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A smooth working pace line is a wonderful thing to ride in but can be a very fragile creature to sustain.  Last month I touched on a few points regarding pace lines and their benefits.  This month I will try to expand on that with some of my personal thoughts and observations about the skills necessary to safely contributing to a successful pace line.  

First and foremost choose a pace line with the right pace.  Too slow is much better than too fast.  If you are at your limit and struggling, you will make mistakes which could send you and someone else to the hospital.  A point to remember, is that a good pace line which is moving at a proper speed for you, should feel comfortable, even easy.  Remember that you are putting out 30% or less effort than the rider on the front.  If all you can do is hang on to the back, and at times not even that, then you are in the wrong pace line.  Remember, tired riders make mistakes and running the throttle wide open is a good recipe for a miserable century or long ride.

Second, assess the members of the pace line and how smooth and how well they are working together.  Who is the strongest, the weakest, who is just barely hanging on or constantly surging, (slowing too much, opening a gap and then accelerating hard to close the gap only to hit the brakes again).  Be especially aware of the latter two as they will make your ride in the pace line not only harder but unsafe.  If you have just tagged on to the back of the pace line, you will often find these riders at the back due to less experience or to riding a bit over there heads physically.  That is OK and everyone needs to learn and start some place.  What you want to do is either move up in front of them, or if they are in the rotation and working their way to the front, you may want to sit at the back, open a gap as the first few front riders drift back to rest after their pull, wave them into the gap until you have a couple of smoother riders in front of you, and then pick one of their wheels and take your place in the rotation.   

Third, learn to keep your head up, look at and over the shoulder of the riders in front of you, (not at their rear wheel), so that you can see safety issues in advance and have time to react safely to them.  Try to make all your movements predictable and smooth.  Use the brakes gently and as little as possible. Never brake and veer hard to either side, this will almost always crash the rider behind you and possibly many others following you. When gaps open, don’t sprint, close them smoothly but quickly.  Gradually build your skills until you can comfortably ride approximately ˝ length behind the rider in front.  Try to adjust your pace so that you only allow their accelerations to open the gap to a maximum of one length and when they slow you can use the half length to decelerate down to their speed just as you are approaching their rear wheel.  Spin in an easier gear, this allows for smoother and easier acceleration adjustments.

Know when pace lines are beneficial and when they are harder than riding solo.  This knowledge should be used to either survive in a pace line or decide to let it go.  A pace line is of most beneficial into a headwind as those in the back are sheltered and work significantly less.  The stronger the wind the more you will be sheltered, however if the wind changes to a crosswind you will only receive shelter if you overlap the front rider and echelon across the road.  Think carefully before doing this as this is a much less safe situation than sitting behind a rider.  This will also position you further out into the roadway, you are overlapped and if the front rider needs to swerve to your side to avoid an obstacle you may well lose your front wheel and go down.  Only ride in this position if the rider in front of you is aware that you are there, (either speak to them or gently touch them on the back).  Only ride in this position if there is no traffic and you feel the rider in front is trustworthy and smooth.  While I’m on the subject of overlapping, be aware of your responsibilities if you have someone overlapped either beside you or behind you.  Often we ride 2 abreast, remember that you have cut off one side of an escape route for the rider next to you.

If you are riding in a strong tailwind, there will be little or no advantage to riding in a group, in fact a tailwind or cross wind can often be harder in a group than riding solo if the lead riders are significantly stronger than you, as in a tailwind you are going to have to match the power output of the front rider, and this may be above your enjoyable and sustainable pace.  If the route is very windy and you know that further up the road most of it will once again be into a head wind, then it may be worth your while to ride too hard for a short period, if this allows you to sit in comfortably later on in the ride.  

Hills are another area where pace lines are often harder, (and indeed where they often break up).  This is where some “Pseudo Racer”, who has been sitting in for the last 30 minutes, dreaming of racing Lance up the Alpe d’Huez will invariably jump out of their sheltered position and attack taking the stronger riders with him and leaving the once well working pace line in tattered shambles.  Often riders splintered from the group will try on their own to get back, abandoning others and often blowing themselves up.  The best way to survive this, is to position yourself towards the front of the group going into the hill, then sag climb, (go at your pace, while gradually falling back through the group), so that ideally you crest the climb on the back of the surviving front group, or just a short way back with a small group that has the ability to work together and quickly latch back on.  If there are a lot of rollers and this scenario keeps playing out, it is probably better to work on reforming a second group that is not attacking each other and settle back into a reasonable and consistent pace.  

If you are not one of the stronger riders, depending on the dynamics of the pace line, two things are likely to happen.  Often the stronger riders are content to share the work amongst themselves, in which case you can just let them re-enter the line in front of you and maintain you position in the back portion of the group.  Make sure to thank them later at the next rest stop or re-group.  Sometime, all the members are rotating thru.  In this case it is important to know how long you should stay on the front, or as Dirty Harry put it so well, “A mans got to know his limitations.”  When you get on the front you should already know the average pace that everyone has been maintaining.  Your job is to maintain that pace, not slow down or SPEED UP.  Note the speed as you move up towards the front.  Note that once you get to about third rider the effort will start to increase with each position.  On the front you should feel like it is a hard effort, but not everything you have.  Even though the strongest riders may stay on the front for a couple of minutes, remember that they are still not going wide open.  You want to be able to maintain the pace and also have enough left so that you can drift back and get back in line without it feeling like a super human effort.  Remember, you are part of a team now, and getting dropped just weakens the team.  So as soon as you feel you are even nearing your limits, signal verbally and or with a flick of your arm that you are pulling off.  Make sure that you are clear ahead of the previous front riders who have pulled off, then slowly and smoothly move over and ever so slightly decrease your speed.  Make sure that you don’t surprise or trap the riders behind you.  A really well functioning rotating echelon often sees everyone taking very short pulls, (at race speeds often pulling off as soon as they reach the front and they are sure that they are clear ahead of the previous lead riders).  If everyone is not taking the same length pulls, then I will try to give some type of “Rule of Thumb” to go by.  If you are one of the stronger front riders, pull for only a few minutes, if you are more comfortable in the middle, you should not pull for more than a minute, and if you feel like you are just hanging on, then basically when you get on the front, make certain you are clear ahead of the previous front rider and than pull off, (all of which should take less than 30 seconds).  If you are truly just hanging on, I would recommend that you stay at the back out of the rotation and open a gap as the lead riders drift back and announce to them that they are clear to come on in the line.

If you are a stronger rider, remember that if you maintain the same level of effort that you needed into a headwind into a climb or tailwind, you will be making things very hard for the weaker members of the group and will ultimately drop many to be left out in the wind on their own.  If that is your intent then take up racing where it is fair game, other wise please utilize your strength to help others enjoy their ride more.

George Chester – 805 302 3343 – grchester@TDSCoaching.com
www.TDSCoaching.com – www.UltraCyclingCoaching.com