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Safe Group Rides
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Paceline and Group Ride Etiquette
Most cyclists have ridden in some type of group ride or paceline formation. Usually, each person in a paceline takes a turn riding in front, breaking the wind. Many cyclists, however, overlook the most important principles of riding in a paceline. Many of those principles also apply to a less formal group ride situation.
So I’m writing this to elucidate some of the finer points of pack riding and hopefully make our cycling outings more safe and productive. Safety has to be the number one concern when we ride on public roads. And the most important consideration is the responsibility of the lead rider to make all following riders aware of any impending danger. This means that the lead rider of any group should consider the lack of unobstructed vision behind, and therefore, the slower reaction time of the following riders. The lead rider must attempt to avoid all potholes, cracks, rocks, and road debris by taking a wide berth around these hazards. The lead rider should also make the followers aware by pointing toward the location of the obstacle and/or yelling (this is necessary to be heard over wind noise) a warning as well. Of course these hazards may include any other vehicle, on the roadway, or entering the roadway, from side streets and driveways. Due to sand, potholes, cracks and other road debris as well as the potential for vehicles to pull out suddenly, I recommend that as a group we ride farther out from the edge of the road than we would while riding alone.
When riding on open public roads, a single file formation is the only acceptable way to move as a group. Of course, there are times when we are riding on county back roads and form a nice double paceline (side by side formation) but this can only be done when we know there are no vehicles passing. Needless to say, this is a very common occurrence on Alberta roads. Distance between riders is another important issue. I recommend a spacing of half a wheel length between riders normally and much more distance on very fast stretches or downhills. The drafting advantage of a lesser distance than this is negligible, but the risk of overlapping wheels in our only moderately experienced group is substantial.
It is each rider’s responsibility to maintain the smooth flow of the group. When riding in a paceline, sudden movements of any single rider can be disastrous. This means that abrupt braking, swerving, and any type of erratic riding is always a dangerous, poor technique. When the lead rider is careful to make all the followers aware of what’s coming sudden reactions are seldom necessary.
Each rider in the paceline is responsible for maintaining his or her place in that line. This means that if you let a gap open up everyone behind will be “dropped” either temporarily or for the rest of the ride. And, they will be completely within their rights to verbally and physically abuse you after the ride. Many cyclists, however, seem to forget that the essential purpose of their formation is efficiency. To illustrate some common mistakes, consider whether the following scenario sounds familiar.
Imagine that you are riding along in a single paceline, and you are the third rider in the line. The rear wheel of the rider in front of you is about 12 inches from your front wheel, and you are enjoying the draft. Suddenly, you notice that the rider in front of you, who has just taken the front position in the wind, is now 5 feet ahead of you. This front rider’s sudden increase in speed has caused a gap, and when you notice the gap, you put forth a hard effort to close the gap, and so does each rider behind you, like an accordion. Then, this same front rider moves very gradually to the side. You wonder whether it is your turn to pull or whether the front rider is just wandering a bit. After a long pause and a bit of a slow down, you decide you are supposed to pull. When your turn pulling on the front is done, you want to move to the side so that the rider behind you can assume the front position, but the rider who was previously in front of you in the line is still right there on your side; he has not yet moved to the back of the line. You now begin to tire of pulling and gradually slow down. Finally, it is safe for you to move to the side. The rider behind you accelerates rapidly (because of the previous slow downs), and the entire scenario starts over again with closing gaps . . .
Awareness regarding traffic flow is invaluable. Even before I pull-off the front of the paceline, I always listen traffic behind me to be aware of the approaching cars. Than just before I pull-off the front I always take a quick look back over my shoulder to check for passing car. If there is a vehicle coming up fast, or at all, I wait to swing off (move to the back of the line).
While leading the paceline, each rider must make his or her own best judgment regarding how long to lead. The proper way to pace yourself is to maintain the same speed as the former rider at the front, pulling longer if you feel strong, shorter if you can’t keep the pace. If the speed is obviously beyond your capability, then you should stay at the back and tell each rider to ‘pull-in’ in front of you as they move toward the back of the paceline for their wind-break. Of course, if you are the one fixed to the back of the line, after the ride you may be victim of finger pointing and name calling with disparaging terms such as: Wheelsucker, wimp, or girly-man. Ouch! But we Albertans are far too sophisticated and restrained to ever say such things, right?
When a rider in front of you is clearly getting dropped, a quick decision is required whether to stay where you are, or “jump-across” the gap before it gets too big. If the group is moving very fast, the latter may not be an option. This is known as the “crunch” time in bike racing terminology – when the pace is so fast that the paceline string breaks, the riders who can keep the pace end up in the lead group, and those that can’t are “off the back.” The rider who is “going backwards” (struggling) and perhaps letting the gap open up has no obligation to tell those behind that he’s “losing it” perhaps because if he’s really doing all he can to hold on, oxygen is at a premium, and speaking is not an option. It’s the responsibility of the riders behind to assess and respond to the situation in this case.
There are many other fine points of importance regarding pack riding but most are beyond the scope of this article. So, I’ll just mention a few of the key tips:
Here are few main principles of paceline etiquette:
- KEEP YOUR SPEED STEADY WHEN YOU ASSUME THE FRONT POSITION. In the scenario above, the riders in the paceline were constantly closing gaps. Their paceline looked like an accordion. Eventually, this gap closing effort wears down the riders in the paceline. To avoid this problem, the front rider must watch the speed on his computer just before his turn at the front, and then maintain that speed within one-half mph or one kmh. If the speed of the paceline needs to be increased, wait until you have been pulling on front for several strokes, and then SLOWLY increase the speed. A gradual increase in speed will avoid gaps and help keep you (and everyone behind you) fresh.
- WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED PULLING ON THE FRONT, MOVE OFF TO THE SIDE WITH A CRISP AND SAFE MOVEMENT. In the scenario above, the front rider very slowly wandered to the side, making it unclear whether he was finished on the front. A more deliberate movement to the side (after checking your path to be sure it is safe) will keep the paceline flowing smoothly.
- AFTER YOU HAVE PULLED OFF OF THE FRONT, SLOW DOWN IMMEDIATELY. This principle may seem intuitive, but it is amazing how often this principle is ignored. After moving to the side, you must immediately slow down (soft pedal) so that the next rider can move off of the front without bumping into you and/or without waiting for you to get out of the way. Of course, you also must make sure that your decrease in speed does not cause you to “back” into a rider behind you who has not yet rejoined the line.
- When a rider changes from a sitting to standing position on a hill for instance, his or her bike will suddenly move backwards as much as a foot-and-a-half. This is a temporary reduction in forward momentum due to a body position shift toward the front of the bike. Beware of overlapping his or her wheel when this happens!
- It’s generally best to match gearing/cadence in a group, but sometimes the experienced rider will gear “down one” to save energy while drafting and gear “up one” when they “hit the front” for extra power and top end speed.
- Riders tend to let a much larger gap open up between cyclists when cornering, so with each position back from the lead rider increased proportionally, the total distance from engine to caboose can double or even triple. This means that the further back you are after the corner, the harder you will have to work to “get back on” the back of the paceline.
- For subtle speed reductions in a fast moving paceline, it is possible to simply move from behind the “wheel” ahead of you rather than braking. To do this, just move to one side or the other (when there’s space) thus slowing as you lose some of the drafting effect.
- When there is a crosswind, the best draft is obtained by moving laterally from directly behind the wheel ahead, to the downwind side. How far ‘off center’ depends on the exact direction and speed of the wind, but I can tell you that in a huge crosswind I’ve spent many a road race or team time trial with my front wheel even with the cranks of the rider ahead of me – drafting efficiently.
Beware of any slippery or loose surface: gravel, snow, ice, leaves, oil patches, wet manhole covers and crosswalk markings. Avoid these, or ride over them slowly. Don’t turn, brake or accelerate. Be ready to put a foot down for balance.
Check behind yourself for traffic, then cross a diagonal railroad crossing at a right angle.
Be especially careful of diagonal railroad crossings, trolley tracks, a row of raised lane-line dots or a step between the shoulder and the travel lane. Any of them can push your front wheel to the side and sweep your bike out from under you. When you can’t avoid them, cross them as nearly as possible at right angles.
Beware of steel-grid bridge decks, which, especially when wet, will steer your bike parallel to the gridding, making balancing difficult. Test a grid deck at a low speed, and walk or use the bridge sidewalk if necessary.
Any bump, rock or pothole more than an inch high can squash your bicycle’s tires flat against the rims, damaging the wheels. Avoid the bumps if you can, and walk your bike if the going gets too rough.
Remember, concentration and awareness of what’s happening around you is everything while riding so ride safely by expecting the unexpected!
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