When I went off the front of the field coming into the start/finish I did so with no clear plan. It wasn’t a move meant to win a prime, the race itself or the hearts of the podium girls. None of those were present. It was a training crit and saving something to be first across the line at the finish was, to my way of thinking, doing it wrong.

Training crits, in my head, were meant to be a source of suffering, a chance to leave everything on the road, to ride as hard as you possibly could, that to do so was to figure the correct answer. If I had anything left for the final sprint, I took that as a sign that I hadn’t done enough work earlier.

So when I took that flyer it was with the understanding that all I was doing was going as hard as I could and I would do that for as long as possible; three laps would be better than two, but every second was worth the burn. And yes, I was willing to risk getting dropped by the field once they would inevitably catch me. Half a minute later, one of the Cat. 2s in the field bridged up to me and as he passed on my left I saw his pedal stroke ease. In his approach he’d been going noticeably faster than I was; had he kept that pace, he’d have rolled right past me and his draft would have evaded me like a toddler squirming from grandma’s arms.

Up to that moment, I’d never understood how a rider going flat-out could get on the wheel of another, bridging rider. Guys always went right by me in my races and then we all blew and found ourselves back in the pack, or worse. And here I was witnessing the secret. He didn’t stop pedaling; no, his cadence simply slowed, enough that I could tell he had dialed his effort back to piano.

He looked over his shoulder, confirmed I had hitched myself to his wheel, and then gently added gas, the way you’d leave a stoplight with your mother in the car.

Astonishment and a curious sense of victory surged through me—This is how it’s done! There was gratitude, too. I’d work with this guy until the field reeled us in. Anyone who’d show me such a kindness would get all my wattage. It was a moment of grace no one had ever described to me, a delicate turn of pedals that spoke to cycling’s ability to impart more fragile expressions of human interplay.

Later, as I tried to describe what had occurred to my girlfriend, I struggled to convey the emotional impact his move had had on me and how it spoke to his understanding of the bigger picture. I explained how he didn’t have to beat me right then; he didn’t need to beat me until later. In the short term he needed me to help him get to the line. I finally tilted my head and said at nearly a whisper, “I may not have been as strong as he was, but he was stronger with me than without me.”

In the years that have passed, I’ve used that technique dozens of times and had it used to my favor a few more. I appreciate it because it’s subtle in a way that a hand at the small of the back isn’t. It’s an implicit statement that the other rider knows you’re strong enough, that you just need a moment to capture the draft. It’s the sort of move that only the astute eye will catch, which speaks to just how intimate such a gesture is. Working with another rider isn’t just a matter of sharing pulls, it shows your respect for the other person’s toil.

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  1. James

    A nice, concise story about how to ride well with other riders, with a result that is greater than the sum of the parts. We all have stories of group rides where someone has to crush it every time they hit the front., which just disturbs the flow of the group energy. I have lined up for more than 1,000 road races and criteriums, but I have been on a lot more group rides than that. That type of riding, as shared in the story above, is just as valuable on your next group ride as it would be in your next race. I choose my riding partners carefully.

  2. Emil

    I vividly remember being schooled about pacelining by Otis Guy and Owen Mullholland, both relentless in their instruction and impeccable in their example.

  3. Bill F

    Well done! Suffering and cooperation as metrics of success are what is so great & even mysterious about the sport we love.

  4. Author

    Thanks for the kind words everyone.

    Emil, to be able to say you learned how to ride a paceline from Otis and Owen is cycling’s equivalent of Ivy League. Well done.

  5. winky

    Nice one. A similar feeling to when a strong cyclist will drift back off the group to offer their wheel to someone struggling and who has let a half-dozen bike-length gap open (perhaps on a small rise), then tow them back up. I’ve been grateful for this a few times, and haven’t repaid the favour often enough.

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