Group Riding Etiquette for Randonneurs

Especially for PBP aspirants, this brevet season is a good time to practice safely and enjoyably riding in or near large groups of other cyclists. Group riding — drafting, pacelining, and just plain riding in the proximity of others — is, like other cycling skills, best learned through practice and repetition.

Some randonneurs may think they don’t need these skills. They ride their own ride, and they never ride in groups.  At PBP, this is impossible. The mass starts involve many hundreds of riders bunched within minutes of each other.  Even those taking the free start times will, at some point, have to navigate around others.

Even outside of PBP, brevets are mass-start events.  Some 200Ks can see over 100 registered riders.  Riding safely in the proximity of others, no matter their number, is important to your and everyone else’s safety.

Here are some tips on group riding essentials for randonneurs:

Group Riding in General

1. BE PREDICTABLE.  Every group riding skill and rule is an offshoot of this one.

2. Signal intentions. Let other riders and drivers know your intentions. Point in the direction you’re turning and vocalize it beforehand (Americans, please discard the bent left arm for a right turn; it’s increasingly rare here and is not widely used elsewhere).  Your words might prevent a nearby sleepy or distracted rider from causing a crash.

3. Announce hazards. When there are other riders near you, especially close behind you, announce road hazards to them.  Say something — preferably what the hazard is — and point out the hazard.  If someone ahead of you announces a hazard and points, then do the same thing automatically.  Don’t wait to verify the information for yourself.  Trust them.  Do what they do.  If you don’t trust the people you’re riding close behind, then do not ride close behind them. Period.

4. Overtake other riders safely and politely.  If you are overtaking another rider let him or her know it.  Announce your approach.  The idea is to let the rider know you’re there.  You might ride a straight line as smooth as silk, but never assume the person you’re overtaking can or will.  Your move to the left to overtake should be made gradually, well in advance of the overtaken rider, and with full knowledge of what is behind you.  (If you have a mirror, do NOT rely solely on it.  You must look, too.)  Causing a faster rider or group to alter pace so you can make your pass is a faux pas.  Many outside the United States are used to rigid lane discipline and they cycle the same way.  At PBP, “à gauche” is roughly “on your left” in French and it’s a good default call-out.

5. Similarly, keep to the right of the lane, unless overtaking another rider.

6. That said, do not weave about the road. Bobbing in and out of a lane of parked cars, for example, is a sure way to get crashed out.  Maintain a steady speed in a straight line.

7. Pass on the left, if at all possible.  At PBP, give riders known to be from countries that drive of the left (the U.K., Japan) additional time to move right.  They’re not used to it; some may move left when you announce, “à gauche.”

8. Make no sudden or unannounced moves.  Oftentimes the best course of action (meaning, the least bad!) is to strike the stick/pothole/roadkill/whatever-it-is that suddenly appears inches from your front wheel rather than attempt unplanned, radical evasive maneuvers that might end up putting you into a pitch-over fall, chopping another’s wheel, or result in your striking the object anyway, but doing so off-balance and with a turned front wheel.  A flat is easier to fix than missing teeth.

9. Do not overlap wheels.  When riding near others, ride beside them and even with them, or ride far enough behind them so that any sudden moves on their part (or yours!) will not cause your wheels to touch.  The rear rider will likely go down in such a collision (as may others behind that person).  The responsibility for not overlapping wheels belongs to the trailing rider.  If you are in a disorganized cluster of riders and overlapped with another rider or otherwise unsure if a rider nearby knows you are in her blind spot, announce your presence.  Do not be offended if someone lightly touches or pats your hip, leg, or butt. That’s a common signal for “I’m here,” letting you know that a rider is overlapped with you.

10. Eat, drink, stretch, check what’s behind you, and adjust clothing without changing your line or your pace.  If you cannot do these things smoothly, then it is your responsibility to do them well away from other riders.  If fidgeting with your stuff causes others to slow or swerve, you are exhibiting poor road citizenship.

11. Lights.  If you are in a paceline at night and you are not pulling, turn your headlight to the lowest possible setting.  Otherwise you put the lead riders in their own shadow which is discourteous and potentially dangerous.  Even consider turning off your main light and running only the “be seen” back-up when in the pack.  If you have multiple taillights and can easily shut all but one of them off, please do so.  Make sure your lights are aimed correctly.  Remember that flashing lights of any kind are forbidden on PBP (and on rides organized by Central Florida Randonneurs).  If you feel that you need to be lit up like a Christmas tree in the middle of a paceline, then being in a paceline at night is not for you.

12. Headphones/earpieces.  Even if they’re not illegal (they are most places in the US), they’re not a good idea, especially in groups, and especially on randonnées where you should expect a significant number of riders — including yourself — to be tired or distracted under the best of circumstances.  A rider cannot hear what’s going on around him as well if he has music or a podcast of This American Life going.  Yes, even with one earbud in.  Yes, even if they’re those fancy noise-reducing Bose ones.

Riding in a Paceline

Some riders might want to go fast(er) or conserve energy and, therefore, want to work together with others to set pace and break the wind.  Intentionally drafting others has its own set of skills and generally and internationally observed rules, in addition to those listed above. Like most rules, they can be bent and broken, but the vast majority of the time you’ll want to observe them.  Here are some additional considerations for pacelining:

1. Be smooth.  This is the “be predictable” rule on steroids.  No sudden or unexpected turns, stops, accelerations, or movements within or off the front of the paceline.  If you come into contact with another rider, do not react suddenly.  It happens.  People can bump into each other (usually shoulders or handlebars) and so long as no one freaks out or reacts suddenly, no one will get hurt.

2. Relax.  Riding steady in a straight line can only happen if you are relaxed on the bike: loose grip on the bars; supple upper body; smooth pedal stroke.  Being relaxed also saves a lot of energy.

3. Change positions correctly.  Moving around in a paceline smoothly and predictably, without upsetting the pace of the group or of any other rider, is key.

4. Pulling.  When you come to the front of the line, do not change the pace for any reason.  If you want to show off, the best way to do it is to take a long turn at the front, but keep the effort constant.  Similarly, when you end your turn at the front, do not slow down.  Pull off to the side while maintaining the pace as you signal to the rider behind you that she’s now responsible for pulling.  The signal varies, but is typically a flick of your elbow or a waving/pointing motion with your hand.  Only then do you gradually decrease your speed as you retreat to the end of the line.  Think of it this way: don’t slow down until you are out of the paceline.  Make sure you resume the pace of the group as you reach the end of the line or it will be difficult to get back on!  For this reason, it’s good form if you are last in the line to announce to others, as they drift past you toward the rear, that you are the last rider so that they can increase their pace and smoothly take the position behind you.

5. There are two schools of thought on pulling off the front of a paceline.  Those with a racing background will pull off on the windward side.  This is because in a crosswind, the line should not be straight, but angled leeward of the lead cyclist.  The rider who completed her pull gives an additional wind break to the others by remaining on the windward side during her movement rearward.  Others maintain that for safety reasons you should always pull off to the right (away from traffic).  For PBP, the best course is to pull off on the same side as the group has been rotating.  It’s just like passing the stuffing at Thanksgiving: Pass it in the same direction it was traveling when it got to you, even if that direction is “wrong.”

6. When pulling in hilly or rolling terrain, keep a constant effort, not a constant speed.  You’ll want to smooth out speed changes as you encounter different pitches, but once the transition is made, keep the effort the same.  On hills, gaps may form.  If a gap is opening in front of you and you cannot or do not want to close it, say so — “Gap!” — and get out of the way, preferably to the right.  This permits riders behind you to close the gap as efficiently as possible.  The group may wait for those who were contributing to the pacemaking and ride on without those who were not.

7. Karl Marx loves pacelines.  From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.  If you’re not strong enough or are too tired to pull, then don’t.  No one will be offended.  Either immediately rotate off to the side when you arrive at the front (known as “pulling through”) or stay near the back of the group, open a gap, and let the stronger cyclists pull in front of you instead of having them go to the back of the line.  If you can contribute to the pacemaking, put a deposit in the karma bank and do so.

8. Don’t leave stragglers.  If an established group becomes momentarily separated — typically at an intersection — as a matter of courtesy, those in the lead group should soft pedal until the rest have rejoined.

9. Look down the road, even if you can’t see it.  Learn to “read” developments as they occur several riders ahead of you, which will help you be smooth.  If you stare at the guy in front of you or his wheel, your reactions will be sudden (and maybe not sudden enough!).  With practice you can tell how far you are off a wheel without looking at it.

10. Descend correctly.  This is the “keep a constant effort” rule on steroids.  The person pulling must overcome greater wind resistance with increased speed and the following riders will accelerate faster because drafting is more effective as speed increases.  For both reasons, the person pulling must continue to work at the front to keep the group from bunching up.  A lead rider who coasts downhill commits a breach of etiquette, and an especially bad one in PBP’s rolling terrain.  It is frustrating to brake down a descent (the result of a leader who coasts) only to work hard to climb the next pitch, which could have been cleared with minimal effort had the leader kept pedaling.  Similarly, riders in the pack must space out to compensate for the greater effects of drafting.  Learn to “brake” without using the brakes by sitting up to catch more wind or moving slightly to the side, out of the draft.

11. If you’re not comfortable drafting someone, for whatever reason, then get out of there.  Ride alone.  Find another group.  Take responsibility for the safety of your own ride.  You’ve got poor standing to complain about getting crashed out by a squirrely rider when you knowingly sat on his wheel.  What did you think would happen?

12. It is poor form to attach yourself to someone’s wheel unannounced, proceed to draft, and then take off up the road.  Announce you’re there.  Offer to do some work.  If you cannot work, ask to sit in.  Most riders are fine with this, if they know you are there.  Thank the rider for the pull.

Last updated: 23 May 2012