The Art of the Group Ride

If you are new to group riding, then there are some fundamentals you may not have had a chance to see or learn. The first thing to do is familiarize yourself with group riding etiquette. Once you’ve got that down, you’re ready to learn the two key components that make riding in a group so much fun: drafting and riding in a paceline.

Let’s start with drafting.

If you were given 20-30% off something you were planning to purchase, wouldn’t you take it?  Welcome to the beauty of drafting! Drafting is when one cyclist rides closely enough to the rider in front of her to enjoy the benefit of that first rider breaking the wind. Rider two is sitting in the draft or ‘slipstream’ of the first rider which reduces her drag and can mean a savings of 20-30% in effort to keep the same speed as the first rider. Immediate discount. Sign me up!

The first rider in the line is said to be “pulling”—as in “pulling the group behind her.” Typically that rider is working the hardest in the group since everyone behind her is benefiting from the draft. We’ll come back to this first rider pulling later.

If you are comfortable drafting and are confident that the rider in front of you is a steady wheel, then you will benefit from the greatest amount of wind resistance by having your front wheel just a few inches behind the rider’s rear wheel.  If that close distance seems a bit daunting, do not worry. You can be up to a wheel length behind and still save energy. Beyond that, however, you begin to lose the benefit of the draft.

There will be times when the rider ahead of you may seem stronger and a gap opens up between you and her and the group may seem to pull away. In this case do your hardest to ‘close the gap’ and hang onto that wheel. You will find that the effort you do by yourself trying to keep up will be much harder than when you are drafting someone else’s wheel.

If the pace feels as though it has picked up and you think you can no longer hold on to the wheel in front of you, then it is perfectly fine to ask the rider to “ease up” or let them know that you may be falling behind by saying “gapping.” That will signal to the rider directly in front of you that they need to slow the pace. If you are towards the end of the line, then the “ease up” or “gapping” message needs to make it’s way up to the first rider in the line who is pulling, so everyone in the group knows what is needed in order to keep the group together.

Since we have addressed that your group ride may include several riders, let’s talk about being a steady wheel in the line.

Always be pedaling.
Always be pedaling.

That is in there twice as a reminder of how important it is to constantly be spinning your pedals when you are in a paceline. When you coast or do not have a steady cadence it signals to the rider behind you that you may be planning to do something—like stopping, turning, taking a selfie, who knows! The point is, it means the rider behind you does not know what your next move is, so they will likely let the gap open up between your wheel and her wheel so she’s able to react to your next surprise move.  You have no surprise move, you say?  Well then the rider behind you will eventually figure that out and close the gap, but the consequence to that will be a bit of speed change behind her.  This creates what is called an “accordion affect” in the line where the line is choppy and the speed is inconsistent as everyone is trying to adjust to what they think is happening in front of them.

Along the way someone may suggest the group paceline.

If you are riding a long distance and you do not want to make it an all-day affair, this is a smart idea.  It means that the entire group will ride faster and will have worked less to get to the finish.  Work less, get more faster? Yes, please!

We addressed earlier the first person in the line who is “pulling.” Typically there will be a leader of a group ride who takes that spot when first pulling out for a ride.  This means you will not be in the front and will give you time to assess the speed of the group.  When everyone is riding along in the paceline, take a look at the speed you are going.  Generally this is the speed you will want to maintain when it is your time to be at the front pulling the group.

When you are second in line, the front person will likely flick their elbow out—which is a signal to you that they are about to ‘pull off’ and they want you to pull up to lead.  Here are some key things to keep in mind when pulling:

  1. Keep the pace.  Your first job as the leader is to maintain the speed that the group had been going before you got to the front of the line.  No one likes a show-off who increases the speed just to show how strong they are.  The point of group riding is showing how good you are at keeping everyone together.
  2. Watch your line.  The ‘line’ is the sliver of road you are leading the entire group behind you through.  You want that line to be straight—it’s no fun trying to follow someone who’s swerving left and right!  Also look way ahead of you so you are able to carefully avoid any obstacles in the road (potholes, branches, grates, etc.).  When you see an obstacle in the distance, look back quickly to insure there are no cars or moving vehicles behind you in the road, then start to steer the entire line carefully around that obstacle. If the obstacle is very close to you and the line, point it out with either a hand motion or vocal call.
  3. Maintain a steady effort.  Generally this means easy up and hard down.  This is a common mistake riders of all talents make.  A group ride is about keeping the group together. So if you are a strong climber, resist the urge to show your talent in a group ride and instead shift to an easier gear and spin everyone up the climb with you.  Guaranteed you will get more kudos for knowing to do this than if you power up the climb dropping everyone in your wake.  Descending has a similar but opposite principle.  In order to keep everyone behind you, you will have to put out an extra effort descending to keep the pace fast enough that the riders behind you—who are benefitting from your draft—are not having to ride their brakes on the descent.
  4. Short pulls. Yes, pulling is a harder effort than sitting in the line, but this is not martyr time.  No need to expend all your energy with a long pull.  By doing so, you will likely get tired, then your pace will slow, then the line slows…and now the genius of riding in a paceline is lost.  Also, unless you are in some ridiculous line of 100 riders only going 10 miles, you will get another chance to pull as the line rotates back to you being in that top position.  When you get there again remember points 1-4 above.

There are several types of pacelines.  The most basic one is pictured above on the left. In this picture, the rider in the white jersey has pulled off the front of the line and is in the process of moving to the back of the line behind the rider in the red jersey.

If you are the rider in white, then your pace should be slightly slower than it was when you were pulling so that the line of riders naturally passes you.  But only slightly slower, do not lose too much speed or the whole group will fly right past you!

As you are nearing the back, the last rider will say “end” or “last”—this is your signal to pedal a bit faster because this last rider is about to pass you and you want to be at her speed so it is easiest to catch back on to her wheel.

In the middle picture you see a double paceline. This is ideal for larger groups. In this scenario there are two ways for riders to pull off.  If there is enough room on the road to ride four across briefly, the two riders in front will pull off to the outsides of the lines (left rider pulling left and right rider pulling right).  If the road is narrower, the group would choose to rotate either clockwise or counter clockwise—usually clockwise so riders are rotating away from traffic.  This allows for riders to pull through the group without having to widen the stance of the group on the road.

The last image on the right shows the group riding in what is called an echelon. This formation allows the group to not only benefit from the draft of riders in front of them, but it also creates a wall of protection against a strong cross-wind that the group may have encountered.

When all riders in a group are able to draft and work in various pacelines, the result is magic. The entire group gets where they are going faster and more efficiently, but what is more fun is getting that kind of groove on together with a group of women who also love the art of a great ride.

Alexa Wilson

Once the cycling bug bit me, I realized there was no better way to see the world, meet interesting people who would never otherwise cross your path, or spend your waking hours. Together, let's ride!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *