By Chris Carmichael Founder, Head Coach of CTS
There’s something special about a well-organized high-speed paceline. By sharing the work of pushing through the wind miles fly by at speeds no one in the group could achieve solo. A good paceline epitomizes teamwork and the notion of a group being better than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, a raggedy paceline is torture. The speed is all over the place, everybody’s stressed out and twitchy on the brakes, gaps open up, people get dropped; it’s a mess. After coaching pacelines and team time trials for decades here are tips for smoothing out the paceline at your local ride.
Why pacelines matter
Elite racers use motorpacing – drafting behind a scooter – to ride at or above race pace in training, without a peloton. For most amateur cyclists a fast paceline is a variant of motorpacing.
You’ll be going faster than you could maintain on your own, your power output during pulls will be higher than your normal SteadyState or individual time trial intensity, and you’ll dramatically improve your pacing skills for group rides and breakaways. You will also gain confidence in your handling skills at higher speeds.
If your local group ride is more of a social pack, I recommend finding three friends and forming a 4-person team for a 20km team time trial workout. Your goal is to cover the distance as fast as possible while staying together as a group (no dropping anyone!). I recommend this for cyclists who participates in Gran Fondos, road races, and criteriums, as well as triathletes. Though many triathlons are not draft-legal, a team time trial workout is great for developing speed and awareness of terrain, wind, and effort levels.
Tips for mastering the paceline
My intent here is not to teach the basics of how a single rotating paceline operates, but rather how to turn a sloppy paceline into a faster, smoother, and less scary experience for everyone.
Be aware of the terrain
Little riders go uphill fast, but big riders roll the downhills and flats faster. You don’t want the group to splinter, which means each rider has to think about the optimal pace for the team when deciding how hard to ride on the front. Killing the big guys by charging the climbs means you’ll be slower on the downhills and flats. Crushing the flats might also put your group’s smaller riders so far into the red zone they can’t contribute to the pacemaking, or can’t keep up at all.
Ride smart in the recovery line
As you rotate off the front you have to immediately consider what it’s going to take to get back on the last rider’s wheel, especially in faster pacelines. My old friend and 7-Eleven teammate Davis Phinney used to pull off and essentially stop pedaling. He’d go backward like he dropped anchor, but he was a sprinter so he could accelerate onto the last wheel with three strong pedal strokes. Non-sprinters (like me) pulled off and maintained more speed as we dropped back. That way there was less of an acceleration needed to get back into the pull line.
Always leave something in the tank to get back into the draft
Part of being smart with how long you stay at the front is conserving enough energy to get back into the draft at the back. If you pull so hard you can’t latch onto the last rider’s wheel once you’re turn is over, the group will either leave you behind or everyone will have to slow down to wait for you. In a group setting a “full pull” is only over when you’re safely back in the draft. Think of it all as one effort (pulling, pulling off, and getting into the draft at the end of the line) rather than only focusing on the time at the front.