March, 2001

 

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Paceline 101

By Maynard Hershon

Lots of riders here (and elsewhere) have a shaky understanding of how pacelines work. It's not their fault, by the way: Many savvy cyclists "just wanna ride" not hassle with teaching green riders.

So here's my personal Paceline 101. It won't be technical and it won't be about how-to-do-it. I've never been able to translate written paceline instructions, even diagrams, into action on the road.

Many new-but-strong riders resist learning paceline skills. Unschooled cyclists associate drafting with impossibly fast-paced riding. I can't do it, they say, I'll get dropped.

Trust me: Proper paceline technique will make your cycling easier, not harder. You'll travel faster with less effort. You'll make new friends, rise to a new level of cycling expertise and be glad you stretched yourself to gain it.

Drafting behind other cyclists, positioning yourself in their aerodynamic wake, makes pedaling easier, often by as much as 25%. That's a huge difference. If you ride a lot with a stronger person and you feel weak by comparison, learn to draft. If your riding partner is 20% stronger, the draft makes you equal. Equal is cool.

There is no penalty, by the way, for the front person. Having someone "on your wheel" doesn't slow you down.

My suggestions about drafting are easier to understand than to implement, much like creating happy relationships. Like those relationships, drafting involves other people; it's cooperative and interdependent and intimate.

So it's problematical, but not impossible.

First: Pacelining is a team activity. Your partner helps you; if you can, you help him or her. To help, you have to be able to ride at the front, at least for a while. If you're fried, you can't do that.

So don't get fried. Don't sacrifice yourself; don't be a hero. Do only what you can do without exhausting yourself. You owe it to yourself and to your riding partner or partners. Read the last two paragraphs again.

Let's say there are just two of you. As you draft, remember to take care of yourself. Find the best shelter behind your friend, either directly behind or at an angle. If you find yourself becoming tired, say so.

Say: I'm barely hanging on here. Slow down a bit.

Please do that, please say something. Don't just be embarrassed and silent and allow yourself to be dropped. I'm imagining all you readers nodding your heads in agreement: Damn, you're saying, Maynard's got that right. But will you change your ways?

I'm afraid you'll go out and let yourself be dropped again and never say a word. I'm slow, you'll think. Slow. I'm only holding my friend up, ruining his or her ride. He or she'll be better off when I'm gone. Sound like your mom, don't you?

When you poop out and drop five bike-lengths behind, your friend or riding partner has to sit up and wait for you. You can't accelerate and catch him: You're toast. You feel defeated. Losing the draft the next time will be easier.

You got dropped because you were reluctant, for one reason or another, to ask your friend to slow down. Now you're tired. The two of you will have to ride very slowly while you recover. If you recover.

If you had asked your friend to ride slightly slower, and we're talking about a very small difference here, a mph or two, you would still be sitting comfortably in the draft, riding within your abilities.

If he got tired, you could take the front and let him rest. If you'd made your needs clear to him and he'd complied. So ask. Get what you need. Does this sound like a series of self-help book titles?

If going to the front is going to cause you to blow up, don't do it. Or go to the front and take very short pulls, 30 seconds max. If you're in a multi-person paceline and you're at your limit, sit at the back, open a hole for each rider as he drifts back. You have no responsibility to work. If you can't, don't.

Your primary responsibility, beyond safety, is taking care of yourself. Off the back, you can't help anyone.

And: Your legs will do an amazing amount of work if the loads placed on them are smooth, gradual. So try to create a paceline situation that's kind to your legs, one that's smooth and doesn't make you jump to catch a disappearing wheel.

Speak up.

When the lead rider comes off the front, he should soft-pedal as soon as he moves over. If he does not, the next leader has to stay there for a long time simply to pass him, hovering there right off her shoulder. Get off the front and slow down; Ask your friends to do the same.

Don't get off the front and brake, just slow down enough so the new leader can pass you and pull off when he wishes.

When you're second in line, and it's time for YOU to take the front, please do not accelerate. Please, please do not accelerate. I know you're excited to be there at the front. I know you want to keep the group moving at a good pace. Don't accelerate.

Maintain a constant speed, even if you have to check your cyclometer. If you do jump, the guy who just left the front has to chase you with tired legs. He may be able to do that once or twice, but eventually the repeated effort will break his legs.

When the tail end of the line appears next to you, blend into it smoothly. If the pace of the line moving back is almost the same as the line moving forward, it should be easy to blend into the forward-moving line.

Summing up: Take care of yourself so you can be of use to your partner. Try to keep the paceline working smoothly so no sudden-effort loads hit your legs or your friends' legs. Know what you need and don't be bashful about asking for it.


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