It’s like the classic trust fall, except facing forward, with your eyes open and your wheels spinning freely beneath you. And despite the eyes-wide nature of it, the consequences for misplaced trust are, perhaps, even more dire. I have not heard of corporate retreat attendees breaking collar bones or sustaining concussions. Larry from accounting skulking into an ambulance after Sheila failed to catch his plummeting girth.
Learning to ride in a paceline is one of the core skills of cycling on the road, and at some point, someone tells us how to do it. Stay close. Don’t overlap wheels. Rotate outwards off the front. Signal the potholes and oncoming bullshit. Don’t panic. The directions are simpler to follow than the ones that come with most build-yourself bookcases.
These are the basic rules, but what you find over time is that there are wheels you can ride and wheels you cannot. Mainly, I think, this is a matter of trust. There are people I trust to lead me, and those I don’t, and the difference isn’t always in the speed or quality of the rider.
I ride fairly often with my neighbor, Jon. Jon is relatively new to road cycling, but he is strong and fast, and he and I have a rapport on and off the bike that makes him one of my favorite cycling companions. We can roll along side-by-side, chatting, or we can put our heads down and cover ground, swapping turns on the front. This can be wordless, which is nice.
There are plenty of really experienced cyclists I won’t tuck in behind. I find myself drifting off their outside shoulder to see what’s coming, slotting back in, poking back out. It’s nervous and tiring and probably annoying for the rider behind me, but there are just some people I can’t get all the way to that trusting place with, no matter how I want to.
Life has these parallels.
Padraig and I were talking last week about the “simpatico” we’ve developed. As we ride RKP down the road, we trust each other to make the right decisions for day-to-day posting, including editorial decisions, images, etc. I accept his editing more readily than I do other editors, and he takes my feedback gracefully, and the end product is something we’re both happy with. This is not to say there aren’t better writers and editors out there. It’s just that we trust each other in that way. Our styles are compatible.
And that’s what it comes down to, for me, on the bike.
You can be fast and smooth, but if your riding style doesn’t mesh with mine, I’m probably going to spend a lot of time drifting off your shoulder. Or you can be a newbie, just coming to terms with moving quickly in close quarters, but if you intuit the road the way I do, put out all the cues I expect to see, I will sit blindly on your wheel all day (my pulls notwithstanding).
Riding someone else’s wheel asks a lot of you, like the classic trust fall of so many corporate bonding sessions. The paceline is where you find out who you can work with, and who you can’t, and I would wager that your regular riding buddies are all people whose wheels you can follow without too much thinking, that there are plenty of really nice people you don’t ride with, mainly because it’s too stressful. I have met old hands with tens-of-thousands of miles in their legs who are simply too blase on the road to follow with any sense of confidence.
There is an etiquette to riding in a group that ensures everyone’s safety, but there are things beyond that make you feel comfortable on the bike, on a wheel, at top speed. I have done the trust fall, a hotel conference room, poorly lit and badly carpeted, giggling nervously and then leaning back into the eager clutches of people whose names I don’t remember now. It was over in second.
The same transaction on the bike can last all day, your body hurtling through space, spanning distances, suspended above the ground by a whisper of carbon or metal, and your life in the hands of the people around you. These are bonding sessions, in the classic sense, and there is more to the game than simply falling backwards and hoping for the best. This is where you find out who you can trust.
Image: Matt O’Keefe