all about communication, and the hot seat for the riders taking a rest, is the rider directly behind the paceline, often with fellow resting riders single file behind. When in the hot seat, for the first few rotations of the line, let riders know you are missing turns, simply by yelling "missing". Where you position yourself has a big impact too, as unfortunately this spot is not the best "sit" as you juggle between two lines and are constantly yelling out. The preferred location is to stay behind the slower line, as this keeps you out of the peripheral vision of the rider coming back, looking for the last wheel of the faster line, to move across too. Working riders losing the wheel switching across, means extra effort or gaps. The technique here is to follow the last rider across to the fast line until they get up to the bottom bracket of the next rider coming back, then gently move back to the slower rider, picking them up, before you enter their vision.
Then when you’re ready to take turns again, let the last rider know you are back in the line, as they have been looking to move across to the rider you are now following. Simply yell "coming through" and the rider knows to look for a new last wheel.
This is why we love pacelines, the allegiances formed to further our own ambitions, the patience, focus, the measuring of effort and bike handling make it an addictive effort. Then when we feel we are close enough to the end, we can then use our strength to unravel the group by doing the very things we worked hard not to do! Using hills and surges to form cracks and reduce rider numbers.
Go find a paceline and roll turns!
Traditionally team time trials used Track Turns, 4 riders spending various stints of effort and time on the front, before peeling off, and sliding back to take the last wheel in the group. Track Turns are perfect for small groups or when you have very strong riders.
The Art of Track Turns
The Track Turn formation allows strong riders to build pace through a turn, and look to maintain it for as long as possible, without impacting negatively on the group. Different to Rolling Turns, weaker riders look to maintain a reasonable pace, but just as important, give rest to the stronger riders.
As you come up the line to take your turn, the front rider will signal their turn is complete, often a flick of the elbow, then move across, you then slowly build speed into your turn. At the completion of your turn, flick your elbow, and move across, backing off your speed slightly to allow the rider to start their turn. Then as the rider now taking the lead moves to the front, quickly slide down the line and rest on the back.
Being the Strong Rider
Strong riders love Track Turns. Smooth and intense efforts, with reasonable periods of recovery. As you come up the line, you drink and eat, and when your turn comes at the front, maintain the line speed, allowing the rider you have overtaken to safely take the last wheel and have a moments recovery from their effort, before you lift the tempo. Now smoothly lift the pace to something you can maintain for the duration of a solid turn, often up to 2 or 3 minutes, then flick the elbow and move over. If you have ended your turn at a faster speed than the rider behind you can maintain, then ease up, you have made the gains, and allow the rider to start their turn without fighting past you.
Being the Weaker Rider
Although your turns may not be as fast or as long, they are valuable, they provide the rest for the strong riders. Sometimes you may only be able to give 15 seconds at a reasonable pace on the front, but combined with the other rider’s efforts in the group, they will give valuable rest to others. Missing turns is an absolute last resort, dropping off is a sin! When you combine all the rider’s efforts, you may only take turns every 3 or 4 minutes, so your actual time on the front is not significant.
Time to find that group and practice your new skills. Go achieve some fast momentum!