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The Rotating Pace Line and How to Ride In It

Intro

“Man! This rotating pace line is harder than it looks!”This astute observation echoed from the rear of the peloton at this years Chuck FONDEAUX! event. Our group was about 6 miles down the 9 mile stretch of Walker Road. We had spent those first 6 miles trying to get into the rhythm of riding in a rotating pace line. I sensed a mutiny was imminent as we struggled along but a sigh of relief emerged when I heard this pleasantly surprised proclamation. The rider was right, riding in a rotating pace line is much harder than it looks. So the next time you see a group moving along in this manner as one fluid unit, you know they are a skilled bunch composing poetry in motion.

The movements and efforts to maintain fluidity are subtle. It was easy for me give a perfunctory lesson in the dynamics of how the rotating pace line works, but it was quite the task for our group to dial in the subtleties necessary for proper execution. You can’t learn how to ride in a proper rotating pace line by reading about it, but I hope that this explanation of those subtleties will help on your next group ride.

Requirements:

  1. 6-8 riders is ideal for starters.
  2. A nice long stretch of straight road with minimal traffic.
  3. Patience.
  4. Helmet.

Assumptions:

  1. You have ridden in a group.
  2. You understand and are comfortable drafting another cyclist.

Why the rotating pace line?

The primary reason for riding in this formation are to maximize the available power from each cyclist. Think back to a time when you were riding in a group where a few riders were clearly stronger than the bunch. Those riders did more work on the front of the pack while the others reaped the benefits of their efforts. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with this (is there anything inherently wrong with riding a bike with your friends?) but the group could go faster (faster = funner… that’s right, funner) if the efforts were more equitable. When riding in this formation the group is always riding two abreast which offers not only wind reduction from the front but also from one side.

How it works.

In its simplest form and per my perfunctory and largely ineffective explanation, the rotating pace line moves in a counter clockwise motion. At some agreed upon point the group leader will signal its time to start the rotation. This often comes in the form of a circling hand gesture. Once this occurs the general rotation is as follows.

The rotation of the rotating pace line.

Image 1: Riders in the faster lane pull off to left and drift to the rear before merging back into the faster lane.

Looks easy right? So what makes this an advanced riding skill that is much easier said than done? The challenge lies within coordination, timing, and being a smooth, consistent rider. There are really only two moments that require deft motion, and those are when:

  1. You are exiting the faster lane and merging into the slower line.
  2. When you are exiting the slower lane and merging into the fast line.

If these two transitions are not smooth the pace line isn’t either. Proper communication is key and until your group has their technique dialed it is good form for the first rider in the slow line to say “clear” when the lead rider of the fast lines rear wheel has cleared slow line leaders front wheel. As a token of appreciation for proper communication, it is imperative for the new leader of the slower line to allow the now second place rider to reap the full benefit of their draft. What this means is if the lead rider pulls anywhere other than directly in front, the second place rider will not be reaping the benefit of their draft and will likely fall off pace or surge in effort to keep pace. Both tactics waste energy and disrupt the flow of the pace line.

In similar fashion, it is proper form to say “last” when you are the last rider in the faster line as you are passing the last rider in the slower line. This lets the rider in the slower line know that they have to giddy up and lay down a few extra watts to latch on to the passing riders rear wheel. When this transition is bungled the slower line rider will need to surge to catch up to the faster line, wasting energy and disrupting flow.  Ideally all the riders are paying close attention AND communicating properly.

A smooth transition looks like this. When you are the second rider in the fast line, as soon as you see the rider in front of you begin their merge left to the head of the slow line you need to begin pulling forward into the lead position. This is where you will generate the most power and expend the most energy. It is also where you need to be the smoothest which is what makes this an advanced skill.  The same goes for the transition back into the fast line. When you begin to see (or hear) the last rider passing you, it is time to start your merge. Just be careful not to merge too soon, lest you overlap wheels and end up on the ground! The rest of the time you’re in the pace line all your efforts should be focused on not exerting any more effort that necessary. This is your recovery time. Relish in it!

Conclusion

I hope this has helped to better explain the subtle dynamics of the rotating pace line. Once you experience the sheer bliss of riding in this formation you will never want to ride any other way! In all my time on the road I have yet to experience anything more fun that trucking along at 27-28mph with minimal effort followed by moderate bursts. Do it for long enough and those moderate bursts convert into great threshold intervals. Not to mention how totally boss your group looks ripping down the road like the finally tuned machines of a Grand Tour TTT (Team Time Trial).

Until next ride,

Will Conkwright

Oriental, NC

March 2, 2016

Safe Group Riding Skills: Overlapping Wheels

If you want to ride faster you need to ride with a group. Group riding pushes your limits and exposes you to riders better than you. The casual observer may think group riding looks easy. Just remember that every skilled athlete makes their craft “look easy”. The skills required to ride in a group are subtle and take at least a year or more to fully understand.

The golden rule of group riding is “DO NOT OVERLAP WHEELS”, keeping in mind that it is every riders responsibility to “GUARD YOUR FRONT WHEEL”.  Think of it like driving a car and rear ending someone, it’s (almost) always you’re fault. So if someone pulls out in front of you in a group ride, takes out your front wheel causing you to crash… well, you weren’t guarding your front wheel so shame on you! Of course this begs the question of why your group has not educated sprint happy unpredictable and otherwise sketchy riders, but regardless the reason it is still in your best interest to always GUARD YOUR FRONT WHEEL.

So what constitutes an ‘overlapping wheel’? See below.

 

Lead riders rear wheel clears your front wheel. This is good form.

Image 1: Lead riders rear wheel clears your front wheel. This is good form.

 

Your front wheel overlaps the lead riders rear wheel. This is bad form.

Image 2: Your front wheel overlaps the lead riders rear wheel. This is bad form.

 

Image 3: Overlapping wheels is only ok when you have plenty of room to respond to unpredictable actions.

Image 3: Overlapping wheels is only ok when you have plenty of room to respond to unpredictable actions.

 

Image 4: This scenario will not cause you to immediately crash and is acceptable.

Image 4: This scenario will not cause you to immediately crash and is acceptable.

 

So if you want to garner the respect of your current group or gain entry into a new one, show them you understand what it means to “guard your front wheel” and don’t ever, ever, (EVER!) overlap wheels as seen in image 1. Do this, and you might as well show up with a basket and horn on your rig. Have something to add to the story or an experience to share? That’s why we provide a comments section! 🙂

Until next ride,

Will Conkwright

Oriental, NC

March 2, 2016

Aero Bars and Group Riding

Are aero bars really a problem when riding in a group?

I have playfully teased many of you for years about leaving your aero bars in place during group rides. Those whom I tease are strong and seasoned riders and I am confident they are well aware of the risks posed by riding with aero bars in a group. But this teasing does beg the question, “Are aero bars really a problem when riding in a group?” For the veteran riders, probably not. Do I worry about my safety when I see them riding on the aero bars? Not really. Am I concerned when I see new riders immediately adopt clip on aero bars.

Emphatically YES.

Here are 3 reasons why.

  1. Riding from aero bars is an inherently less stable position. Think about standing with your feet one in front of the other as opposed to shoulder width. Pushing you over from the former position is much easier than from the latter.
  2. Unless you have routed separate brake lines, and this is rarely the case with clip ons, you are a long ways away from the brakes. In addition to the distance, you now have to remove one hand to access the brakes. Your other hand remains on the clip on leaving your body in an even more compromised position.
  3. Riders new to the sport may perceive riding in a group to be an easy skill to adopt, but they would be wrong. The subtle dynamics of road riding take time to learn and are hard to teach. Until new riders can comfortably pull their weight in they absolutely should not use aero bars at any time during a group ride.

Two reasons you don’t need Aero bars on group rides.

  1. The whole point of riding in a group is to reap the benefits provided by the leading riders slipstream. Riding in the slipstream requires much less effort, sometimes up to 40% less. This makes aero bars unnecessary in group rides.
  2. The second main point of riding in a group is to get stronger! Embrace the natural wind resistance and power through using your leg muscles.

Many groups simply won’t tolerate aero bars on a group ride. If you find yourself attempting to ride with one of these groups be prepared for them to politely (or not) say you can’t ride with them. The bottom line is that riders who choose to ride on aero bars are a threat to the rest of the group.  When the group doesn’t know your skill level they have no obligation to accept that risk into their ride. Whether it is fair or not, if you show up to a new group with aero bars on your road bike they will assume your skill level is low. You may be thinking this is rude and unacceptable and behavior and I can assure you the feeling is mutual! Unfortunately for the aero bar rider, the group has science on their side! These aren’t just my opinions or those of the screaming minority.

Thoughts on the matter from around the web.

“While there is no “cycling law” against the use of aero bars during group rides, any cyclist with common sense knows that it is a bad idea. Joining a group ride with aerobars is a scary, dangerous thing to do and some cyclist are too stubborn to change their ways.”

-The Bill Bone Law Group


“Now it’s not against the “cycling law” to show up with aero bars on a group ride, but it is against all good common sense and safety standards to “use” them around other riders.”

-Bama Cyclist Blog


“ The odd time I see someone who I don’t recognize riding with a TT bike or aerobars bolted on I’ll get as far in front of that rider as I can as I don’t feel safe – even if they’re on their hoods.”

-Cycling Tips


“Never be in the TT position when you’re in the bunch. You don’t have access to the brakes when you’re on the aerobars. Always be on the hoods where you have much more control. Only when you get to the very front should you ever get into the aero-tuck position and go into timetrial mode.”

-Cycling Tips


“A history of ‘Bunch Etiquette’ (which is currently all we have to rely on in the impending dangers of bunch practices) has it that riders who want to ride on TT bars should responsibly choose one of these options:”

  1. Ride off the back of the pack or off the front of the pack (not hard to do with the aerodynamic advantage).
  2. Go riding in a group of riders all using profile bars together.
  3. Go riding solo

-Cycling Tips


“…when I see aerobars or a timetrial bike in the bunch rides my only aim is to get ahead of it. These bikes are not designed to be ridden in groups even if held on the hoods. The UCI banned the use of this equipment in the peloton for good reason!”

comment from:-Cycling Tips


In Closing

I have personally borne witness to riders sporting aero bars being told in a less than apologetic or sympathetic manner to “piss off” when attempting to join a group ride. Though I do agree that this is rude and unacceptable behavior, I also agree that riding with aero bars has no place in the group dynamic. This is my attempt to educate you on why and prevent you from enduring the wrath of less accommodating cyclists. If you still choose to ride with aero bars in a group you must extend the rest of the riders a common courtesy and only ride on them when at the very front of the pack, bearing in mind that your aero advantage is the following riders drafting disadvantage, so don’t be offended if they see you as a selfish rider and don’t wait on you in the event you get dropped or have a flat.

Aero bars can coexist with group rides but much like raisins and cookies… they probably shouldn’t. 🙂

Until the next ride,

Will Conkwright

Oriental, NC

March 2, 2016