Pace Line 101: The Line

by Jack Gregory

Once we understand the draft, we move on to the next logical step: sharing the draft.  In the United States, we ride on the right-hand side of the road, and in Massachusetts at least, are permitted to ride only 2 abreast (side by side) when we aren’t obstructing traffic flow.  On the right edge of the lane, there is usually a white line.  To the right of this is the shoulder, and it can be as wide as a whole lane in some places to nothing in others.  It is more typically about 18 inches of sand, broken glass, trash, and other flotsam that gets swept off the roadway by passing cars.  You see, it is the cars that clean our streets.  Without those evil cars, the roads would all look like the shoulder.

A basic pace line is a single line of riders, each one drafting the one ahead, except for the poor slob on the front who is doing all the work.  Assuming the riders are all of equal ability, the front rider will tire out and need to be replaced.  The standard way to do this is to pull left by a single bike width, and ease up a little and slide “back”, while the rest of the line passes to the right.  Once the tail rider goes by, the former leader slips into the draft and gets to be in the draft for the amount of time it takes to cycle all riders through.  For a 5-rider paceline, this means a given rider will work about 20% of the time, and “sit in” the rest.

I will note a few details here that some might not have noticed.  The paceline itself is hugging the right side of the roadway; to facilitate the passing of cars.  The rider pulls off to the left, because going right might be impossible with no shoulder, but fraught with peril even with a wide shoulder full of glass and other nasties.  This means the line passes him “on the right”, which directly contradicts directives from large charity or gran fondo rides which recommend passing only on the left.    If we just define our pace line circulation as not technically passing, where passing is “overtaking and leaving behind”, then our pace line can pass other riders on the left as if it is a single unit, and everyone is happy.

I should digress a moment for those that watch bike racing on TV.  You will often see very impressive pace lines by breakaway groups in professional races, and they do pull off to the right sometimes and do other fancy variations that I will discuss below.  But keep in mind that these riders have the road to themselves and can use the whole road.  I am not saying that all pace lines work like I wrote above.  But my experience in the United States has been that all training rides on active roads work like this.

The Elbow Flick

The rider on the front has a responsibility to make it obvious that they are pulling out.  After all, they are responsible for spotting road hazards and may well just be moving left for that reason, and the entire line will follow them out.  So how to make it obvious?  The way I learned was just by being sensitive to the rider ahead was enough.  They would look left to make sure it is clear, pull left and slow a bit with no hand signal.  That would indicate pulling off.  A hand signal would typically be a road hazard, and they meant they wouldn’t be pulling off the line.  It was pretty subtle, but I never thought about it until about 15 years ago when I saw my first elbow flick.

The elbow flick is just a slight flick of the elbow indicating the following rider should pull through.  For pros, it also indicates the side the rider should pull through on.   More on this below.  The elbow flick requires just about the same sensitivity of the rider behind; they have to be paying attention to the leader and be expecting it.  It is still coupled with pulling off and easing pace.

The Pace

As a group endeavor, a pace line is more than just the mechanics of what side to pull off toward.  The pace is extremely important.  Bad pace lines are ones where the pace is “all over the place”, gaps open, and people who are supposed to be resting are forced to close gaps and thus cannot do their proper turn.  By keeping the pace steady and predictable, it become much easier to stay “on” and be rested when your turn comes at the front.  A simple way to do this is by watching your speed, but this only really works on flat roads.  With any kind of up and down, the speed will vary, but the effort should be the same.  But as a crude measure, the speed being set just before you take the lead should be the speed you should maintain after taking the lead.  At the very least, you should strive to not alter the pace by more than a little bit.

If there are different strengths of riders in the line, the pace should not go up and down as each rider takes their turn.  Instead, stronger riders should stay on the front longer to contribute, and weaker riders should take a much shorter pull, but keep the pace steady overall.

Variations

The basic pace line is a line of riders with the leader pulling off and going to the back every so often.  The amount of time spent on the front can be much longer than it takes to go to the back.  As paces go up, a rider cannot last very long on the front.  Breakaway pace lines of pro riders are often seen pulling off as soon as they reach the point of “clear ahead” of the rider who just pulled off before them, in other words, the line is a constant cycle of riders moving up on one side and moving back on the other.

Double pace lines can be of the one side up, the other side down variety, or the lead pair can pull out on both sides.  This latter version takes up too much road in general, and isn’t really worth it.

Echelons are an important type of pace line, although they take up more road and so aren’t really suitable for club rides with traffic.  The idea of an echelon is that when the wind is strong from the side, the best draft position is offset to the leeward side of the rider in front.  Teams can often set up and echelon such that the draft “runs out” at the edge of the road, leaving anyone trailing actually taking the full wind, and they will eventually tire and get dropped.

While full echelons aren’t going to happen for basic club riding, knowing the importance of position in a crosswind is a good skill to develop, even for just a pair of riders.  There are many rides where being directly behind the rider ahead is in fact not drafting at all, but facing the full wind.  Being able to feel where the draft is best and staying in that position will result in the most energy saved.

For every method, there is a bizarre aberration.  We used to do a form of pace line we called “Monkey Running”, where the guy at the back had to sprint to the front as soon as the last guy had done so.  The idea was a kind of interval training, and it was very effective for that, although no fun at all.  It was really too much with just three riders, but you got enough of a rest with more than five or so to make it last a little while.