Welcome to the Paceline
Figure 1: Pack rider P
rides straight ahead as weaving
rider W moves side to side.
New riders graduating from just sitting in at the back of the pack to actually participating in the pacemaking should familiarize themselves with the various stages of riding within a paceline. Here we highlight a few things to know and to do as you advance from back to front.
In general, focus on riding straight ahead as well as riding at a steady effort. Avoid weaving left and ride and avoid surging and braking. Avoid braking altogether, except when everyone is slowing or coming to a stop; or in especially urgent situations, as when a dog encroaches.
Dealing with Weavers
Watching a pack, it appears that everyone just follows the leader. If only. Sometimes less accomplished riders interfere with the clockwork-like precision of a good paceline. Learn to accomodate for these sloppy riders in a fashion that insulates the others from bad habits.
Imagine a line along the road that is parallel to the road's center stripe. Then just ride along that imaginary line. Do not weave left and right unnecessarily. Riding behind a sloppy rider is not an excuse to be sloppy yourself. By riding straight ahead, regardless of the path the rider ahead of you takes, you act as a pack shock absorber against unfavorable pack influences. Figure 1 shows the pack rider (P) riding straight ahead behind a weaving rider (W). Some cyclists weave left and right by as much as a bike width, either way; just ignore that movement and ride straight ahead. Note, if the rider ahead is weaving to avoid an obstacle, that is an altogether different situation. When avoiding obstacles you should follow the rider ahead. And be sure to point out the obstacle to riders behind by simply pointing to it with your hand or finger slung downward, and consider vocalizing something like "hole" or "debris".
Dealing with Yo-Yo's
Just as one should ride straight ahead in a pack, one should also ride at a steady rate. Before discussing the implications of this goal further, a word on avoiding gaps.
Generally, it is best to avoid the formation of gaps (beyond a comfortable riding distance) between you and the rider ahead. This goal is especially important when ascending grades. Then, you should avoid growing the gap to the rider ahead because at some point you have to accelerate to close the gap. Or, you get dropped and the riders behind you have to close the gap. Do everything you can as you climb grades to avoid gaps. If you are about to get dropped, pull aside and wave the rider on your wheel forward. Better to do that than to get gapped and increase the distance that the rider behind has to cross to close the gap. Having covered the desirability of avoiding gaps, we next discuss the occasional exception to the rule.
Figure 2: Pack rider P
leaves a gap for yo-yo Y
to ride within.
Sometimes the rider ahead of you will "yo-yo", with his/her pace varying every 10 or 20 meters. In that situation, do not follow too closely or you too will yo-yo. Once you have identified the incessant varying of pace in the rider ahead of you, and confirmed that it is not a one-time infraction but actually a habit, you should ease slightly to let a gap form between you and the yo-yo. Figure 2 illustrates how pack rider (P) would leave space for the yo-yo (Y). Allow that rider to vary his/her pace as you maintain a constant effort. The riders behind will appreciate your good manners and skills.
When you are leaving gaps for yo-yo's, and/or riding straight behind weavers, you will be catching more wind and less draft than if you just blindly follow the rider ahead. That is the price you pay for riding with less accomplished riders. But better to ride straight and steady with dignity than to be labeled a weaver or a yo-yo, or both.
Figure 3: Pack rider P relays forward
the "CAR BACK" announcement
Beyond riding straight ahead and steady, the pack rider has a responsibility to communicate various issues to the other riders.
Communication to the riders ahead is usually required for one of several reasons. A common need to communicate arises to alert those ahead to encroaching traffic from behind. Sometimes you are just relaying a "CAR BACK" announcement from the riders behind to those ahead. Figure 3 illustrates this relay alert. Note, if you notice a car behind before anyone else says something, go ahead and vocalize "CAR BACK". (I wear a "dork mirror" on country road group rides. Sometimes I am the only rider equipped with one of these unflattering devices. But very often I will be at the very front and yet be the first to warn of automobiles approaching from behind.)
Figure 4: Pack rider P informs
lead rider A to move left.
Another reason to communicate forward occurs in crosswind situations. The lead rider is the most poorly positioned to gauge wind direction. Meanwhile all riders behind are positioned well to find the drafting sweet spot. Sometimes the wind will shift and then some riders will thus be riding in the gutter unnecessarily. So speak up, as shown in Figure 4, and ask the leader to move left (or right, as the case may be) to accomodate more riders.
Wherever you ride in the pack, also vocalize if you see a dog (or any other beast) encroaching on your pack. And do so loudly. If you are the first to identify the threat in your peripheral vision, alert everyone immediately and do not wait for the "leaders" ahead to do so. They may not see the threat.
The final typical reason to communicate forward is to alert those ahead of the progress of chasing riders. Whether you want to slow things down so they can catch up, or speed things up to break the chasers' spirit, the riders toward the back of your pack are best positioned to monitor the goings on behind and then communicate to all nearby. This changing role of chief monitor and communicator is very important in races—when a break-away is trying to gauge its chances for staying away—but appears to be poorly appreciated by many beginning riders.
As you ride in the pack your primary communication responsibility to those behind you is alerting them to (1) obstacles and (2) situations that will slow the riders up front before the riders in back realize it.
Figure 5: Pack rider P relays
"HOLE" to riders behind.
We covered in this article above how to point obstacles out to those behind. Just move laterally a minimal amount and point downward. If you did not identify the obstacle early, and are only highlighting it at the last moment, consider vocalizing (loudly) "rock", "hole", "debris" or some such. Figure 5 illustrates how pack rider (P) relays the alert to riders behind.
Sometimes the riders ahead identify a need to slow down. This need could arise from a flat tire, the need for a natural break, or an approaching turn or stop sign. In a situation without urgency, usually dropping your hand downward with your palm facing backward is all you need to do to alert those behind you. But if the need to slow becomes more urgent, consider vocalizing "slowing" or "stopping". One seems to hear "slowing" rather often in less accomplished packs. With more experienced riders you may complete entire rides without hearing it. The hand signal is key; the vocalization more important during urgent deceleration.
While advancing in a paceline, incrementally ratcheting forward, ride straight, ride steady, and communicate to riders ahead and riders behind. (We will next cover riding in the "on deck" position.)