The season begins the same way every year. Like moles emerging from the earth, cyclists crawl out from the confines of their basements, spinning classes, and lone winter workouts. Everyone has the same intention: get out, join the group ride, and connect with fellow riders. For some, it's another season, picking up right where they left off with the last. For others, it's their first season riding with a group; they struggled through the last season, building form and fitness and a comfort that comes from long hours on the bike. For newbies, there may be apprehension to join the mix, especially the bubbling, swirling brew that makes up the group at higher speeds. Novel to them are the rules of group etiquette, how to ride in a paceline, how to move about in the field, and how to play nicely with others.
Here are a few rules I like to follow when out with 65 of my closest friends:
A paceline is an effort to save energy - When riding in a paceline, remember the effort is intended to benefit the group; to ride faster than you would as an individual at a reduced effort and provide you time to recover immediately following a hard effort. When it is your turn to pull through, stay consistent in speed and take your pull smoothly. Once you pull through to the front of the return line, ease up the effort every so slightly to allow the next rider an easy merge in front of you. This helps to keep the flow of the group smooth and eliminates the need to chase down the rider in front. Again, the whole purpose of the paceline is to work as a group.
Avoid surges - Surges are short, abrupt increases in speed. They waste everyone's energy and require the group to constantly reestablish the rotation.
Be a good wheel - This is a broad statement, but apply it as you will. To me, this means, keep a steady flow when riding with others, no herky-jerky, yo-yo moves. Keep the power distribution smooth, and soft pedal to control your speed and time yourself so you don't have to use your brakes unless it's absolutely necessary. Avoid bumps and holes in the road by giving the riders behind you fair warning. In some cases this means a subtle point or a verbal cue "hole," but try to reduce the amount of shouting, it creates confusion and no-one likes the startle effect it can produce. When you're at the front and responsible for the group behind you, look ahead, and when an obstacle approaches, give the group the benefit of a smooth lateral movement that begins 10 seconds in advance. This way there is a smooth avoidance. As a rider behind, watch the riders in front of you and mimic their line if you trust the wheel in front of you. A trusted wheel is sure to avoid obstacles.
Shoulder check - As you pull through to the front of the pace line know where your back wheel ends. Coming in too close to the rider behind you can spell the end of half of the group's season. Pulling in a bike length ahead at the front of the group means everyone has to chase to close the gap you have just created and this creates undue work.
Euphoria strikes when the speeds are high and a group of riders synchronizes their efforts (especially when the effort is difficult and the oxygen flow is strained). If you want to witness the perfect paceline, watch a Tour when the team time trial is the order of the day. A properly executed paceline can be a magical experience.
Photo Courtesy: Graham Watson