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Race-craft: Mastering the Paceline

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

The exhilarating and addictive act of bike racing stretches skills, stamina, strategy and sheer nerve to the maximum. Like a worn-out chain, any weak link can cause a snap.


Riding efficiently in a paceline is one skill every ambitious cyclist must master. Comprising a close-knit string of riders, a paceline is the formation professionals slot into as a natural reflex; collaborating with rivals to set up their bid for victory. At the Tour de France, each day’s breakaway will slot into a smooth rotation to build a buffer over the peloton, where another paceline will dictate the chase. When the favourites attack the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, riders like Wout van Aert and Lotte Kopecky will form a full-throttle, high-stakes paceline on the following section of asphalt. If the group unites, they can bury the chances of any rivals caught behind.


Masters of the paceline are rewarded for their experience, poise, quick thinking and communication with a significant advantage in speed and energy conservation. The consequences of dodgy technique can be catastrophic in terms of defeat or missing skin.


In this post, we will explore the essential do’s and don’ts of the paceline effectively. Apply them to maximise your race-day performance and increase your chances of victory.


Positioning

From kilometre zero, it's crucial to hold position near the front of the peloton. Riding up-front allows you to join or create a strong paceline early, avoiding potential congestion and crashes deeper in the bunch. Establishing a good position offers you influence upon paceline dynamics, allowing you to anticipate and react to changes in pace.


Trust team-mates

If you’re racing with teammates, try to establish a cohesive group within the larger peloton. Trust and familiarity are paramount to the efficiency and effectiveness of a paceline. Rely on the skills and abilities of your teammates, knowing they will maintain position, communicate and execute the pre-agreed strategy. This trust allows you to ride more confidently, focus on your performance and work harmoniously towards collective goals.

VIDEO: Chris Froome and Peter Sagan break away at the Tour de France with a team-mate each, chased by a hungry peloton. Heavy-metal pacelines!


Communication is key

Communication is vital within a race paceline. Use hand signals, verbal cues, or prearranged signals to indicate your movements or highlight upcoming obstacles. Alert your teammates of any changes in pace, road conditions or approaching turns. A coordinated and informed paceline can anticipate and minimise disruptions to its all-important rhythm.


Stay cool!

Consistency is crucial in a race paceline. Avoid abrupt accelerations or decelerations that can disrupt the flow and open unnecessary gaps between riders. Don’t “kick through” when it’s your turn to face open road. Swapping smoothly conserves energy and maintains an effective draft. Maintain a steady rhythm that challenges your competitors while ensuring everyone can contribute when they roll onto the front. Jumpy or nervous riding in the paceline will only disrupt the flow and irk your collaborators. Keep your hands relaxed, cadence smooth and eyes up.


Practice drafting

Drafting effectively is the No.1 energy-saving method in your toolbox. A rider like Mark Cavendish is a sensei-level master of this skill – squatting low over his bars, elbows tucked and front-wheel positioned within an inch of the tyre he’s following to maximise shelter from wind resistance. Ensure you are in the optimal draft zone, around one-to-two feet (30-60 centimetres) from the wheel ahead – but don’t overlap! Maintain constant awareness of the rider in front’s movements, body language and pedalling to anticipate changes in pace or direction. Develop this and it will become instinctive. Soon you’ll be reading the movements of riders further up the string from a glance.


Rotation strategy

In a race paceline, riders swap turns at the front to share the workload and stay fresh. Establish a pattern that suits the abilities and strengths of your team. Typically riders will take shorter, intense pulls at the front, allowing them to recover in the draft. A team-mate working to support a designated leader might do longer stints up-front, while pacelines comprising fewer members require longer turns from each rider.


Stay vigilant

Riding in a race paceline demands unwavering focus and adaptability. Be aware of your surroundings, including the movements and potential strategies of others. Be on-guard for attacks, changes in pace or potential hazards on the road. Cooperation in the paceline could degenerate into a free-for-all at any moment! Flexibility and quick thinking are crucial to staying abreast of the ever-changing landscape of a race.

 

Joining or forming a paceline amid the hectic unpredictability of race conditions can hand you a competitive edge; increasing your speed and conserving energy. Mastering the art of riding in a race paceline requires effective communication, awareness, bravery, trust in teammates and adaptability.


By putting these tips into your race-day toolbox and practising them on training rides, you'll experience the exhilaration of a well-executed paceline and increase your chances of success. Stay focused, communicate clearly and enjoy the thrill!

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