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Pacelining For Dummies

Tom Hocking


If you caught any of the coverage of le Tour this year, you watched and probably admired those long lines of riders in the peleton moving across your TV screen with seemingly effortless grace. A line of trained riders working together truly is a thing of beauty as it traverses the countryside fluidly, like some variegated snake. We don't have to be Euro pros to do this, but alas, the majority of recreational cyclists, yes, even some randonnuers, do not know how to ride a proper pace line. After four years of riding brevets with our club and observing riders in action, I feel it's time to address this issue.

Done properly, pacelining (or "drafting") can increase a rider's efficiency by up to 30%. That means 30% faster or farther on a given amount of cookies--a significant difference when you're nearing the end of a long ride. I should stress the "done properly" bit because many times I've been part of ragged lines on our rides when less experienced members seemed uncertain of how to do what when. This article has arisen out of my frustration at the wasted efforts and confusion that resulted. I hope to clear up some of this confusion and allow us to develop a commonly agreed upon standard of practice.

I rode with Edmonton Velo during the 80s and we had a strict protocol for riding pace lines. Not to say that these road racers were a bunch of "pace line nazis", but when bikes are travelling inches apart at 40 kph, certain rules are essential for safety.

The ideal situation for pace lining is terrain that is flat to rolling and frequented by wind (e.g. The Fraser Valley). When things are going good and all cylinders are clickin' it's often possible for following riders to simply coast whilst the lead rider is doing his best to turn bananas into lactic acid. Not only is a good paceline efficient in terms of distances travelled at high average speeds, it also happens to be one hell of a lot of fun.

So how is it done? First a bit of theory about aerodynamics. Scientists have determined that air resistance is an exponential function of speed (Editor's note: technically it goes as the square but the effect is the same). In other words, as you increase your speed, the effort required to overcome the resistance of the air increases dramatically. For example, increasing your speed from 12 kph to 32 kph increases the air resistance you encounter by a whopping 1800%! A recent study demonstrated that, at 32 kph, the energy requirement is reduced by 18% in a paceline compared to a solo cyclist travelling at the same speed. And that's in still air. The difference becomes even more significant if you're riding into a headwind. What all this technobabble means is that a tremendous amount of a rider's energy is expended just trying to push bike and body through the ocean of air that surrounds us. Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have all that atmosphere to contend with? Of course, without any air none of us would be able to breathe, so forget bicycling. But just suppose that there was another rider in front of you, poking a hole in the air for you to ride through. That rider would be breaking the wind for you and, according to the eggheads, your efficiency would skyrocket. That's what drafting is all about. The lead rider in the line punches this hole in the air. That window only stays open for a short time before it begins to close up again, so there is a pocket of low pressure just behind the lead rider. That's exactly where you want to be riding so you can get sucked along in the draft. The same theory holds for every other rider in the line. I believe that the effort expended is even less for each additional rider who joins in behind.

OK, so how did those Velo boys work it? Here's how: Riders form up single file in a group of two to perhaps eight bikes and begin pedalling at a mutually agreed upon speed. This could be a comfortable cruise if the purpose of the ride is leisurely or, if the group was really pouring on the coal, the pace could become greater than that which could be sustained for any length of time by one of these riders alone. The lead rider assumes an aerodynamic position on the drops or aerobars and pedals hard, but is careful to avoid going anaerobic. A smooth, steady pace is paramount. No braking without plenty of warning and no eating or drinking. Even standing up suddenly can create chaos back down the line. The lead rider remains on the front for a predetermined period, which may be 3 km on easy rides, or, if the group is really hammering, it could be as short as 30 pedal revolutions.

Now here's an important part that, for some reason, people don't seem to understand. When the lead rider's turn at the front is over, he (or she) does a shoulder check for oncoming traffic, then peels off TO THE LEFT and begins to soft pedal in such a way that the rest of the line overtakes him on his RIGHT side. As the last rider in line passes by, the erstwhile leader accelerates enough to fall in behind, thereby becoming the caboose. Now that rider can recover, take a well earned drink, scratch his nose and grope for a broken cookie in his jersey pocket. As other riders complete their turn at the front they will fall back to the end of the line in turn and our original 'leader' (now hopefully well recovered!) resumes his place at the front once again. In this fashion the entire line recirculates continually as it moves down the road somewhat like a bulldozer's caterpillar tread. Except lighter, quieter, faster, and more graceful.

The role of the second rider in line, and all subsequent riders, is to maintain the correct interval to the rider ahead and to remain alert to what's coming up. Don't fixate on the rear wheel of the next bike. Instead try to peer ahead for upcoming traffic signals and hazards. How close should you be to the rider ahead? That really depends on several factors amongst which are speed and you own comfort level. It can vary from, say 6" (15 cm) to about a wheel length. Certainly after a distance equivalent to a bike length, you will notice the window beginning to close down and the beneficial effect will soon be lost. You do not want to let this happen for, if you do, you'll find you have to work very hard to get back on. Should you allow too much of a gap to open up, your train will become uncoupled and you will be unable to regain contact. It's what we call "getting dropped". Sometimes this gap can occur due to a lapse in attention. Neither do the riders behind you want this to happen to you because of the "slinky effect" that follows, nor do they want to lose contact with the locomotive. A line of serious road racers will maintain a constant chatter and would not be shy about informing you of your lack of concentration. The kindest phrase you might hear could be, "Gap……Gap!……Hey, watch the **** GAP!!" Randonnneurs, being of a far gentler sort, would never speak so harshly. Should the gap begin to widen despite your best efforts, then you need to communicate this to the rider in front (presumably before it becomes necessary to shout in order to be heard). If it becomes evident that you're in over your head or that the rest of the group is constantly riding above your comfort level and you're not able to recover, it's fine to let the group go and resume riding at your own pace. Chances are there'll be another train along in a few minutes that might be more to your ability. You can hop on the back of any train, but it's considered good etiquette to ask permission first.

When riding in a line do keep you hands near the brakes, but try to avoid touching your brakes (see Slinky Effect). If wheels are getting uncomfortably close, stop pedalling, sit up, and maintain your interval. Remember: smooooth and steady….

A CARDINAL RULE: You must never, ever, allow your front wheel to touch any part of the bike in front of you for, if you do, you will go DOWN. The rider ahead may remain blissfully unaware of your personal tragedy, but terror will reign amongst those behind. If you don't feel comfortable with your tyre (I used Harold's spell checker) directly in line with the wheel ahead, it's permissible to ride slightly to one side or the other while maintaining the gap. Do not overlap wheels or you may come to grief when the rider ahead swerves suddenly to avoid debris.

Another part of the protocol that seems to be troublesome for many riders occurs when it's time to take over at the front. When the lead rider peels off and begins to fall back, there is often a tendency for the next rider in line to speed up. Do not (I say again) do NOT accelerate. Maintain exactly the same speed that the line's been travelling.

Those are the basics. Follow these rules and you and your group will be happy, healthy randos. There are more advanced methods such as double pacelines and echelon formations used to counteract the effect of wind from different directions. I hope I have sparked some interest for this exciting aspect of cycling and that eventually all members will become proficient. We simply need to agree on a standard method and put it into practice

The spirit of randonneuring is co-operation and working together and a well ridden pace line personifies this. How about trying it on our next brevet?

Bon route!