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Charlie’s tips for safe paceline riding

The Empire State Ride is lucky to have the support of professional cycling coach Charlie Livermore as an advisor and friend. Charlie is not only a coach at Carmichael Training Systems, but also serves as a training consultant on our adventure across New York State. He offers his expertise and tips to all our riders, as well as joins us in riding 500+ miles in July. 

A paceline is a formation used by cyclists to maintain a higher average speed in a group while expending the least amount of energy. By “drafting,” or sitting in the slipstream of a rider in front of you, your effort to maintain a given speed can be reduced by 15% to 30%, depending upon the speed you’re riding, the wind and the terrain. It’s an honorable facet of cycling in that everyone is working together for the common good of the group. When performed poorly, the formation becomes counterproductive. 

There is one critical skill you need to perform well in a paceline that you can practice on your solo training rides. So, before I get into the nitty gritty of pace line tips, let’s cover this basic riding skill. 

learn to ride in a straight line

This is arguably the most important skill to master. You may think that riding a straight line is primarily executed by steering the bike but it has more to do with how you pedal. When you apply force to the right pedal, the bike tends to move to the left and vice versa. The greater the force you apply to the pedal, especially at the bottom of the stroke past 5 o’clock (radial force), the more the bike will move “off-line.” 

To practice this skill on your solo rides, ride the white line on the road and focus on even pedaling between both legs. Try different gear/cadence ratios and look at the line 20 feet in front of you. Once you think you’ve got it, take it one step further: stay on the white line and maintain your speed while reaching for your bottle, take a drink and replace it. The Empire State Ride is a long ride and you’ll have to drink often, so I strongly encourage you to practice and get comfortable with taking in fluids without disrupting the paceline. 

For this blog, I am focusing on single file paceline because it’s the easiest to master and safest for the type of roads you’ll encounter on the Empire State Ride. Because a paceline is structured, it requires consistency, predictability, communication and alertness from all riders. If done properly, a single paceline is much safer than a group of riders strewn haphazardly across the road because no movements are arbitrary. So, let’s start at the front. 

Leader's Responsibility

When you are at the front leading the group in a paceline, you have a huge responsibility and need to stay aware of that the entire time. If you’re the person taking the long pulls or at the front pulling all day, it’s easy to mentally drift off and forget that everyone behind you is depending on you to guide them safely down the road. You must focus and guide your group defensively and on course. You are constantly looking for road hazards and potentially dangerous traffic situations while maintaining a speed the group can handle and all the while looking for those #ESR21 directional arrows. It’s a lot to take on. 

keeping the pace at the front steady

The number one mistake riders make is picking up speed when it’s their turn to take a pull. The second biggest is when the rider signals that they are done pulling, move to the side and keep the speed the same. Both the cyclists who is coming to the front for their turn to pull and the one who just finished their pull have the biggest impact on the pace of the group. Make sure that when it’s your turn at the front, you maintain the same speed and avoid surging. Don’t be a “Sergio.” Don’t go to the front and accelerate. If you surge, gaps will open, the draft effect is minimized and the paceline turns into a slinky. If you are a strong rider, take a longer pull at the front, not a faster one. 

The rider who is pulling off will force an increase in the pace by not slowing down enough once they’ve moved over. If you move over and don’t scrub speed, the rider pulling through has to speed up to pass. When you’re done pulling, move to the appropriate side and then slow down 1-2 mph so that the pulling rider can pass you at the same speed you were pulling at. 

in the line micro adjustments

It’s nearly impossible for everyone to put forth equal amounts of effort, especially on undulating terrain. You need to make micro adjustments along the way to prevent the line bunching together or getting strung out with big gaps. Think of it like driving a car. You don’t slam on the brakes, then hit the gas; you moderate your speed with small adjustments to the gas pedal.

To do that in a paceline, try some of these techniques. 

  • Soft pedaling – When you begin to get sucked into the rider in front of you, take a light pedal stroke or two to micro adjust your speed accordingly. Try not to stop pedaling and over adjust.
  • Shifting – Being in the right gear/cadence ratio will make your soft pedaling more effective. If you’re in too light of a gear, soft pedaling will not micro-adjust your speed down and too big a gear will force you to stop pedaling to reduce speed and then difficult to micro adjust your speed back up. Again, think of this as your gas pedal. It would be much more difficult to maintain a steady speed if the pedal has no resistance against your foot (gear to light) or requires a huge force to push it down (gear too big). 
  • Feathering the brakes – Gently use the brakes while continuing to pedal or soft pedal. You can also reduce your speed without braking by raising your body to create more air resistance or moving over slightly out of the draft of the person ahead of you. You want to avoid over adjusting and moving forward or backwards too fast. 
  • Field of view – Don’t focus on the wheel directly in front of you. It’s an instinct when riding in a line, but it gives you zero time to react should something go wrong. Keep your head up and check about 10 meters down the road. Look through holes in the leading rider—over their shoulder, under their arm or through their legs—and ride proactively instead of reactively. This will help keep the line moving smoothly. 
  • Conserve energy – If you’re starting to feel tired from pulling, sit out a few turns until you’re ready to take another pull. Simply open a spot for riders to rejoin the line in front of you or come to the front and immediately pull off and drift to the back. You don’t have to take a pull at all if that’s what works for you.
  • Starting from scratch – If you’re new to this, the best way to start out pace line riding is with a partner you trust who is a smooth rider. Start out following them with about 2 feet of space between your bikes or greater if you’re not comfortable being that close. Gradually close the distance to whatever your nerves can stand. Ideally you want to be six to 12 inches away. 

a word about risk

The efficiency of riding in a pace line comes at the cost of added risk. Riding in a pace line is not as safe as riding by yourself. If the rider ahead of you (or behind you or on either side for that matter) does something unexpected, you could find yourself on the pavement in an instant. Don’t ride in a paceline unless you’re willing to assume these risks. 

And finally, I leave you with this.

There are three basic rules to paceline riding: 

  1. Don’t do anything suddenly
  2. Don’t do anything suddenly!
  3. DO NOT DO ANYTHING SUDDENLY!! 

See you all soon,

 Coach Charlie