October 2018 - Paceline


By Guest Columnist Martin Rossman

We rely on others riding predictably when we bicycle ride in a group, counting on our fellow cyclists and motorists to know and follow the rules of the road. Same thing when we drive a car, we rely on others to follow the law and the rules of the road. Signaling when passing another vehicle, stopping at red lights and yielding at intersections to the car that got there first are examples of following rules of the road. Some of us just want to point our bicycle down a lonely country road and not interact with other cyclists......no bicycle rules needed. 

This all sounds great, but what happens when we ride in an organized group and want to share the pain of head winds? Fast or slow, we need to be predictable and follow the rules assembled by our founding fathers. The trouble is, riders don’t necessarily know those rules all that well. Riders who ride in different paceline formations usually get the basic idea: follow close behind the cyclist in front of you, without overlapping wheels, and shift off to the side a little if there’s a crosswind. What gets tricky is remembering and obeying the rules about rotating off the lead.

The theory is straightforward: the leader indicates that he or she is moving off the front by wiggling their elbow or tapping their thigh on the side that the next rider should pass on, and then slows slightly and lets the pack pass by, staying to the windward side of everybody and protecting them from the wind while he drifts back. This is easier said than done: wind doesn’t always blow straight at us or straight behind us. In fact, there’s almost always a sideways component (or a bit of crosswind), and we need to notice which way the wind’s coming from and agree about which is the windward side. AND we’re turning and going in different directions, depending on the route that we’re following, so what was the correct echelon formation when we were headed north probably won’t be the correct formation when we turn east. AND this is not a situation where it’s OK to be a rugged individualist and just do it any old way that seems best to you: the whole group needs to be on the same page about dealing with the wind and running a paceline, especially the issue of which side to fall back on. Otherwise someone is going to come drifting back on the side where others are actively drafting, and there’s more likelihood of people getting bollixed up in each other’s paths and causing accidents.

Here’s some simple hints about figuring out which way the wind is blowing:

  1. Look at the weather forecast right before you leave on your ride, and see what it says about wind direction and speed
  2. Pay attention to flags and windsocks—they accurately show the wind direction
  3. If you’re out riding near the windmills, remember that the 3 big arms of the windmill face in the direction that the wind is coming from
  4. Before you get on your bike to take off, try putting your finger out after dampening it a little to feel which way the wind’s blowing from
  5. If you’re trying to figure out a crosswind, pay attention to which side of your face or which arm or shoulder is getting more wind.
  6. Ask someone else in the paceline which way they think the wind’s coming from

If there’s a side component to the wind, don’t just ignore it and say “it doesn’t matter.” Consistency and predictability are the issue, as well as protecting each other from the wind. If you’re responsible for the group, tell people when they’re on the wrong side--it’s in the interest of the group to tell them, “hey, you need to be on the center line when you’re leading because the wind’s coming from the left,” or whatever. 

I am not an expert, but I do have 12 years of experience riding, entering as many as 40 + races annually and riding competitively in criteriums, road and track competition events. I took up cycling at 15 years of age. My first bike was a Raleigh Grand Prix, and I entered my first competition at age 16, when I also joined the United States Cycling Federation (USCF). Most of my competitions took place in the Midwest, but I also traveled to the East and West
Coast. Soon after the Major Taylor Velodrome was built I purchased my first and only track bike and spent many evenings under the bright lights of the Velodrome. To hone my skills as a competitive cyclist I did a number of training camps, most of them several weeks in duration, that were organized by the Raleigh Pro Team, the dominating team at that time. Eventually I joined a team in Bloomington, Indiana. Our sponsor was Noble Romans Pizza. The money I earned was enough to pay for gas, food and accommodations. Towards the end of my competitive cycling career I rode in Category 1 and rode several Pro-Am races. 

I’m now 63 years old, and recently had both hips replaced with titanium. I no longer have the speed or endurance that I had in my twenties. But after all these years, cycling is part of my life style, and it's rare for me to leave my bicycle at home when I travel. Though I am not an expert with respect to cycling lore, my experience has taught me that
predictability equals a safer ride. There are rules about how to ride in pacelines, but they only work when everybody knows what the rules are and follows them. Otherwise the group is likely to get disorganized or someone is likely to rotate on the wrong side, and the cooperative endeavor of riding together in the wind becomes unpredictable and unsafe.

I am human, and I make mistakes--and in my experience, people make mistakes about the direction the wind is coming from pretty frequently; it requires focus, concentration, and communication to make sure everybody is on the same page. What I can tell you is my 12 years of experience with competitive cycling is something I will always remember, and I feel I can pass some of my cycling experiences along to anybody who wants to listen. I have included some documentation of the rules of the road with respect to pacelines. (These were published in the Wabash River Cycle Club newsletter in February 2008, and are originally from John S. Allen’s Bicycling Street Smarts.)
These are not obvious and may seem complicated. The bottom line is, if there’s one lesson you should take away from this Paceline, it’s to always pay attention to the direction the wind is coming from and drop back on the windward side.

Rubber side down,

Written by WRCC on Friday October 5, 2018

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