It was great receiving so much feedback to our paceline safety (and whose responsibility is it, anyway?) story last week. Thanks! You raised some interesting points and even made us laugh, with a hilarious Seinfeld snippet on YouTube titled "George and the Pigeons." Worth watching if you missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPCZtrac-Ss High five to David Pybus for posting that!
I’ll respond with a few more thoughts on your comments today. Then, next week, I’ll reply with tips for those who brought up additional chain drop and front derailleur issues, since that’s a hot topic, too.
Just say “no” to pacelines!?
Let’s start by looking at a common theme across many of the comments; namely, that pacelines are so dangerous it’s better to just say no to them. This immediately made me think of pacelines in century rides. One of the most popular in California is the Davis Double Century, which has taken place in and around Davis, California, the third Saturday of May every year since 1969. http://davisdoublecentury.org/
The tagline of the Davis Double is “Ride 200 miles in one day,” and over the years that challenge has brought out every level of cyclist, from endless UC Davis students in cutoffs and T-shirts, on a dare, simply trying to make the finish even if they have to pedal literally all night long; to superstars, like Calvin Trampleasure, who in 1982, crushed it in 8 hours and 28 minutes, a couple ticks off 25mph (40.2 kph)!
Hard to avoid pacelining in big group rides
Pacelining was a fact of life in the nine Davis Doubles I lined up for during the 1980s and 90s. You almost didn’t have a choice because back then they had an official 5:30 a.m. starting time and accepted 1,500 riders (that’s been cut to 1,000 today). Plus, for many miles the course was pancake flat and without wind. If you wanted to ride solo it wouldn’t last long because you’d still have people who liked your pace forming pacelines behind you.
Plus, when a giant ride like that, with hundreds of riders packed like sardines across the road, leaves the starting line all together, the pull and free speed from those accelerating ahead is one of the most seductive experiences in cycling. The noise is awesome as the wheels start to sing, then whine and everyone shifts into higher and higher gears.
Thanks to that amazing phenomenon, I once made it halfway in 4 and a half hours by hanging with a large paceline, which was one of my best Davis rides ever. But over the years I witnessed paceline mayhem, too. One of the most impressive (or terrifying) was when I was the first rider on a single bike drafting five tandems that were trading pulls like clockwork.
If you’ve ever drafted a tandem, you know it’s one of the freest rides you can get. Well, when you add four more bikes and eight more engines, you almost don’t have to pedal back there. Unfortunately, as I – and about 15 wheelsuckers just like me – sat in, the lead tandem made a major mistake. They decided to turn left when the route actually went straight ahead. And the confusion caused a tandem pileup, one of the most violent crashes because of the size of the bikes and number of riders; and the only one I’ve ever witnessed (thankfully).
To me, pacelines are still worth the risk
Still, given the choice of pacelining or staying safe – and even considering what happened in my most recent crash – I will keep sitting in and trading pulls. Because it’s just so much more efficient when you’re in a good group.
My favorite example of a “good group” took place during a PAC Tour Desert Camp a few years back. Desert Camp (sometimes jokingly dubbed “dessert camp,” because of how many goodies we eat to stay fueled) is a week of epic rides starting in Tucson, Arizona. It covers hundreds of miles over the week and can tire a person out.
That person with the dead legs was me on one of the last days, when we faced a punishing crosswind and 30 miles of open desert terrain ahead – the exact type of riding scenario that even splinters Tour de France packs. Luckily, a former pro rider named Terry stepped up and saved my day by whipping our small group of five into a perfect echelon.
An echelon is when you fan across the road, the only way you can efficiently protect each other from a crosswind. The lead rider drops back on the windy side of the other riders, and the rider behind him assumes the lead position. As each lead rider drops back, every rider behind gets a little rest as he passes on his way to the back.
Terry took charge and hollered at us if we were pulling too long or not in the best position to protect the riders behind or risking a crash by not holding our line. (You can fan across the road like this safely at Desert Camp because there’s so little traffic.)
The result was one of my most memorable days on a bike because by working together as a team we conquered that headwind and covered those 30 miles easily. And we enjoyed the post-ride ice cream even more!
I’ll give the final word to Kerry Irons, who sounds to me like that former pro Terry who saved me from a long day fighting the Arizona wind by teaching us how to echelon so well. Terry's most important point was that successful pacelines require the cooperation of everyone in the group.
Kerry made similar points [reminder: it was a squirrel that led to the crash I recounted last week]. Kerry wrote: “IMO squirrels and bicycles are like cars and deer – a fact of life. While there is some risk of going down if you hit a squirrel, the overall risk is far greater if you hit the brakes or swerve wildly in a paceline. Just run over that bushy tailed rat!
"I view one of my key responsibilities in a paceline is keeping things smooth. That means that when the person in front of me jumps the speed, I slowly close the gap rather than jumping along with them. And when things are slowing down, I move slightly to the side and catch the wind rather than hitting the brakes. Each of these (and many other) tactics make it easier on those behind me to keep things steady. If everyone in the line takes the same approach, things will be A LOT smoother and therefore more enjoyable and safer for all.”
Jim Langley is RBR's Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He's the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his "cycling aficionado" website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim's streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim's full bio.