Pacelines 101 - Paceline Riding

Bob Markisello, Past President

Wear a helmet.

Without one, a simple low speed fall could permanently change your life.  And always be sure it’s snuggly buckled.

Obey all traffic laws and signs,

including not riding in a right turn lane if you're not turning right!

Always look several riders ahead toward the front of the paceline to anticipate anything that's about to happen.  

Do not stare at the wheel in front of will not be prepared to react to things happening further ahead like squirrels, potholes or someone slowing down with a flat.

When space allows, ride a foot to either side of the rider in front of you.  

That makes it easier to look further ahead.  And, frequently, the wind is not blowing from dead ahead, so the draft is off to one side and you’ll benefit from being there.

Signal before making any turn, even if everyone with you has done the same route 100 times.  People get distracted talking or looking around.

Also, in many states it is legal to signal a right turn by just pointing to the right; not using the left arm pointing straight up that cars sometimes use.  Pointing to the right makes most sense on a bike because it would be difficult for a person on your right to not know you’re making a right turn with your arm stretched out in front of them!

When you take the "pull" at the front of the paceline, your job is to maintain the constant agreed speed of the group.

Do not exceed the group speed limit.  If you're not sure about speed, simply maintain the speed of the person you just replaced, and try to keep your speed as constant as possible.  If you just can’t maintain the pace, keep your pull short.

This is not time to prove your manhood by how much faster you can go.  You don't score macho-points.  No one will be impressed...quite the opposite!

If the person pulling takes and keeps the paceline above the agreed speed, just let them go off the front.  They'll eventually catch-on to why no one is directly behind them.

OK, there are some rides when there's not an “agreed pace”.  Be guided by what's "normal" on that ride.  Maybe that ride is a contest. If so, go for it!

When you're pulling and go around corners or cross roads accelerate back to full speed gradually.  

Some riders will slow down more than you did, will have to wait for a car to pass, or just don’t accelerate as quickly as you do.  Your objective is not to drop them!  This is a "group ride", so keep the group together.  

This applies even in a big ride in which you don’t know most folks.  If they were in a paceline behind you before the turn, they probably want to stay there.  Let them.

Keep about a 1-2 ft gap between you and the rider ahead...maybe a bit more if you don't have experience riding with that person, or if riding closer makes you nervous.

But keep the distance to the rider ahead constant so you're not the cause of the "accordion effect"...the paceline expanding and compressing.  That unnecessarily burns up everyone’s energy.

Do not ride on your aero bars unless you are 20 feet off the back of the pack and riding solo.

This has been the cause of at least one serious crash locally.  Don't do it.  If you're practicing for a tri event, you can't draft in don't get on aero-bars and draft on a club ride.

If the rider in front of you is doing it, don't follow him.

Do not wear headphones.  

You will miss hearing warnings from other riders or sounds about things happening in the surroundings or coming from your own bike.  It's dangerous!

Do not use your brakes except in an emergency.  

If you need to slow slightly, just ease up the pressure on the pedals.  Don't stop pedaling...that's likely to panic the person right behind you. They'll wonder what you're going to do next and will likely also stop pedaling.  And on goes the accordion effect.

If you must brake, use your back brake gently and signal to the rider behind you first that you're slowing.

If there's a crash in front of you or some other catastrophe, the best way to avoid injury and to avoid involving those behind you is not to brake, but to steer to one side or the other.  That creates a gap which provides the riders behind you with some space to decide what they're going to do.

Do not overlap the wheel of the rider in front of you.  

If she swerves slightly to avoid something or just loses concentration, you'll hit wheels and YOU will go down...and then maybe those behind you as well.  We’ve all seen this countless times.

If you do bump, turn your wheel toward the wheel in front of you to try to recover.  Try not to panic (I know, that’s not easy when it happens)...maintain control of your bike even if you ride off into the grass to come to a stop.  It’s softer there.

If you don’t have great speed control and you’re going to occasionally overlap the rider ahead, make sure you’re at least a wheel length to the side of them, so if they wobble side-to-side, they won’t cause you to bump their back wheel.

Don't allow a gap to open up in front of you, unless the person pulling is exceeding the usual speed.  

Keep the paceline together.  If someone accelerates and opens a gap, close it gradually.  If you can't close it, signal that you're pulling out of the line and let the rider behind you close the gap.

Don't stand up in a paceline without signaling first.  

You may think you're maintaining your speed while you stand, but the bike hesitates as you lift up and could cause the rider behind you to bump your wheel.  

If you need a "butt break" signal that you're going to stand (and maintain the pace) by pointing straight up, or signal getting out of the line and move out of the paceline before standing.

When you pull off the front either wiggle your elbow (as the pros do) on the side that you want riders behind you to pass on, or pat your butt on that side.  

Or, said another way, if you’re pulling off to the left, wiggle your right arm for folks to pass you on your right side.  This is a good practice, used by the pros, because you can signal without taking your hand off the bar.

Be aware that some less experienced riders may not realize that the "chicken wing" elbow wiggle is a conscious signal and you may need to use the butt-pat.  The critical thing, regardless of how you signal, is to make your signal unmistakable.  If you’re riding in a new group, find out what’s normal.

Never slow down beforesignaling that you're pulling off the front.  

And never pull off without first signaling.  If you don't effectively signal, the rider behind you may think you're just swerving to miss a pothole and follow you.  Then when you do slow down (thinking no one is behind you) you'll cause a crash.

Never “break into” a paceline without signaling.  

If a paceline is passing you and you want to jump on and see a gap, don’t move over without signaling first.  The gap may be closing as the rider behind the gap is working to catch up.  If you move into the gap without signaling that you’re planning to do that, you could both wind up in the same space at the same time!

Avoid giving up the pull when a motor vehicle is approaching from behind.  It helps to have a mirror so you can easily see what’s going on behind you before signaling.

If you do, the paceline will be 2 riders wide.  On a narrow road with an approaching vehicle, that could be dangerous.  If there’s a vehicle approaching from behind and from ahead, do not pull off! Also, to a motorist looking for something to get angry about, it might appear that you’re trying to keep him from passing!  Avoid the drama.

If you're too tired or just not strong enough to pull at the group speed, when you reach the front of the paceline, just go a short distance (say, 100 yards), signal and pull off.  

Folks will understand.  And, generally, they'd prefer that you not pull, than for you to significantly lower the pace or to get worn out and be dropped after your pull, requiring someone to go back and check on you.  You will not lose macho-points because of a short pull.

When you pull off the front and drift to the back of the pack, begin to increase your speed when there are still a couple of riders left at the end of the line, and then smoothly move onto the end of the line.  

If you don't do this, you may allow a gap between you and the last rider.  On a windy day, you might never get back to the group.

If you are the last rider in the paceline, it's considerate to call out "last" when the rider drifting back is next to you so she knows that she needs to accelerate and pull in right behind you.

If you see a pothole, road-kill, boulder, glass, dog, etc. point to it and call out so the riders behind you can avoid it.

Your objective is to warn of something that a rider nominally following your wheel might hit.  So, if the obstruction is more than a couple of feet away from your line on either side, don't point it out.  They won't hit it unless they're not following you.  And if they're several feet off your line, they'll see it coming.

The usual comments are: “bump”, “hole”, “junk”, “gravel”, etc.

If you see it late and can’t point at it, at least shout out so others know there’s something to look for.

Warn of an approaching motor vehicle from any direction that could come close to the paceline or cross it.

When there is a car approaching, announce it with “car back” or “car up” or “car left”,etc.  “Car back” is the important one because riders who are not staying to the far right in the lane will move over a bit, and the person pulling will (hopefully) not move to the left to give up the pull at that moment with a car approaching.

Don’t worry about whether it is literally a car, truck, bus, golf cart, motorcycle or rickshaw.  What riders mostly hear is “(murmer) back!”.  They know that something is approaching from behind and that they should pay attention.  “Car back” is always good enough.

When you're riding up an incline, give yourself more space behind the rider in front of you.

If the rider ahead downshifts and it doesn't go smoothly, he may stop pedaling momentarily and try again to shift.  On a hill, it's the equivalent of that rider braking.  If you’re close to his wheel, you’ll bump.  We've had a very serious crash locally for this reason. 

Also, it’s very common for riders to stand and pedal on a climb.  We’ve already covered that issue.  But, be prepared for them to do that without signaling.

Never eat, answer a cellphone call, grab for something out of your jersey pocket, or ride no-handed.  

It makes everyone else in the paceline nervous, and you just might get it wrong and crash.

Never pass a rider on their right side.

No one expects a rider to be on their right.  People get distracted and drift left occasionally.  When they hear “car back” or just realize that they’re drifting, they’ll tend to move over to the right, close to the white line.  If you’re overlapping their back wheel, you’ll probably both crash.  So, the simple approach is to announce your overlap on either side with “on your left (or right)” as soon as there is an overlap.  The only exception is when you’ve just given up the pull and you’re drifting back.  Everyone can see you and knows you’re there.

Carry some form of identification.  

If you get injured, you might not be conscious.  Have a “Road ID” or other form of identification to show who to contact and any specific health concerns for the EMTs.  You might have an emergency contact on your phone, but if no one can unlock it, it’s useless.


If you want to keep it simple, remember at least these 5 rules:

  1. When you're on the road, behave as if you're a car...following all traffic laws.

  2. In a paceline, never do anything that will surprise the rider behind you.  That means you should signal before you slow down, turn, swerve to avoid a pothole or object, stand up, pull out your bottle, give up the pull, pass, or slow for a flat tire, etc.

  3. Follow the wheels in front of you.  The rider ahead may see a pothole or other obstruction at the last moment without signaling or calling out, but he’ll do his best to miss it.  Follow him.

  4. Never overlap the wheel in front of you without announcing that you’re there unless you’re at least a wheel length to the side.

  5. Share the road with everyone, and think of every encounter with a non-cyclist as their one and only impression of who cyclists are.  Did your behavior leave a positive impression?

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"Coastal Cyclists" is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
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