Joining a bike club is a great way to get into the sport of cycling and enjoy the camaraderie that is the heart of cycling. When I moved to San Diego, one of the first things I did was look for a club to ride with. I was shifting gears from being a solo touring road cyclist to a club rider, more specifically a “Roadie”. Having found a home with the North County Cycling Club (NCCC) I quickly learned that staying with the lead riders of the “fast” group required more than just strong legs, it demanded special skills to calmly ride inches off the wheel in front of me while pedaling along at speeds in excess of 25 mph.
For the new club member, riding in a large group for the first time can be unnerving and the slightest lapse in attention can have catastrophic results. However, with the proper skills you can build your confidence and enjoy the thrill of flying down the road in fast moving group.
To become confident when riding in a paceline, start by staying one bike length from the rider in front, then gradually close the gap as your experience and ability increase. Once you can comfortably ride within a wheel length of the rider in front of you, you will notice the full effect of drafting. Never overlap the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. If they should have to move laterally for any reason, tapping your front wheel, even slightly, can cause you to crash.
Ride predictably, don’t make sudden or erratic moves – you may hear other riders telling you to “hold your line”, this lessens the likelihood of someone behind you running into your wheel. Stay in the saddle, if you need to increase your speed, shift gears and change your pedal cadence. Standing up on the pedals initially moves the bike backwards.
Don’t stare at the wheel in front of you, look ahead 2 or 3 riders so you can take in all of what is happening in front of you. Have “situational awareness” Be aware of your surroundings at all times, listen for people calling out hazards, be alert to riders coming up alongside of you – be careful not to “zone out”.
Communication is key to safe group rides. Know the proper hand signals for pointing out hazards, slowing or waving someone to pass you. Make sure everyone knows of approaching turns, stops and hazards by calling them out – be descriptive of obstacles: “hole” “roadkill” “bump” etc. Common warnings include: “Car Up” (to announce an oncoming vehicle), “Car Back” (for an overtaking vehicle), “On your left” (for passing another cyclist or a pedestrian), “Slowing” (for slowing the entire line).
Don’t brake in a paceline, hitting your brakes will slow you down too much and cause the rider behind you to touch wheels, leading off a chain reaction crash that will ripple through the line. To slow down, ease up on your pedal stroke or coast; sit up straight or move slightly to the side and take some wind to slow down. Once you’ve slowed down enough, smoothly resume your pedal stroke and position. If you must brake, feather your brakes gently.
When taking the lead position in a paceline, don’t accelerate. Maintain the same cadence as when drafting so you don’t cause gaps to open between other riders (these gaps are felt most severely at the back of the line and creates an accordion effect as riders have to speedup to rejoin the paceline.) Think of a paceline like a big slinky, whatever happens at the front will ripple it’s way to the back.
If you’re going to eat, take off your jacket or arm warmers, you’ll want to be at the back of the line where your movements are least likely to affect the dynamics of the paceline. If you’re not already at the back of the line, communication is key here because you’re creating a gap that the riders behind you will have to close. If at all possible wait until you’ve had your time at the front and have naturally moved to the end of the line. If you’re in line, make sure it’s safe to pull out, signal the rider behind you to move up and gradually drop back to the rear of the group.
Maintaining a steady cadence while climbing a hill in a paceline is key to avoiding crashes; shift into a lower gear to maintain your cadence rather than standing and mashing the pedals. If leading a paceline on a descent, keep pedaling and maintain an aerodynamic position. If you must slow, give ample warning to riders behind you, speeds can reach 50 mph on descents and there’s little margin for error.
Know your limits and don’t overexert yourself at the front of the line. Stronger riders should pull longer, weaker riders should pull shorter. Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t pull as long at the front. Remember the concept behind a paceline is to conserve power and share the load, don’t spend all your effort at the front only to be dropped off the back because you can’t keep up.
Adapted from an article I wrote for the July 2003 Edition of the NCCC Freewheeler