“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.
- 6-8 riders is ideal for starters.
- A nice long stretch of straight road with minimal traffic.
- You have ridden in a group.
- 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.
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:
- You are exiting the faster lane and merging into the slower line.
- 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!
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,