Want Free Speed? Get in a Paceline.

Do you like to go fast? How about going faster with less effort? Well you can spend thousands of dollars on a new bike or wheels and get a little faster, or you can get in a paceline and get a lot faster.

A paceline is a group of riders in line close behind the rider in front of them. Wind/air resistance is the greatest force you have to overcome on a bike, other than gravity on hills. The rider at the front works harder while at the front to overcome the wind resistance for the group “drafting” behind. But when the lead rider moves back further in the paceline, they get a break and time to recover for their next turn at the front.

Once you get close to twenty miles per hour, wind resistance uses 75 percent of your energy, even more at higher speeds. If all members of the group take short turns at the front (pulls), this shares the workload of parting the air, allowing the group to move faster than a solo rider could. But even the rider at the front gets some benefit, since the following riders smooth the airflow coming off the front rider and reduce drag forces for them.

On the flats, pacelining/drafting reduces the power needed to go a given speed by about 25 percent—two mph or so faster, which is very noticeable. Savings can be even better in a large group, such as a professional peloton with a large group riding three or more abreast. Ride in the middle of that group and you are shielded from the wind on all sides.

“Pulls” (time at the front) can vary from twenty seconds or more to a few seconds. Very fast groups working well together will have riders rotating off the front as soon as they get to the lead.

Safety in a Paceline

A rider whose front wheel touches the rear wheel of the rider ahead of them will usually crash, and they can bring others down with them. The leader on a paceline must be highly vigilant, aim for a steady speed, and avoid sudden slowing that can cause a rider to run into the wheel ahead of them. The rider at the front, whenever possible, provides advance warning of the need to slow or stop. Hand signs are fine for gradual slowing. Yell if suddenly slowing. Do not brake except for emergencies.

Keep a Steady Pace

The two common mistakes riders make are picking up speed when they get to the front or pulling too long.

  • Most riders want to do their fair share or more and help the group, so they may pull as hard as they can when they get to the front. But a sudden increase in speed can easily create gaps in the paceline, making riders behind use extra energy to close the gaps.
  • If you pull too long, you may not have enough energy to drift back and get on the end after your turn in front.

Before you get to your turn at the front, pay attention to the group’s speed. When you get to the front, do your best to put out the effort needed to maintain that speed. But if the terrain changes from flat to either up or downhill, aim for the same effort (power, not speed) that you needed on the flat. Don’t try to maintain the same speed you had on the flats. Keep your power constant, on the flat and both up and down the hill. The front rider cresting a hill may need to back off their effort a bit until the last rider crests the hill. Otherwise, the sudden increase in speed at the front (which is now going downhill) can create a gap for anyone not yet at the top of the hill.

The goal is to keep the pack together, not blow it apart or shell riders off the back. If you are not sure you have the energy for a turn at the front, you can either pull off as soon as you get to the front, or if you are not to the front yet, open a gap and let a stronger rider pulling off get in front of you. No one will fault you for this, unless you are saving energy to blow their doors off in the finishing sprint. 🙂 Once you know what you can handle, you may find you can take a longer pull. When you are at the front and think the pace should change, do it very gradually after the rider who took the last pull is back in the paceline.

Pulling Off the Front

Indicate you will be pulling off by wiggling your elbow or a giving hand signal. This indication is always on the side that the rider behind will pass you, not the side you will be moving over toward. Exactly opposite of a hand signal for a turn.

Usually you pull off to the left, but in high traffic areas it may be best to pull off to the right so that the rider pulling off does not move into traffic. Discuss this with the group before changing protocols. When pulling off the front, maintain a steady effort; don’t slow down as you pull off. Decelerate as soon as you are clear of the paceline, but make sure that you do not run into the rider who pulled off just before you. Drift to the back and get on the tail as soon as you can. When riding with a familiar group, just pulling off the front may be enough signal for the next rider to start their pull.

Stay about the same distance to the rider ahead of you. If you drop a bit behind the rider ahead of you then speed up to catch up, you affect the whole line of riders behind you. They will have to use extra energy to accelerate to close any gaps that form, which can result in more gaps back in the line as everyone has to struggle to stay on a wheel. Gradual adjustments help avoid the gaps that riders have to close to get back in the draft of the rider ahead. If a gap does open, closing it gradually helps those behind you.

Increase your speed in a paceline by riding harder or getting more aero to stay on a wheel. Slow by doing one of the following:

  • Soft pedal and/or sit up. If you feel like you’re getting sucked into the rider in front of   you, reduce force on the pedals for a few strokes to adjust your speed accordingly. Sitting up/getting less aero can slow you considerably. 
  • Move a few inches to the left or right to get a bit out of the draft and help slow   you, but do it very gradually, and only a few inches out of your line so you don’t mess up the rider behind.  
  • Very light braking is a last resort, and if you can, first warn the riders behind you. Try to use your rear brake so the rider behind will see you braking. Hard braking is done in a paceline only to avoid crashing.

Get Comfortable Riding Close to the Wheel Ahead

Focusing on the wheel directly in front of you is a natural instinct when riding in a paceline, but it gives you no time to react should something happen up at the front. Don’t stare at the rear wheel in front of you. You want to be able to take advantage of drafting by staying within a couple feet or so of the rider ahead of you, but you need to develop that skill until it feels safe. And you need to trust the rider ahead of you to not slow unexpectedly. Until you are comfortable riding within a foot or so of the rider ahead, practice the following: 

  • Stay behind the rider ahead of you at a distance comfortable for you. A bike length or so should do it, but if you need more that is fine; choose a distance you are comfortable with at first. You can always move closer as you get more comfortable following the rider ahead of you.
  • Alternate every few seconds between looking at their rear wheel and looking at the road ahead. Looking ahead allows you more time to react to anything that will be affecting the paceline. The more you practice alternately looking at the wheel ahead then down the road, the sooner you will be comfortable riding closer to the wheel ahead of you—getting maximum benefit from drafting. The alternate looking is a bit tiring, but by consciously doing this for several rides, you will be able to look ahead while knowing how close your front wheel is to the next wheel. This is much safer and less stressful.

Enjoy the free speed!

Here are links to some videos on YouTube that review drafting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqLdeLchqYA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7OdSe7_lbo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__QFtDKwGYs.

Tim Riley

USA Cycling Coach, level 3