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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pace Line Etiquette

The following letter was forwarded to me this week after our Wednesday night ride group had a really good fast ride. We had a great time with no incidents, but the same can not be said for another group in the area. On Thursday we learned of an accident that happened while the group was pace lined on a closed course. I don't know the details, but there were two ambulances on the scene and some riders were hurt. I wish I knew who the author is in order to give credit. The guide is well thought out and should be very helpful to keep us safe. It is a long read, but worth the effort. Remember to have fun out there and above all, stay safe!

Pace line Etiquette

If you are riding with a group or even with one other cyclist, you have a responsibility not to do anything that would compromise the safety of the other riders.

Whether you’re going on a casual group ride or a weekly pace line workout that’ll push you to the limit, following a few key rules will make your riding safer and more enjoyable. I know each of you knows how to ride in a pace line, but over the next few weeks we’re going to go over some tips and techniques that will ensure we all know how to ride the same way in a pace line.

Being part of this team means you have 15 other riders to help you achieve your goal – but the other 15 are also dependent on you, so ask yourself: Do you know what the rules are? Do you practice them? Do you insist that all group members know and practice the same rules? These aren’t the only ones, but they are some of the most important that we’re going to go over in the next few weeks:


  • Stay relaxed, loose and fluid. Don’t lock your elbows.
  • If you do nothing else, remember:  A cyclist is behind you and another cyclist is behind him. Unpredictable moves will cause a problem for the entire group behind you. Multiple bikers are depending on you; so try not to do anything stupid, sudden or unexpected.
  • Speed up, slow down, and change directions gradually. Brisk changes will make riders behind you stressed and work harder, take much of the enjoyment out of their ride and may cause a wheel-touch, which can put the cyclists behind you down.
  • Don’t accelerate to fill a gap and then suddenly brake.  Practice closing gaps slowly and smoothly. [TIP] If you find your are having a hard time maintaining a consistent pace, shift up to a higher gear and increase your cadence – it will smooth out your pace.
  • When you stop pedaling you will instantly slow down (yes, even going downhill).  So keep those pedals in motion when someone is behind you.  Learn to soft-pedal instead of no pedaling.
  • Standing up as you ride causes your bike to stop for a split second.  And that’s long enough to stress the rider behind you.  The best bet is to accelerate slightly to create a small gap behind you and, when you stand, do it on the down-stroke. Look behind you before you do anything or announce your intentions to the riders in back.
  • The larger the pace line, the more exaggerated the effects on the back – this is referred to as the accordion effect.  So remember what ever you do, the changes behind will occur several seconds later.  Imagine when you start to accelerate from an intersection: riders 5-6 positions back are probably still slowing down to check out cross traffic.  It’s the responsibility of the leader of the moment (the pacer) to allow the pace line to catch up and regroup before resuming the full pace line speed.
  • If you are the pacer, it is your responsibility to call out changes in direction and road hazards to the group behind you. Do it with plenty of warning. If the pace line has to move left to avoid a pot hole, let the group know ahead of time and gradually move the pace line around it as you point it out verbally and with hand signals. The pace line should AVOID obstacles, but should never have to DODGE obstacles. [TIP] A key to smoothly avoid obstacle up the road is to keep your eyes up the road. The pacer should have his or her focus 200-300 feet ahead, not on the road in front of their wheel.

  • If a biker is behind you, never brake without early and clear warning. A good hand signal is to wave or flex your hand palm out behind your back or to the side, but do it before you start to brake or stop pedaling. If you are approaching an intersection, shout out “slowing” or “stopping” to alert riders farther back in the pace line.
  • When descending in front of a pack, keep pedaling so the following group will not have to brake, especially for light riders in the front of the pace line – remember that heavier riders have the advantage of more gravity and will be forced to brake if you don’t keep pedaling. [TIP] Instead of braking suddenly, try sitting up or moving out of the draft to catch some air – use air resistance to slow down your pace.
  • If you do brake, feather your rear brake smoothly and lightly to slow down but keep pedaling – use the combination to modulate your speed and keep it consistent for those behind you.

  • Protect your front wheel.  Stay alert.  Without training and practice, even a slight touch of your front wheel on another’s rear wheel virtually guarantees a spill for you. But it’s important not to focus exclusively on the wheel in front of you.  You should always be aware of what’s in front of the rider in front of you.  
  • Don’t overlap wheels with the rider in front of you – if the rider in front has to suddenly move to avoid an obstacle and you touch wheels – chances are you will go down, and take other riders behind you down as well.
  • Ride in a straight line.  If a rider behind you is overlapping a wheel (he really shouldn’t, but.…) and you move unexpectedly, he will fall.  Maybe you won’t go down, but you’ll have contributed to a nasty pileup.  At the same time, it’s a good idea to ride slightly offset (6-12” or so) to either side of the wheel in front of you. [TIP] Remember and practice this rule: Foot Over / Foot Back.
  • Don’t ride beside another rider (unless it’s a double pace line).  Stay 12-24”from the lines on the side of the road.  Not only is that a safer practice, it also helps non-bikers by not impeding traffic.  Bikers need to put forth a good image.  A tight, organized line shows that we’re willing to share the road.
  • Drafting (roughly 6 to 18 inches behind the wheel in front of you) is very efficient.  You’ll expend 20 to 40 percent less energy than the leader -- and it looks cool to boot.  But again, don’t focus just on the wheel in front of you.  Instead look forward several riders to see what the group is doing and what obstacles are coming up.
  • When you draft, don’t let gaps open.  If you’re not at ease drafting, then pull out of the line and move to the back of the group.
  • Call out your actions and road conditions:  “Turning”, “Slowing”, “Stopping”, “Hole”, “Gravel”, “Car Back”, “Clear Left”, “Clear Behind”, etc.  Learn and use standard hand signals as well as verbal commands.  They’re indispensable to inform the cyclists behind you that they may be required to take some action. For example, pointing down to an upcoming pothole to your right, or hand signaling “move to the left” behind your back is good way to alert the riders behind you.
  • Give advance notice of turns, obstacles, and road hazards.  Telling the group about a pothole when you’re on top of it or a turn that’s underway is too late.  Allow time for the pace line to prepare and react.
  • If you’re turning left, point with your arm/hand up and out to the left.  If you’re turning right, point with your right arm/hand up and out to the right.  The old hand signal for a right turn using your left arm up in an ‘L’ shape was invented for autos before turn signals were invented – it has no place in a group bike ride.
  • Use common sense with communication.  If you are riding in a high traffic area, it isn’t necessary to call out every single car coming up behind – it gets annoying after a while - but it’s essential if the pace line needs to turn left. So if you’re at the back of the pace line, that’s the time to call out “Car Back”. Same thing for gravel in turns – there’s always gravel in the turns in rural areas – no need to scream out “Gravel!!” every time you see a few rocks in the road.
  • Short, brusque commands may seem rude or offensive but in fact, they’re just time-savers and are essential for group safety.  Don’t take them personally.  And SPEAK UP!  Wind noise and general traffic conditions make it hard to hear, so don’t be shy - communicate commands/requests from the back up the line to the front – the ride leader can’t hear the caboose in a 16 person pace line and the riders in the back can’t hear the pacer – help out! Remember: We’re not screaming at you, we’re screaming at the wind.
  • If you’re passing or coming alongside another cyclist or a pedestrian, holler “On your left.”  That command is crucial to protecting yourself, whomever is in front of you, and anyone behind.
  • If you don’t understand a signal or command, don’t be afraid to ask.  You need to know and it is never a stupid question.
  • Talk to any teammates who aren’t following these rules. You can do it in a nice way, but you need to do it.  This is an urgent matter for group safety.  All cyclists should be trained in, and constantly practice, the rules of safe riding.  If a rider thinks the rules don’t apply to them, ask them to ride at the back of the group.

  • Never change lateral positions suddenly without looking first, calling out or signaling your intention to move.
  • When you want to stop or slow down, or you’re not comfortable with your position for whatever reason, first signal and pull out of the line, then drop back.  Do not slow down before pulling out.
  • If you need to drop back, signal your intentions -- typically by patting your hip on the side you expect other riders to pass, or flicking your wrist.  Then pull out of the pack and slow down once you’ve cleared the rider behind you.
  • When you’re through with your time at the front and have pulled off, ease off pedaling or switch to a harder gear and move back quickly. Don’t pull off the front and then continue to ride at the group pace.
  • When you rejoin the pace line after dropping back, match the group’s speed before sliding back into line. Otherwise, you’ll have trouble catching up, especially if you’re already tired. It might require a few seconds of hard effort, but you don’t want to lose the wheel in front of you – you might not get it back.
  • Be conscious of the other riders when you pass them or they pass you.  And give them a turn at sharing positions.  It’s more fun for everybody. If the ride leader calls out “short pulls”, keep your time at the front short (under a minute). We often practice this in high wind conditions, with each cyclist spending only 30-45 seconds at the front.
  • Most important when you or another biker is shifting position:  look, talk, be predictable, and be considerate.  Safety depends on thinking as a group member.

  • If your group agrees to a roll time of 6:00 p.m., that’s when the ride should begin. Showing up late is asking your fellow cyclists, who respect each other’s time, to delay their departure so you can be accommodated. That’s not what teams are all about.
  • If you are going to be late, an advance phone call is appreciated.
  • When the group takes a break at a Casey’s and the leader says it’s time to go, be ready to ride. It’s not the time to begin a discussion, take a phone call, go to the bathroom or start to adjust your gear. Don’t expect everyone to wait because you’re not prepared.
  • When stopping for any reason get totally off the road. Not doing so is dangerous and disrespectful to motorists.
  • Respond to emails. Several of us spend a lot of time organizing and communicating our group rides and routes. If you are invited on a ride, let us know if you’re going to make it – either way.
  • Show up ready to ride. You should be hydrated and well fed at the start. Pack your gear the night before, not 15 minutes before the ride.
  • Being part of a team means there might be different ride leaders on some rides. Or at any given point, you might be in the pacer position, in which case you are the ride leader. Start the ride slowly to allow riders a warm-up period.  Keep it slow for 10-15 minutes so the group can get the kinks out and loosen up their muscles.  This is a good time to chat and catch up and it contributes to the fun and comradery of a group ride. It’s also a good time to say some prayers before the really hard interval work begins…
  • At stop signs and corners, wait for the back of the group to catch up and then resume speed gradually. Don’t sprint off the front and resume full speed until all the riders behind have gotten back in the paceline.  [TIP] Cyclists towards the back of the paceline should ask when everyone is ready by calling out “All on”? The response should be “All aboard”.
  • Have a hard time riding in a straight line? When you are at the front, focus your eyes 200-300 feet ahead, not on the ground in front of you. It will make your riding and the pace line much smoother plus it will help you spot obstacles or hazards quicker.
  • Keep speed and effort steady. Avoid unnecessary braking or coasting.  Remember the accordion effect: Whatever you do at the front will take a few seconds per rider to take effect in the line behind.
  • When you take over the front position in a paceline (pull), keep a consistent effort or speed.  A common ‘rookie’ mistake is to speed up when it is your turn to pull.  It is human nature to some extent, but remember, the idea is to have a consistent, smooth paceline, not show everyone behind you what a stud or studette you are!
  • If you take the lead and you’d like the group to go faster, wait until the previous leader is back in line, then accelerate gradually.  Your responsibility is to all the riders behind you, including the one that just finished pulling.
  • If you’re at the front in the pace line:
      • Don’t hog the lead. The idea is not to prove how strong you are but to work and ride together, feel comfortable changing positions, and share the load. This is especially important at the beginning of a long ride. We want your legs to be strong for the whole ride!
      • Save energy.  If you’re tired of leading, drop back.  Some riders choose to lead for a few seconds; others for several minutes.  Short pulls are okay with the group.
      • Communicate with and rely on your teammates. If you are feeling punky, it’s ok to sit on the back for some recovery time. If you see a teammate struggling, encourage them to take a break.
  • Never fool with bottles or other equipment while leading the pace line. As leader, it’s your responsibility to focus on the road ahead, not with your bike or yourself. Drink water or feed at the back of the line
  • Headphones or Aero bars are never allowed in pacelines or group rides. This is not negotiable.
  • When leading, always see the group through obstacles. Don’t pull out of line before a narrow bridge, rough road, parked car, traffic, or other potential trouble spots. Consider how any move or decision you make will affect the group.
  • Don’t sprint up hills.  The idea is to pull the whole paceline at a smooth, consistent pace.  This may mean slowing down the pace to make sure the group stays together.
  • Normally, the lead rider should stay at the front until the top of the hill is reached, but exceptions are made for particularly long hills or when we’re riding into a headwind.

That’s it – all the basic essentials of group riding, but the key is practice. Take one rule at a time; concentrate on it; master it. Here are just three examples:
  • Consistency: Practice maintaining a constant speed, even when the rider in front of you isn’t doing so. See if you can limit the use of your brakes. Change speeds gradually. Think about the impact of every move on the members of the group. Take it smooth and practice finesse; the other riders will love you.
  • Straight lines and communication: In normal riding stay 12-24” from the white line on the right side of the road. Look ahead, not down. Relax your arms. Pedal smoothly. Watch for glass, rocks, and other hazards. If you see anything, or get told something, tell the riders behind you. Practice both your verbal commands and hand signals.
  • Drafting: Start three feet (that’s one half of a bike length -- no more) behind someone you trust. Stay there until you’re relaxed, no matter how long it takes. Then move to two feet. Then 18 inches. Ultimately, when you’re ready, try to stay just one foot behind the next guy’s rear wheel. Once you’re comfortable, you can choose whatever distance you’re in the mood for – 6 inches up to 2 feet – or whatever the conditions dictate.

Remember: We all have an obligation to bring good personal biking skills to the team. It’s about minimal risk and maximum enjoyment. Agree on the rules. Practice the rules. Enforce the rules. Create trust. Trust your teammates.

You won’t be perfect and don’t expect perfection from the other riders, but if you understand and use these basic rules of the road, our rides will be much safer and a whole lot more fun – for everyone.