The Paceline

Tour de France 2009 Montpellier TTT Stg 4

Before I entered my first race, before I’d joined my first club, indeed, on my very first group ride I began learning that most elemental of pack riding skills, the paceline. At first, my ability to regulate the distance between my front wheel and another rider’s rear wheel yo-yoed the way the teen girls treated me when I was in high school: comeherecomeherecomehere, getawaygetawaygetaway, comehere.

Over-geared, I would mash the pedals until I was zooming for a friend’s freewheel. Once inside that breath stopping three-foot perimeter, I’d scrub speed until the riders behind would tell me they didn’t want to see my brakes move or me stop pedaling. I wondered what the logical outcome of a paceline, me pedaling nonstop and no brakes would be. I guessed it would involve someone asking what my Rh factor was.

Soon enough, I was following wheels and only occasionally diving for the margins. Then I began hearing admonitions about surging, or more correctly, not surging. I learned to avoid stepping on the gas the moment I saw the open road. A powerful male hormone singed my cortex, demanding that I lay wood with nothing in front of me but the road itself, but I learned to control the urge and with a bit of coaching, how to sense when I was clear of the wheel behind me. You see, the riders who taught me believed if you could talk, you weren’t doing your part. They called neither “clear” nor “last.”

Over the flat farmland of the South, our small group of rarely more than eight would paceline deep into nowhere and back to our cars at the edge of town. The single rotating, double paceline was our tool of choice.

Taking inventory of each of the cues they taught me, I wonder how I learned it all in a single summer. I also marvel at how easily I can fall out of practice. Knowing when to pull off from the front of a paceline is easy to forget if 19 of 20 rides are in large groups.

Sometime during that summer a friend, also new to pack riding, made the mistake of following the rider in front of him as he tried to pull off. Once the chaos subsided and the shouts cooled, the tutorial began. Under no circumstances were you to follow the wheel of a rider who had done his turn. If you were hammered, you did your turn at or above your redline and waited to detonate until you were at the back of the group. You were to drop off silently and not disrupt the rotation unless it was to give the rider ahead of you the one permissible call: “You’re in.”

It might seem easy to romanticize or even mythologize a visceral education undertaken more than 20 years ago. It probably is. However, I have an easy objective metric for just how effectively they imparted their arcane wisdom. I knocked out my first 100-mile ride (it was not an organized century) with seven other riders in five hours on a flat to rolling course. When I consider my fitness at the time the achievement was as unlikely as climbing Mount Everest without bottled oxygen while texting my BFF.

The epitome of this skill is, of course, what the Flemish Masters know: the echelon. It’s a tough variation to learn as it means not only reading the paceline, but also reading the wind at the same time. Compounding matters is the fact that it is difficult to find opportunities to take feel safe taking the whole of a lane with only six or eight guys.

The reward that comes from finding that pocket in the echelon is drug-like. Once in the slot it’s as if you downshifted a cog. Once, late into a five-hour ride another rider and I attempted to organize an echelon to get the horses in the barn a little quicker. An argument actually broke out about which direction the echelon was to rotate. Soon enough we got the leading line moving into the spike of the wind and hiding those who had just pulled off.

The greatest thing about the echelon isn’t the speed, but what it illustrates. The array of bodies paints a portrait of the wind itself. The more angular the arrangement of riders, the stronger the crosswind. Some of my favorite shots from the Spring Classics are those photos of echelons spread from gutter to gutter, the few seconds between groups a gulf too great to cross.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


  1. Larry T.

    Your piece took me back to the days of the South Bay Wheelmen in SoCal. Came to them as a recovering marathon runner–plenty of endurance, no cycling skills to speak of. Their elder statesmen, including Bill Ron, showed me how to sit in, take a pull, etc. and even pushed my wimpy ass up more than one hill to keep me in the group. I payed ’em back with pulls at the front where my endurance was pretty much the only thing useful to them. They even took us out to a grassy field and showed us what happened when you overlapped wheels and taught us how to bump shoulders without falling off or causing a huge pileup. Sadly, it seems those are not so many of these clubs nowadays or perhaps cyclists just don’t care to join ’em and learn something. My friend Maynard Hershon calls ’em “perpetual novices”, strong riders who are pretty much clueless on how to sit on a wheel, take a pull or even form a basic, safe paceline. Anyone who even tries to school ’em, just a bit, gets branded as an elitist or cranky old-fart. I hope this post gets a storm of “we teach riders in our club!” responses to change my idea that this is just not done anymore, though I am probably a cranky old fart!

  2. Jim Morehouse

    I, too, am a former South Bay Wheelman from the 70s. The club had weekly training races and training rides where the art of riding fast in a paceline was well taught. Bob Buyny and Ted Ernst (of the Manhattan Grand Prix fame) were my mentors when I went from Category 4 to Category 1 in one season. I can remember more than one race being decided by who won the fight to get into the front echelon when the race turned into the cross wind. I knew how important it was, and was rarely left out. I returned to racing this year after twenty years of just riding and no racing. The skills came back quickly. I have much to thank that club for. They taught me well.

  3. Lachlan

    Ah… so much devistation in so many amateur races:

    …50% the field doesn’t know how, another 40% gets stuck behind the 10% that do and who nab the front spots hard against the curb/central line so that the rest of the’field’ gets blown appart into a dwindling, gorvelling single line behind.

    One down-side: it makes for hyper dangerous situations on non-closed road events!

  4. max

    Thankful forever to my Dad who taught me the basics, but in Vermont there was rarely enough people for an echelon, but sitting tight was key. In Rhode Island during college I was luckily taken under the wing of Dave Kellogg and the Arc en Ciel team who did big miles as a team every Sunday year round, as well as in smaller groups all the time. They taught me the glory that can be found in the well oiled paceline and I’ll be forever grateful..

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