Pacelines 101


The essence of group riding is riding the paceline. It allows cyclists to travel faster with less effort and provides a better social experience. (It is also a foundation of racing.) A good paceline is smooth and built on trust. The riders have to be confident that the others in the group will communicate well and ride safely. Pacelines do have some inherent danger and require communication among the riders. But if you learn to ride an efficient paceline you will experience the power and speed of cycling like never before. A good paceline is a wonderful thing. All riders in a paceline are depending on all others to follow some basic rules. Breaking these rules can cause the entire group to hit the pavement.

  1. Be PREDICTABLE. Other riders should foresee your actions.
  2. Keep your head up and be alert. You are responsible for your own safety.
  3. Ride in a straight line.
  4. When changing your line do it gently and predictably.
  5. Usually avoid overlapping your front wheel with the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, maintain a 6-12 inch space between wheels.
  6. Avoid the brakes. If absolutely necessary use as little brake as possible.
  7. Avoid accelerations, maintain a steady speed.


SINGLE paceline

Riders align behind one another to take maximum advantage of the "draft" effect of the cyclist in front. The cyclist in the front is “taking a pull” and will set the group's pace, when the lead rider decides it is time to change, that rider “pulls off” to one side and drifts back to the end of the paceline. The new lead cyclist maintains the same group pace. Because of the increased wind resistance he will need to increase his effort, but should maintain the same gear at the same cadence.

CIRCLE (rotating) paceline

A circle requires more focus and greater skills but is very satisfying to be a part of. In a circle paceline there is an advancing (faster) line of riders and a retreating (slower) line of riders. The retreating line is on whichever side the wind is coming from. The key to a rotating paceline is that when the rider at the front of the advancing line clears (passes) the rider who is on the front of the retreating line, the advancing rider moves into the retreating line and softens up his pace. The rider who was behind him continues the pace of the advancing line until that rider switches over. The rider in the advancing line should NEVER surge. The idea is that you ride to the front and float to the back in a constant rotation. You change your speed by "soft-pedaling" as you switch to the retreating line and increasing your pedal pressure as you switch from the retreating line to the advancing line.

ECHELON paceline

An echelon occurs while ridding in a crosswind. In strong crosswinds, riders become offset like geese flying south for the winter. The riders will naturally find cover at an angle as shown above. An Echelon can refer to either a single paceline or a rotating paceline. In either case, the lead rider will pull off INTO the wind. You always move into a crosswind. This way, the advancing riders that are already working harder get some protection from the wind. They also overlap wheels, which mean a mistake causing wheels to touch can take down the whole bunch. The width of this type of paceline also requires a completely traffic-free road. The first echelon may only fit 4 riders onto their half of the road, if the group is larger and the echelon becomes too long to fit, it is necessary to form a second echelon. For instance, if there are 7 riders total, the last 3 riders at the back will need to form a second echelon, containing just those three riders.

Pulling Through

When the rider ahead of you peels off, it is your job to come through to the front and pull the group along. When the rider ahead of you peels off, maintain your speed and go straight through without hesitation. Reduce your effort up hills because the draft is less. Conversely, accelerate through more quickly on descents so everyone won't stack up behind you. If you do not want to ride at the front because you are tired or less fit than the rest of the group, it's too late to avoid it now. Once you are in second wheel and the leading rider peels off, you must come through to the front. Do not speed up, maintain a steady pace on the way to the front. If you are tiered you need only hold your position at the front for a few seconds and then peel off.

Paceline Techniques

Hopefully your group is made up of some experienced riders, watch and learn from these riders. When do they pull off, when do they slow down, when do they speed up, and in which direction do they pull off?

Pulling (Peeling) Off

When you are tired of riding at the front and you feel it is time for you to go to the back, check briefly that there isn't someone overlapping your back wheel, then gradually move to the side and let the group come through. Do not suddenly veer off to the side; peel off in a steady and controlled manner. Which direction should the lead rider pull off? The single paceline picture above shows the rider pulling off to the left. But there are various reasons to pull off in either direction. If there is a cross wind the lead rider will pull off whichever direction the wind is coming from. This is because the riders in the single paceline will naturally line up as shown in the "echelon" picture to hide themselves from the wind. Pulling into the wind will also help avoid touching wheels. In a paceline the rider behind you should be on your downwind side and in a severe crosswind may be overlapping wheels. Pulling into the wind and away from the rider behind you is the proper technique. Basically, whichever direction the group is using, all riders should do the same thing. However riding around a corner may cause a change in wind direction and therefore pulling off to the opposite side may be necessary. Be ready to rejoin the group as the last rider in line passes you. One of the hardest parts of riding a paceline is getting on the back after taking a pull.

Too Tired to Go to the Front?

If you do not want to go to the front, “sit on the back” and let the riders coming back from the front of the group slot in ahead of you. Usually calling, “Up”, to the retreating rider is sufficient warning. It is not acceptable to work your way up to the front of the group and then look around acting lost and confused, slowing down because you don't feel strong enough to be at the front. If for whatever reason you do find yourself at the front, go through and take what is known as a token pull. You go to the front for a couple seconds, then peel off, and go to the back.

Moving About in a Group

If you need to go to the back of the group, or need to move away from the side of road because the road is damaged or obstructed, just gently and steadily move in whatever direction you want to go in. The key to all group riding is to do things gradually and steadily. Even if there is a rider right next to you as you pull out to the side of the road, if you do it gradually, the other rider will naturally have time to move over with you. If you do anything sudden you will likely cause a crash. This is also very important when peeling off and filling a gap.

What obstacles are worth pointing out?

I hear you cry. That's simple. An obstacle worth pointing out is one that will damage a bike or person behind you. Please don't point out manhole covers unless they are deeply set in the road, and don't point out leaves or small cracks in the road, and certainly don't point out obstacles in the next lane.

DOUBLE paceline

This is a minor modification of the single paceline. In this setting there are two single pacelines side by side. The riders on the front of each paceline pull off in opposite directions. As a general rule, the pacelines are far smoother if the two front riders agree and pull off simultaneously. Otherwise one of the lines has to surge to get the front riders side by side. With the lead riders pulling off in opposite directions and going to the back of the group there will be 4 riders riding side by side. This takes a lot of space on the road so be very wary of traffic. If there is a slight side wind (and there always is) it is probably best to have the two lead riders pull off into the wind and on the same side of the road. The lead rider farthest away from the wind will need to pull in front of the lead rider closest to the wind and then both go to the back in single file. This will create a three cyclist wide effect and therefore use a little less road.

Slowing and Adjusting Speed

This is probably the biggest crash causer on group rides. For some reason, when someone slows down ahead of them, a lot of riders jump for their brakes and yank the heck out of them, almost skidding and taking everyone down with them. You should be riding ever-so-slightly to the side of the rider in front of you, so when they slow down you either stop pedaling and start to slightly overlap your front wheel with their rear wheel, or you touch the brakes gradually, once again using the "wheel overlap" as a buffer zone so as not to slow down too suddenly for the riders behind you. Instead of using your brakes try sitting up and using the air resistance to slow you down.

Obstacles and Hand Signals

All obstacles should be warned of by a simple hand signal. This does not mean pointing at something for five minutes after you have passed it. When you see an obstacle in the road ahead of you, put your hand down and give a signal that lets the riders behind you know in which direction they should go to avoid it. Traditionally a quick wave of the hand will suffice. If you only see the obstacle at the last minute, ride through it! Better to get a flat than to take down the whole group. On the subject of obstacles, please only point out those that are worth pointing out.