Riding in a tight knit group of cyclists, or “pace line”, can be an absolute blast. Because of the aerodynamic benefit gained by riding behind someone, you go faster (sometimes much faster) than you could riding alone. More than just a fun change of pace from solo rides, group riding is a cornerstone of the sport of road cycling. Learning to ride safely and effectively in a group is something all serious cyclists must do.
Even if you consciously choose to avoid riding in a group, if you ride on the road long enough, or participate in an organized cycling event, there will be times when you find yourself at least temporarily surrounded by cyclists on all sides.
Knowing what to do and what to avoid doing can quite literally save your skin! Don’t fear the group – just know it’s a deliberate decision to ride in a group, one that requires a commitment on
your part. Here are group riding tips as well as some skills to work on:
Concentrate Group riding requires focus, concentration, communication and riding skill. It is not a casual endeavor and carries a degree of risk that demands your respect. If you find yourself among a group of cyclists who are weaving, changing speed suddenly or looking uncomfortable and tense, either ride around them or drop behind them. Don’t risk your hide mingling with inexperienced group riders.
Spin a higher gear Keep your cadence above 90 RPM. It may seem counterintuitive, but spinning the pedals faster allows you to accelerate faster and make minor speed adjustments more easily. You’ll be constantly adjusting your speed to match the pace of the rider in front of you, and if you need to get back into a group after dropping back a bit, spinning an easier gear will help you bridge back onto the group faster.
Hands on the hoods Ride with your hands on your brake hoods and fingers lightly draped over the upper portion of the brake levers so that you have instant but controlled access to the levers when needed. Don’t ride with your hands on the bar tops, and don’t use aero bars in a group. You might not be able to react quickly enough to sudden speed changes or obstacles.
Stay off the brakes While you want to be able to brake in an instant, you also want to avoid using your brakes unnecessarily while in the group. Instead, learn to coast when you need to slow down rather than apply the brakes. This requires being aware of the group flow and anticipating when slowing is going to occur. When braking is called for, lightly drag your brakes rather than clamping down. Only brake for a second or two to preserve your momentum. If a sudden stop is required, try to move to outside of the group before braking.
Look ahead, not down Look at the back of the jersey of the rider in front of you, rather than staring at their rear tire. If you fixate on the tire, you’ll lose awareness of what’s happening up the road. This feels very unnatural at first, but practice it until you’re comfortable, because it is a crucial component to smooth riding in a group setting.
Maintain your personal space Aim for a wheel gap of about 2-3 feet between your front tire and the rear tire of the rider in front. It may help to picture a three foot cushion of air that you want to maintain between you and the rider ahead of you. Any gap greater than 3 feet pretty much eliminates any aerodynamic benefit.
No overlap Never overlap your front wheel with the rear wheel of the rider in front of you. Should your wheels touch for any reason, one or both of you will hit the deck and probably take a few more riders down with you.
Practice Find a like-minded cycling buddy and practice the above tips with just the two of you. Work on getting your front wheel within 3 feet of their rear wheel while looking at their jersey. When they coast, instead of braking right away, try coasting. Your pedal cadence may not be the same as theirs all the time, and that’s to be expected given the aero benefit of being the second rider in line. Once you have the core skills down, you’ll be ready to try riding in a bigger group. Relax, go with the flow of the group and you’ll soon be flying!