Riding in a paceline

by Jørn Yngve Dahl-Stamnes

Last modified: Wednesday the 01. of September, 1999
Much has been and will be written about the theory behind the paceline and how to ride in one. Some may have other opinions about this than I have. But this information is based on the way we (the team I ride with) rides in a paceline during training and long races.

Why should I ride in a paceline?

Riding in a paceline is the best way to save energy, which let you increase your speed without using more energy. This is very usefull when doing longer rides together with other riders. And there is also the social aspect, it is much more fun to ride together with other than riding on your own. For me it is boring to ride on my own on longer rides (a few hours is OK). So if you want to take a longer ride, try to get some of your friends with you. Depending on how many you are, you can ride in a single or in a double paceline.

Single paceline

Single paceline A single paceline

In a single paceline all are riding after each other, as shown in the figure above. When the front rider (1, the puller) has been pulling for a time, he/she need to go back to the end of the line. This is done by moving out of the line and reduce the speed a bit (see figure below). The line will slowly pass him/her. When at the end of the line, he/she move into the line again and adjust the speed to the same as the line.

In a single paceline, only the front riders face the full effect of the wind resistance. The rider will create a wind drag, which the following riders can draft in and in this way save energy. The closer the second rider is the front rider, the more energy the rider saves. The wind drag can be reduced by 30 - 40% by being the second rider depending on how closly they draft [1]. A single paceline is used when 5 - 6 or fewer are riding together, e.g. in a team time trial.

Double paceline

If there is enough riders in a long single paceline, it can be cut into two groups. And when the two groups ride side by side, where one of the lines rides a bit faster than the other line, then you have a double paceline. A double paceline is more energy efficient than a single paceline (assuming that there are enough riders in the two lines). The problem with a single paceline is that when the front rider has done his/her part of the work and want to go back to the end of the line to rest, he/she face full wind resistance while going back. In a double paceline, all you do when you are finished with your part of the work, is to move from the fast line to the slow line. Soon after, the next rider will do the same and then you have a rider in front of you, and you save energy. The time you are in front of the slow line is much shorter than the time you would have been using if you was going back in a single paceline.

Double paceline A double paceline

A double paceline looks like in the figure above. The line closest to the side of the road (rider 1 to 5) is riding a bit faster than the other line. It may be opposit depending of the wind direction. If the wind is comming from one of the sides, the slow line should face the wind so that the wind drag is kept to a minimum. The riders in the slow line will then use a bit more energy, but the riders in the fast line will save more than the slow line is using extra.

A rider in a double paceline will change position more often than in a single paceline. As soon as the back wheel of front rider 1 (the puller) in the fast line are clear of the front wheel of the front rider 10 in the slow line, he/she moves over to the slow line and slow down (without using the brakes). And when rider 6 is behind rider 5, he/she shift from the slow to the fast line and slowly accelerate to get the same speed as the fast line.

When in a double paceline, you do not pull as long as in a single paceline. The rule of thumb is that you shall not get exhausted before you move over the the slow line. Typical is 10 to 15 seconds hard work. The most efficient way of doing this is to do it smooth; you pull, you move over the the slow line, and you slow down a bit.

Double paceline and long slow distance

If the riders in a double paceline are doing long slow distance training (LSD training), they do not need to change as often as they would do when going fast. Since the effort in general is lower, the front riders may pull the paceline for a longer time. This can be done by locking the paceline for several minutes before changing position. And when they change position, both front riders go back as shown in the figure below.

Double LSD paceline A double LSD paceline

The rider will benefit from this type of riding in several ways:

The problem is that the paceline occupy more of the road when the two front riders what to draft to the back of the line. But if there isn't much traffic on the road, it should not be any problem chaning this way. Before changing, the riders should take a look behind and check if it is safe to do the change.

Hills and double pacelines

When going up a long steep hill, the speed will reduce and the wind resistance will be less, unless there is a strong headwind. Under these circumstances, the riders can lock a double paceline, which mean that they don't rotate anymore. This will not exhaust the pullers, since the speed is low and most of the energy is used to get up the hill and not to overcome the wind resistance. The drag force for the first rider is not much more than for the following riders when the speed is low (less than 15 km/h [1]).

Keeping a close distance to the rider in front of you may not always be safe. Sometimes the distance has to be increased, like when going down a hill in high speed or when riding on a rough road with potholes. Many new riders find it difficult and thinks it dangerous to ride closely after another rider. For most of the riders, the fear will disappear after some time when you know that you can trust the one in front of you. And trust is the keyword - you must trust that the other riders don't do anything stupid, such as applying the brakes too hard.

There are several errors that a rider can do when in a double paceline. These are all kind of errors that will cause more energy to be used (and the race time to go up). A serious error may also cause a crash for one or more riders. And the larger the number of riders get, an error in front of a line will grow through the line. Some of the most common errors when riding in a double paceline are:

The more you practise the better you get. The most important thing is that you should ride together with friends (team-mates) so that you can get to know you cycling buddies better. Then you know how they ride in the line and they know how you ride. Some advices:

When a paceline becomes large, it may be a problem for one rider to give a message to all the other riders, e.g. when the front rider has to warn the other riders about something dangerous ahead. Shouting a message may not be the best way; the last rider will probably not hear him/her. Therefore signals are much better because when the front rider use them, the signal is visibly for all the riders in the paceline. In Norway we got some few common signals. A rised arm (straigt up) means that I'm gonna brake because there is an obstruction, an intersection or whatever ahead. Left or right turn is shown by a arm to the left or right. If the paceline have to pass other riders, a parked car or people walking along the road, we wave with our right arm behind our back indicating that we are going to move left to go clear for some kind of obstruction ahead. This signal is, in most cases, only visible for a few riders behind, so you should pass the signal to the riders behind you.

What should the riders do if one rider get a flat or some another kind of malfunction? First of all, he or she that is in trouble must not hit the brakes and try to stop as fast as possible. There might be other riders behind. When you get a flat, shout out that you must stop to change tube or tire and the slowly stop while steering out of the paceline (to the right or to the left depending on which line you are in). What about the rest of the group? If the group are training, there are no reason not to stop and wait until the flat is fixed. It's nice to get help from your friends when changing a flat, and it saves time. But what if it is competition and not a training? This is among the things that your team must agree about before the race. My teams policy is that on long races (more than 200km, like the Great Trail of Strength), we stop and wait until the problem is fixed before continuing. Somethime the problems can be fixed much faster if one or two team mates help the poor rider with his/her problem. This is what team spirit is all about - helping each other to finish the race together.

Double pacelines and cars

One aspect with the double paceline is the coexistence with the cars. Many drivers will find a double paceline to be (at least) twice as annoying than a single one. They think that the paceline occupy to much of the road and therefore make it harder and more dangerous for the car to pass. The reallity is that a double paceline will be twice as fast to pass for a car the a single one. And on a two lane road (without shoulders), the car must over in the other line in order to pass a paceline, single or double (at least if the car shall do it safely). Therefore, the double paceline is to prefere both for the riders and the drivers.

In Norway, both the traffic authority and the Norwegian Cycling Assosiation advice that everyone, if many enough, shall ride in a double paceline and not a single one. And, if possible, try to keep away from the main roads.


Thanks to Christer Folkesson for making the animations.

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I made this! Jørn Dahl-Stamnes