by Arnie Baker, M.D.
For many, riding with others improves the enjoyment of cycling. In addition, you can learn more about your bicycle from more experienced cyclists. Riding requires safety. Group riding requires a cycling-specific etiquette.
Here are the essentials of bicycling etiquette for group rides:
Basic Road Etiquette
- Ride predictably: straight, without weaving.
- Alert others of a change in direction or speed.
- Look behind before changing line.
- Generally, ride single file.
- Ride no more than two abreast.
- Ride as close to the right as practical.
- Give room for others (vehicles or faster riders) to pass.
- Slow down on bike paths or in urban areas.
- Signal turns.
- Usually, pass on the left.
Etiquette Shouts and Signals
Cyclists everywhere use a common language. Common warning shouts include:
“Passing on your left!” (Common. Most passing should be on the left. Often shortened to “On your left.” Other riders and pedestrians often misunderstand this shout. Sometimes better not to say anything, or a greeting such as “Hello” or “Coming by” and pass.)
“Right turn!” “Left turn!” (Warns of a change in direction. Additionally, use hand signals.)
“On your wheel!” (When you come up behind a rider who may not know that you are there, lets a rider know that you are drafting, and to assume responsibility to ride with road etiquette. Racers often expect this. Do not assume that every cyclist will be happy to have you draft. If you don’t want another to draft you, or if a rider says “No!” or “get off!”— understand the meaning.
“Passing on your right!” (Rare. Often shortened to “On your right.” Other riders and pedestrians often misunderstand this shout. Slower riders and pedestrians are usually startled or discomforted when faster riders pass on the right.)
“Heads up!” (Common warning of nonspecific danger ahead.)
“Watch out!” (Common warning of nonspecific danger ahead.)
“Hole!” “Bump!” “Tracks!” “Dog!” “Glass.” (Common warnings of specific danger ahead. Should be pointed out, too, with a finger.)
“Car door!” (Warning of this common hazard, the opening car door of a parked vehicle.)
“Car back!” “Truck back!” (There is a car or truck approaching from the rear. Sometimes shouted repeatedly in frustration by someone at the back of a group who is aware that the group is impeding a vehicle that wants to pass.)
“Car up!” (There is a car in the bike lane, a car obstructing the road, or a car approaching the group. Often shouted when a large group is taking up most of the lane—and riders on the extreme left of the group are at risk for a head- on collision, or when the group will make a left turn—and the group needs to slow for the approaching car before executing the turn.)
“Stopping!” “Slowing!” Hand-down signal. (Warning to others in the pack to anticipate the speed to decease.)
Riding in the slipstream of others is much easier than riding at the same speed solo. Drafting safely and efficiently behind other riders increases riding speed and pleasure.
Riders often work together in a group—a paceline—alternating the lead.
Drafting is Efficient
Riding behind another rider takes less energy than “breaking the wind.” At 25 mph about 20% less energy is required riding behind another rider when compared to riding on one’s own. Your speed may pick up 5 to 10 mph.
How Pacelines Work
Imagine five riders riding across the page:
E D C B A
Rider A, finishing a turn at the front, swings to the left, slows down, and rider B takes the lead. Rider A drops in behind rider E.
A E D C B
Shortly thereafter rider B does the same thing.
B A E D C
and so on.
- Keep consistent effort.
- Pull slightly harder downhill; ease up slightly uphill.
- Close gaps gradually.
- Count pedal strokes to keep steady rhythm, and take pulls of similar duration.
Group Riding Principles
Certain principles apply when riding in a pack of riders. These principles are vital to the safety of the group and its members. Learn them and you’ll be welcome in the paceline. Learn how to ride with a group of riders at moderate speed. You’ll be able to better anticipate what happens when riding in fast packs.
No Sudden Moves
Don’t suddenly turn right, left, speed up, slow down. It is inefficient and dangerous.
Riders new to pacelines feel the need to show they can keep up. Some work harder and speed up at the front. This is wrong. The front rider relinquishing the lead moves over to the side and then slows down, slightly. The rider assuming the lead does not speed up, but maintains the same speed.
Give Others a Turn
The idea is not to prove how strong you are by hogging the front, but rather to learn how to work together in a group, ride together, and feel comfortable changing positions. There will be plenty of time to test your strength.
Pull Off in a Consistent Direction
When riding in a group, unless the wind changes, riders will relinquish the lead by “pulling off” either to the left or the right. Whichever way the group is working, pull off the same way.
Indicate When & Where Pulling Off
Indicate physically and orally how and when you will be pulling off.
Use the “chicken wing” indicator. Flap an elbow just before pulling off; flap on the side opposite to which you are moving. In this way, with side winds, the following rider, echeloned to the lee side, will know when the lead rider is pulling off.
Although some riders point to where they will be going with a finger, keeping both hands on the handlebars is safer.
Just before pulling off say: “Pulling off.”
Draft Reasonably Close
Keep as close to the rider in front of you as comfortably and safely as you can. Try to not let “gaps” open.
Ride Close Side-to-Side
When you drop back to rotate, try to ride closely side-by-side as well. This is also much more efficient.
Warn of Road Hazards
Although easiest for riders at the front, all riders should scan the road ahead for hazards. Riders, especially at the back, scan and listen for overtaking vehicles.
If there is plenty of time, everyone can avoid the hazard. If there is not much time to avoid some glass or a hole, it is often safer to ride over the hazard, rather than violate Rule #1 — no sudden moves.
Use Brakes as Little as Possible
Braking wastes the energy you’ve used building up to speed. It is also dangerous for the rider in back of you.
Don’t Exhaust Yourself Pulling Too Long
If you are weaker than the other riders in the group, take the front, but only for a few pedal strokes. Take your turn in front to practice technique and keep the paceline flowing smoothly.
Don’t Handle Water Bottles or Food When Leading
Wait until you’ve pulled off. Also, try to be in the “right gear” and not change gears when you are leading.
Do Not Overlap Wheels
Ride behind the rider in front of you. With a crosswind, experienced racers ride partially to the side of the rider in front of them to help shield them from the wind. If the rider in front of you moves over slightly, and you are overlapping that back wheel, it is your front end that will be unstable, and it is you that will go down.
Yells and Screams
Riders will often yell short commands or advice at you. These “barks” often seem rude and angry. By and large, no meanness is meant. It is just that there seems to be too little time to be full of sentences and explanations. Don’t take yells and screams personally. Empathize with new riders—avoid yells and screams.
Group Safety Plusses and Minuses
In some ways, riding in a group is safer than riding alone. Apart from the safety issue, group riding certainly allows for a faster overall speed and conversation with others.
However, overall, group riding may be more dangerous than riding alone. Much depends upon the particular group.
Group Riding Can Be Safer
- The group may instill a more obey-the-vehicle-code attitude than the individual had before.
- The group may reduce the harassment that individuals, particularly solo women, sometimes face.
- Motorized vehicular traffic may give a group wider berth than a solo rider.
Group Riding Can Also Be More Dangerous
- The group may collectively act in a more dangerous, even reckless manner.
- Motorized vehicular drivers may be more impatient, even hostile, with a group, especially a group that impedes their travel.
- Riders may be encouraged, expressly or subtly, to ride faster than their skills or fitness levels.
- Riders may be pushed to high exertion levels. Riding closer to exhaustion, thinking/processing information may be impaired.
- The required mental focus on group members reduces attention that can be given to other hazards.
- The group might physically impede visibility, making it more difficult for riders behind to keep a lookout for road and other hazards.
- Speed may be higher, increasing needed reaction times.
- Control of the bicycle in a group may require a higher skill level due to other rider proximity as well as speed.
- Legal following distances are less likely to be maintained (may be impossible to maintain).
- Bicycle-bicycle accidents are more common.
- Descending more quickly than one might as a solo rider, accidents are more common.
- Injury severity may be higher with a higher-speed fall.
Dr. Arnie Baker has been coaching since 1987. A professional, licensed USCF coach, he has coached racers to several Olympic Games, more than 120 US National Championships, and 35 US records. He is and has been the only National Cycling Coach for Team in Training. This endurance-training program of more than 800 coaches and 30,000 participants raises more than $80,000,000 each year for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Arnie has a Category 1 USCF racing license. He has held eight US 40-K time-trial records, has won multiple national championships, and has won more than 200 races. An all-round racer, he was the first to medal in every championship event in his district in a single year.
Dr. Baker is a licensed physician in San Diego, California. He obtained his MD as well as a master’s degree in surgery from McGill University, Montreal. He is a board-certified family practitioner. Before retiring to ride, coach, and write, he devoted approximately half of his medical practice to bicyclists. He has served on the fitness board of Bicycling magazine as a bicycling-physician consultant. He has been a medical consultant to USA Cycling and the International Olympic Committee.
Arnie has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 1,000 articles on bicycling and bicycling-related subjects.
Karen Elsken says
Question-When casually riding side by side but wanting to move to a single file, which rider falls to the back and which one takes the lead? I want to be consistent and avoid a discussion each time.
The way we do it, the rider closer to the curb holds their line and their speed, and it is the responsibility of the other rider to move ahead or behind and get in line.
Having this protocol in place and known to all on the ride can save precious seconds in a dangerous situation – there is no time lost trying to figure who makes the move.
Jim Langley says
The risk is one of you assuming you know what the other is about to do. Whoever wants to drop back should say “I’m dropping back.” That way you hold your position and pace and they softpedal, slowing down and tuck behind you.
That might begin a paceline if you guys desire. Then the leader can flick an elbow to signal they’re slowing and dropping back. No need to say anything as long as both riders can “read” the elbow flick signal.
Hope this helps,
Dan Boice says
Probably a dumb question under the “Yells and Screams” rubric: occasionally during an event, I’ll be riding solo and some wheelsucker will lock onto my back tire. I’d like to explain that I’m happy for their company IF (and only if) they’ll take turns pulling. Is there a succinct way to convey this?
Jim Langley says
I will carefully slow a bit and move over to let them come alongside. At that point I ask, “do you want to work together?”
From their answer I decide what to do. I’m happy to pull a rider who’s tired and needs help as long as needed. And hopefully if a rider chased me down they’re strong enough to do some of the work. I’ve also had stronger riders pass me, see I’m suffering and offer to tow me home too.
Hope this helps,
I don’t like to behind riders that pedal, stop pedaling, pedal, stop pedaling, pedal and on and on. Soft pedal when pulling closer the rider in front of you.
If I don’t want someone on my wheel, I’ll slow down or motion for him to pass. But normally I don’t care.
Bruce Braley says
Two points that popped up as I read:
First, under the headings “Paceline Hints”, the first point is to keep a consistent effort. Below that, under “Be Smooth”, it says that some riders work harder and speed up at the front. The rider assuming the lead does not speed up, but maintains the same speed.
The reason this is such a difficult skill to attain, in my opinion, is because while one should not speed up when the lead rider drops back, one must increase effort. The amount of increase varies perhaps by 20% more or less, depending on the pace and the wind strength, in order to maintain the pace. The change of effort without changing speed is difficult for new riders (and some experienced ones) to get dialed in, and as mentioned, they tend to err on the side of going faster, rather than slowing.
So keeping a consistent speed, rather than a consistent effort, is what is required. Easier said than done! If we are to help new riders to become smooth paceline riders, we need to make the challenge clear to them. It also helps for the rider immediately behind them to politely let them know that they slowed a bit or speeded up a bit when they assumed the lead so that they can get valuable feedback as they learn.
Second, under “Group Riding Can Also Be More Dangerous”, the seventh bullet point says, “Speed may be higher, increasing needed reaction times.” What is intended, if the point is to make sense, is, “Speed may be higher, decreasing needed reaction times.” More clearly, “Speed may be higher, requiring reaction times to be quicker.”
Thanks again to the author for providing this comprehensive list of reminders! I’ve gotten rusty on some of these, myself, as COVID and my circumstances have greatly reduced the amount of riding I’ve been able to to in groups the last few years.
In some packs I ride with, all ride pretty much exactly behind or in the wheel tracks of the rider in front. In other packs, all ride slightly offset, i.e. 2nd wheel rides a couple of inches outside the track of first wheel, then third wheel is exactly behind first wheel, fourth behnd second, etc. The logic here is an extra second or so to take evasive action if needed andavoid a mass pile-up..
What are your thoughts here.
The lead should be responsible to clear the path when necessary. One day, while riding on a bike path on a small group, the lead stopped suddenly without warning nearly causing a collison at the back of the pack. He stopped suddenly because a rider going the opposite direction decided to pass. Our lead should have called out to the passer to stay in his lane.
Philip Lizee says
This tip is unpleasant. When group riding or others are close by, spit down and to your right, not out and to your left. I believe we know what happens when out and to your left.