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The Noob’s Guide to Advanced Pace-Line Cycling

August 2013
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This is meant to be a serious and important post on a very serious subject. A friend of mine lost a fellow cyclist recently in a pace line accident. When we meet for our weekly ride, the assumption is that we’re all meeting in the parking lot after the ride for a good laugh and then heading our separate ways for an even better dinner… That’s not always the case, and in my opinion, this topic needs its respect.

After almost being wiped out on Saturday by a semi-accomplished cyclist in a five person, 21 mph pace line, I thought it timely to list some of the biggest crash causing pace line mistakes. This post will cover advanced pace line cycling. If you’re starting out in the new cyclist club ride, you should know all of the things below, but you’ll have time and space (and help) to grow into competency. If, on the other hand, you’re naturally fast and start in the advanced group (as I did – hey, who knew?), then there are a few things you need to know – and how to push the pedals harder than most people is not one of them.

Riding in a pace line, if you do know what you’re doing is a dangerous activity… If you don’t know what you are doing you will be placing you and whoever you’re riding with in danger. People die doing this so please, if you’re a noob, take this seriously so your arrogant ass doesn’t orphan someone’s kids.

Also, for the seasoned cyclist, if you believe I missed one, please feel free to let me know in the comments section below so I can add yours.

1. Know how to ride in a straight line. If I had a dollar for every noob who showed up to our advanced club ride who couldn’t ride in a straight line I’d have, well maybe $2.50. Those two guys were unbelievably dangerous though. Don’t be that person. I practiced for months till I was comfortable enough to ride in a group setting. Simply use the white line as your sight guide. You don’t have to be perfect, but you can’t be all over the place either. You must be comfortable on your bike.

2. Know the route you’re riding. To the greatest extent possible. If you don’t, do not be the first to drop. If others drop first you can drop off and follow them back.

3. When possible, keep a constant speed and watch the gap in front of you. The gap should be no less than 6 inches and no more than 2 or 3 feet. Any more than that and you’ll lose the benefit of the draft and you’ll fall off the back. In the advance group, especially in the second half, there will be a yo-yo effect from attacking at the front – don’t add to it. Also, 6 inches isn’t much. There’s no room for error there (as I’ll describe later). You must be careful that close.

4. Know how to stand up without slowing down suddenly. The lug that almost wiped me out the other day started standing up on his pedals as he got tired, and he did it wrong. If you pull back on the bars to stand up, your bike will decelerate sharply and you’ll fall back almost a foot in a split second. If someone is following close enough behind you, wheels will rub and there is a huge likelihood that the guy/gal behind you will hit the pavement, leaving behind skin and probably some blood. The proper way to stand without falling back is to accelerate prior to standing and push your bars forward to stand. This will ensure you don’t fall back too fast for the guy behind you to react (see also 11 and 12).

5. Don’t overlap the wheel in front of you unless you’re in an established echelon. Too much can go wrong – and the rider who gets his front wheel hit is the one who goes down, almost every time.

6. Know the pace of the group you’re riding with (if possible). If you can’t ride within 2 mph of that group solo, you’re not fast enough to keep up. Even at the back, you’ll be dropped.

7. Be extra careful when you’re tired. This is when most mistakes are made (like the one that almost took me out, and the one that eventually took my buddy out on the same ride). This is when people have attention lapses. If you’re too wiped to pay attention, better to fall off the back and go at your own pace than risk hurting someone. You can always soft pedal for a bit and wait for a few others to catch up to you and form your own pace line after you’ve recovered.

8. When behind an experienced rider, look one or two riders ahead, not at the wheel directly in front of you. If you’re looking at the wheel directly in front of you, you’ll develop tunnel vision. You’ll miss hand signals and your risk for crashing goes through the roof. When I’m behind an inexperienced rider, I bring my center of vision down just a bit so I can pay just a little more attention to the guy in front of me, but it’s a good idea to see what’s coming.

9. If you’re behind an erratic rider (another noob or someone nearing their threshold) opt for a bigger gap. This was my mistake. After riding behind the guy all day I trusted him a bit too much. As soon as he started standing I should have said something and widened the gap a bit.

10. If you’re nearing your threshold, hide for a few cycles in the line – skip a few pulls up front. This tip is huge. Don’t be afraid to skip a few turns up front if you’re struggling. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll refresh after ten or fifteen minutes at the back of the line. To do this, when the person up front peels off and comes back, allow a gap to form and announce, “go ahead” or “hop in” (or whatever it is you say in your country). They’ll pull in ahead of you closing the gap, preserving the line, and you can take a few more minutes to “recover”. This works best when the group is riding at a consistent speed. Watch the yo-yo.

11. Use hand signals and verbal cues – they’re not “lame”. In fact, you’ll be lame if you crash someone behind you for not using them. For instance, your hand down, palm back means you’re stopping or slowing. Do this before you stand. Point to road kill and pot holes or choppy pavement to warn other cyclists. Call out “gravel” when there’s loose gravel on the road – especially on a turn. Use your turn signals (not the old way, just point to which way you’re turning). Holler “car up” or “car back” if you notice one. If you’re up front, holler “left turn”, “right turn” or “stopping”.

12. If you must stand to stretch your legs, do so properly. See also, 4 & 11.

13. If you must hit the brakes quickly, yell something and try to peel off to the left. If your wheel gets enmeshed in the rear derailleur of the person ahead of you, you’re done. [ED.  Andy pointed out a flaw in my English on this one in the comments section – this only has to do with slowing down – not bailing out.  If you have to bail, the grass at the side of the road is obviously preferable, BUT, make sure you’re not bailing out into a mailbox.  This also assumes that we’re only talking about a foot or two to the left – where traffic presumably wouldn’t be present anyway because we’re smart enough to make it so cars have to get into the other lane to get around us.]

14. Climbing uphill is tricky. Different people will climb at different paces. If you’re not racing the group will probably reform after a tough climb so don’t worry so much about beating everyone to the top. Watch the riders in front of you and match their pace. I happen to climb pretty fast when I’m not blown up so I often have to coast or even hit the brakes a bit to keep from hitting the guy in front of me.

15. Descents: Those in the back will descend much faster than those in front. The person in front can be a horse pedaling for all he’s worth going down a hill… Six riders back you’ll be on the brakes to keep from hitting someone’s back wheel.

16. All of the serious accidents I’ve witnessed have happened when the group is stopping either at a stop sign/light or in the parking lot of a hydration station/gas station when stopping for a break. In every instance, a guy in the back will miss the fact that the group will be stopping and he’ll crash through the group. Be aware and very careful, especially toward the end of a long ride. Stopping and getting off of your bike when you’re a little gassed is not as easy as when you’re fresh. Also, if you’re stopping for refreshments, get the hell out of the way so others have room to stop.

Now, a little context. I don’t pretend to be a seasoned or even a great cyclist. I’m decently fast but certainly nothing to cheer about. I am, however, an avid enthusiast and student of proper etiquette and the overall art of cycling. I prepared for months, reading everything I could find online about pace lines and then talked about what I’d read with my LBS owner before I finally showed up for my first club ride. I watched videos of guys on clamp-on aero bars going over those bars because they were riding on them in the middle of the group, too far from the brakes. I watched videos showing proper techniques and then tried, as best I could, to mimic them on my own daily rides… All of this so that when I showed up, wet behind the ears, I wasn’t putting myself or someone else at risk so I could ride a little faster. Safety in a group is each of our responsibility so that we can all go home and hug our wives or husbands and our kids… And if you think that this post is bullshit, you have no business in a pace line. Period. Ride solo, and STFU.

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6 Comments

  1. andygis33 says:

    Great post, although I’m a little confused with number 13. My “bail spot” is usually to the right into the ditch, away from traffic, but that can change depending on the situation. The derailleur concern brings up a good point, but for me, I would be more worried about dumping it into a lane of traffic than taking out my derailleur and/or someone else’s wheel.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Ah! I wasn’t talking about bailing out… That’s a different subject altogether. I’ll fix the wording to reflect my meaning. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. That’s why I ride singletrack and forest roads… way too much pressure in road riding. The only one I kill is myself. I can live with that. 🙂

  3. isaac976 says:

    I fault at no.3 always, I go dangerously close to about 1 inch but I am comfortable at that and have been riding so with the peloton for years that way, but you did list out lots of very good points here. Thanks for sharing.

  4. […] Over the last two years I’ve picked up quite a bit and thought I’d share some of the finer intricacies that I’ve picked up, things that have to do more with group dynamics because cycling groups are exceptionally cliquey.  Also, if you’re looking for a list of “How To” bullet points, I’ve written a fairly extensive post on that, here. […]

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