Some things can be taught

March 6, 2017 § 22 Comments

How many times have you seen a group of cyclists spread all over the road like a warm breakfast? Judging from the rarity of organized, disciplined, 2 x 2 pacelines, you might think they are formations that only come into existence after years of practice. And you might think that the only people capable of riding mile after mile a few inches from their neighbors’ bars and a few inches from the wheel in front of them is the mark of a truly expert cyclist.

That’s what I always thought, mostly because the only time I ever saw functioning large groups ride like that they were composed of (accomplished) bike racers.

My club, Big Orange, had a Paceline 101 seminar yesterday. We all gathered on Westchester Parkway, and several of the club’s leaders put on the seminar. There were over forty riders. At least half had never ridden in a 2 x 2 paceline before. Most of the others had been riding for two years or less.

The Big O paceline, when I describe it, sounds goofy because of the silly names. Here they are:

Horsemen“: These are the 6-12 riders at the front. These are the only rotating riders. Their job is to:

  • Maintain steady power. Steady on flats, slower on hills, faster on descents.
  • Give plenty of room around road hazards. Give wide berth to cones, potholes, sticks, big rocks, etc.
  • Call out road hazards.
  • Pay attention to upcoming stop lights. Anticipate when the light will change by watching crosswalk countdowns. Avoid panic stops and avoid running the entire peloton through red lights.
  • Accelerate slowly from stops, remembering that everyone behind is still standing
  • Rotate in pairs. Get off the front if the partner wants off. Left side swings off to the left, right side swings off to the right. Keep steady speed when rotating off the front, flick elbow and take 2-3 strong pedal strokes as you move over.
  • Control the lane. The right hand rider controls positioning and stays just to the left of the fog line.
  • Control descents. This is the hardest part to master, requiring a hard effort to keep speed on downhills until the rear of the peloton has completed the descent. Riders at the front cannot slow down until everyone has completed the descent.
  • Steady ascents: Slowing  too rapidly at the bottom of the hill means those at the end of the peloton will accordion. Slow gradually while climbing and regroup after crossing the top. Gradually lift the pace again after the regroup.

Gatekeepers“: The two riders directly behind the horsemen. Their job is to:

  • Maintain steady power. If the horsemen surge, the gatekeepers allow the gap to open, then slowly close it.
  • Provide space for horsemen who have rotated off the front and are coming back in order to slot back in.
  • Prohibit the peloton from mixing with horsemen. The idea is that one group, horsemen, do the work, and the other group, the peloton drafts for the duration of the ride.

Buffers“: 1-3 pairs of riders, riding immediately behind the gatekeepers. Their job is to maintain steady power. If the group ahead surges, the buffers let them go, then gradually close the gap.

Peloton“: This is everyone else. Their job is to:

  • Stay on the wheel in front. Do not pass other riders. Do not fill in gaps ahead of buffers. Do not get out of formation to bomb descents.
  • Keep handlebars even with your partner. Formations stagger when riders are not even with each other.
  • Change lanes from the rear. When changing lanes, the rear of the peloton should move over first, after checking for traffic, and call out “Clear!” so the riders ahead know it is safe.
  • Anticipate slowing riders in front. When approaching rollers, give extra room ahead. Know the route!
  • Identify final rider position. Last place riders in the peloton should tell other riders “I’m last” if for some reason a rider is rotating all the way to the back of the group. Final riders should also take responsibility for being the riders who check first for rear traffic when getting ready to change lanes.

Before going to the Peloton 101 seminar, participants were supposed to have read this explanation of paceline riding. Once we assembled, a couple of leaders explained it all again in person, took questions, we did a practice lap around the Parkway. There was a lot of talking and some correcting, but no shouting or abusing or screaming. Everyone was told beforehand that we were there to learn, and told not to take anything personally.

Incredibly, no one did.

After the first lap we debriefed, people switched up positions, and we did a second lap, this time at about 22-24 mph. We debriefed again, questions were taken, and we rode a final lap “at speed.” After a final debrief, those who wanted to rolled with the group out onto PCH and practiced pacelining in the lane at speed all the way to Malibu and back.

Here is a link to a video that was taken by Cycling Savvy instructor Gary Cziko from the position of gatekeeper, with the horsemen teaching a first-timer how to rotate.

What amazed me about the practice was how quickly people got it when it was explained and they had a chance to practice. After the second lap the 42-person rotation was so disciplined that, sitting at the very back, I could see all the way to the front through the gap between the side-by-side riders. It was almost perfectly straight.

I wondered why it was so effective, and several things occurred to me.

First, it’s not complicated, but there are organizational elements that need to be explained. I learned to ride a paceline while doing it, making a mess of it, and getting yelled at. Being calmly instructed, gently corrected, and given a chance to practice takes most of the terror out of it.

Second, having roles with names is a huge help to beginning riders. Sure, “horsemen” sounds silly, but it is a defined word with a defined function, and when you’re doing your first paceline with a bunch of experienced riders and you’re so nervous you’re about to crap your shorts, it makes all the difference in the world to have words tied to actual functions and roles.

This nomenclature also makes new riders concentrate on what they’re doing, as opposed to riding in terror that they’re about to crash out fifty people. Even better, once people feel comfortable in one role, they can try a more challenging one, so they not only have a place, but they have the feeling of “moving up.” Roles also have the invaluable function of predictability, which is what safe group riding is all about. There’s never any question about where a horseman is supposed to be, and if there is, you can ask. Compare that to the amorphous glob of riders in which random people do random things for no apparent reason … or at least that’s how it seems to beginners.

Third, holding a more-or-less permanent position throughout the ride means you get to know the person next to you, and the relationships are what makes the experience fun.

Removing the mystery, sharing the knowledge, and teaching skills raises everyone’s ability, including the teacher’s. It also creates a vibe in which people want to excel. Best of all, this method includes riders of vastly differing abilities and solves one of the biggest issues of group riding for clubs, i.e., “How do you integrate slower riders with faster ones without either shredding the slow ones or making the fast ones go so slow that they no longer want to do the ride?”

Every club should look at its mission and if part of the mission is education, improvement, and making road riding more accessible to more people, then a program like this is a winner. Photos courtesy of Joann Zwagerman, Big Orange phenom who was responsible for organizing yesterday’s seminar!



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§ 22 Responses to Some things can be taught

  • Brian In VA says:

    That’s an outstanding program! And, speaking as a trainer, excellent adult learning technique. Thanks WM!

  • Sibex Czar says:

    I like those California roads! Here in Jersey we rarely if ever see roads like that, so our pull off is both to the left, though there are never enough of us to warrant a set of horsemen and gatekeepers, however I see their inherent value in controlling the gap in a non-surge way. Very well laid out.

    • Gary Cziko says:

      We also have narrow roads in SoCal where room is very tight for pulling off on both sides, but I haven’t yet seen the one-sided return on a double paceline ever used here.

      • Sibex Czar says:

        I wonder if that is regional. I am certainly no authority on it in spite of my many years on the bike and many different groups throughout those years. We could have ALL been doing it wrong. I don’t think I have ever been in a group that included any ex-pros or neo-pros who would have brought better knowledge to the table.

        Sometimes it seems there is just too much shit on the inside lane. At least here in Jersey, and in addition we still have an incredible number of “Wheel Eaters” storm sewer grates. They show up in more places than you would expect.

        Truth be told, when the fast want to ride fast those are separate rides, and then it is simply rotating pace line because the numbers never warrant anything else. When it is more of a relaxed ride, the group just doesn’t want to go at “speed” and so we usually simply have a few workhorses who do long pulls at the front and then drop back.

        I will keep this in mind though if I see an opportunity to advance it.

      • TomH says:

        Some of the BigO rides heading north have been “circulating pacelines”.
        Only 2 rows — 1st row advancing, 2nd row gradually sliding back & eventually “circulating” back into the advancing 1st row .

        Circulating pacelines are the next step & require more finesse than regular 2×2 pacelines. I’d say 8-16 riders is ideal for a circ paceline.

        Here’s a simple animation of the concept:

        Here’s a video clip of an actual ride on PCH from last Nov :
        Back then, were still working out the bugs, sometimes the gaps were too big , or there was too much surging.

        Done right, circ pacelines are really cool … and you can go really fast. That PCH paceline was averaging typical 27+ mph.

  • Michelle landes says:

    Awesomeness all around!!

  • East Coast baby seal says:

    Wow, roads wide enough to have 4 abreast (however briefly) and not get anyone killed! Here in New England, most roads are barely wide enough for a single pace line. The pull off is always to the left and the rider rotating back must pay a bit more attention to keep from getting squished.

  • Serge Issakov says:

    We’ve been having good look with this slight variation on steering from the rear:

    Gatekeeper waits for a gap or creates one using an assertive left arm signal and moves out into the next lane. Horseman with mirror sees this and moves into that lane too; others follow. Much more efficient than relying and waiting for everyone to call “clear!”, especially in a large group.

    Also, it preserves drafting better than everyone moving over from behind. The gatekeeper who moves out first is exposed a bit, but pretty much everyone else maintains cover. It is important for the horseman to move over gradually rather than dart into the next lane to preserve draft protection for those behind.

    • Serge Issakov says:

      Oops, I misused “gatekeeper” here – I thought they were at the very rear, but realize now they follow the horsemen but are in front of the main peloton. So, I meant the “whip” with respect to who moves out first from the very rear for a lane change.

  • Chris says:

    Yeah, I remember the guys that taught me to pace line this way, I wish newer riders had any sense beyond a herd of cats. Thanks for the pointers!

  • I just shared this post with a friend up in our area. We were talking about skills sessions for her bike club and I mentioned Cycling Savvy and the big step Big Orange has taken to be better cyclists. So timely! Thanks WM.

  • BC says:

    The peloton is greater than the individual, and egos are checked at the door. Our strongest riders typically ride at the VERY BACK (with blinking red lights), because nobody wants to ride the 20-22 minute PCH stretch to Pepperdine alone. The best quality of a horsemen/horsewomen is riding steady. Beginners are placed directly behind gatekeepers (think 6-8 wheels back – not in the rear!) because they are supposed to be the smoothest wheels in the peloton. A peloton isn’t a race! We literally had people who had never ridden in traffic – and never maintained 21mph – riding with us at 24-26mph while socializing. They were shocked! Oh, the magic of being smooth and rejecting surges!

  • Anamika says:

    Fuck a Duck. No wonder I ride alone.

  • dangerstu says:

    Sounds great, but to feel or tough prancing around in your lycra, you have to be able to shout at people to gain respect and explain the “rules”

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