The paceline is a rather honorable facet of bicycling, in that everyone shares the work of breaking the wind. Riders rotate positions in a line, each one taking a turn at the front where he or she pulls into the wind before swinging off. There are four basic types of paceline riding formations, and each one has its own practical application.
This is the most basic riding formation; all the other pacelines are variations of it. Simply put, this is one straight line of riders, each drafting closely behind the next. The rider at the front breaks the wind for a time, then eases off to the side and soft pedals until he can swing in at the back of the line. In the majority of training and racing situations, this is the most efficient way to ride in groups of two or more. Skilled racers can effectively use a single paceline with as many as fifteen riders; for cyclists new to the technique, four riders make a good-sized group for learning it. Breakaway groups in a race almost always use this straight paceline.
The best way to socialize on the bike in a training situation is the double paceline. Riding two abreast, cyclists can carry on a conversation, talk shop, or whatever. This riding formation works the same as the single line. When the two lead riders have finished their turn at the front, they pull off, one to the right and the other to the left.
Most professional cyclists log a majority of their easy training miles in this tight formation, in groups of up to about twenty-four racers. This is good practice for racing, too; not only can you work on drafting closely behind someone, but you can also practice riding elbow to elbow with the rider next to you.
Before training two abreast like this, you should be aware of your local traffic laws; it may not be legal in your area. For practical purposes, it’s not advisable to ride a double paceline on narrow or winding roads or when there is a lot of traffic that will be slowed by the paceline. If it is permissible to ride two abreast, make sure you drop back into the line quickly after taking your pull at the front. Motorists definitely don't like us riding four abreast. In fact, one time I was stopped by the Colorado State Patrol while training with the Swiss team and riding a double paceline four abreast. The Swiss didn't understand English, the policeman didn't understand pacelines, and I kept my mouth shut, so he let us go our way.
The circular paceline is a bit more difficult, requiring more skill in controlling and handling your bike. The formation is like that of the double paceline, except the group rotates in a circle. This formation is best applied when there is a strong wind and it's too tiring to stay on the front for a long pull. It also works well for large groups in a hurry. The rider in the front swings off, for example, to the left, then eases off the pedals a bit to drop back as a fresh rider begins to pull through. As soon as this rider has pulled ahead of the rider dropping back, he too swings off and begins to decelerate. This creates two lines, one on the right going a bit faster than the one on the left. When the cyclist in the slower lane reaches the back end of the line, he swings over to the right and reaccelerates up to speed. The cyclist in the front should spend only a few seconds pulling before swinging off, no more than about fifteen pedal revolutions.
It takes a lot of concentration to ride this paceline properly. All the riders in the group must be able to ride steady and smoothly, because just one rider out of synch can throw the whole group off and make something difficult out of what should be easy. A cycle computer on your handlebars could be helpful in monitoring your speed as you change lanes if you have difficulty riding steadily.
The critical points in the circular pace-line are when you swing off and decelerate and when you reaccelerate at the back. After riding this way and getting some experience, you will find that after taking your pull, it is best to start to ease off the front while you overlap the slower rider on your left by about a quarter of a wheel. By the time you’re actually in position, enough space will have opened up so that he will be safely behind you. At the back of the line, start to reaccelerate as the leading edge of your front wheel is about parallel to the bottom bracket of the rider next to you. With these techniques, the transitions from faster to slower and slower to faster lanes will be made more smoothly and efficiently.
The critical concept is that each line—the one moving up to take a pull and the one with riders dropping back—are each moving at their own speed, and that speed stays constant. In other words, the riders on the left are all going 23 mph, even the rider who is taking the pull at the front. All the riders in the line drifting back are all going 21 mph. The most common mistake made is when the rider getting to the front of the line accelerates. This will cause the efficiently-rotating paceline to “yo-yo,” or speed up and slow down and speed up and slow down.
The echelon is the hardest, most dangerous, and most enjoyable paceline to ride (though technically speaking, all pacelines are echelons). It’s a circular paceline adapted for crosswinds. Instead of lining up one rider behind the other, each cyclist is staggered to the rear flank of the one ahead in order to stay protected from the wind. The rider on the front pulls off into the direction of the wind (for example, the right) and drops back until his front wheel has cleared the rear wheel of the next guy taking his pull. The cyclist in the decelerating lane then drops into the draft of the rider pulling just as he is beginning to drop back. When the cyclist reaches the last position of the slower lane, he then reaccelerates forward and into the slipstream of the rider ahead.
The echelon is, in all senses, a racing situation. You move diagonally forward and back, with riders situated tightly off your handlebar and hip, the riders directly in front moving in a different direction at a different speed. As you can see, all of this takes a good deal of timing, coordination, and bike handling. With a group of riders who know how to ride in a crosswind properly, this can really be a lot of fun, or at least as much fun as you can possibly have with a stiff crosswind.
Any time you ride in a group, you need to observe a few safety precautions. First, stay very aware of the riders around you and the road ahead. Never make any sudden moves or steer or brake suddenly, or you will certainly cause an accident. If there is danger ahead, alert the group and try to brake steadily so everyone in the paceline can react. Also try to steer gradually away from obstacles in the road rather than swerving at the last second. Remember not to overlap wheels with the rider ahead or behind you.
On hills, many riders like to get out of the saddle for better leverage on the pedals. Doing this often moves your body weight forward on the bike and pushes your bike back about six inches, and the rider behind you has to stay alert for this so he doesn't overlap your rear wheel. (Many riders automatically get out of the saddle when they see the rider ahead of them do so.) Don't worsen this bobbing back by easing off the pedals and losing momentum when you get out of the saddle. You can lessen or even eliminate this bobbing back by getting out of the saddle as you enter a power stroke on the pedals. Push harder on the pedal to keep the bike's movement constant and rise out of the saddle slowly and smoothly. Don't jump out.
Thomas Prehn has been involved with cycling since he took up the sport in the early 1970s. He was instantly hooked by the speed and tactics of bicycle racing. Over the course of a long career as an amateur and professional cyclist, he won the 1986 USPRO road championship, and he is one of the few cyclists to have finished all thirteen editions of the Red Zinger/Coors Classic. A consistent top finisher in U.S. national championship races throughout his career, Prehn was also a member of the winning U.S. national time trial team in 1982. He represented the United States in world championships in 1982 and 1986.
Prehn currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he is the global director of strategic partnerships and product innovation for CatEye Japan. He also manages an independent research and consulting company focused on the cycling market. He is a former vice president of the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association. Even with two full-time jobs and a family, Prehn still likes to mix it up at the weekend races, especially cyclo-cross.