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Squirrels are Squishy (and other things that Bicycling magazine didn’t teach you about riding in a paceline)

Since I moved to Orlando in 1979 and started riding with the Florida Freewheelers, I have watched the club grow from one ride on Sunday morning to multiple rides all week long and the Horrible Hundred grow from 10 riders meeting in the Clermont Publix parking lot to 2300 people enjoying a fabulous cycling event at Waterfront Park. One thing that has not changed is the skill and etiquette needed to ride a safe and enjoyable paceline and group ride. Here are a few tips and suggestions to make your ride with the Club better.

 OK, take a deep breath and relax. Ride with your hands comfortably on the brake levers, shoulders loose and a slight bend in your elbows. Riding with your upper body relaxed will do several things: if you hit a pothole, the bike will remain in control. If another rider happens to bump your hand or arm you are not as likely to go careening off the road.

While you are looking down at your handlebars, glance over at your right hand on the brake lever. Put that hand visually between your eye and the white line on the right side of the road. Using your peripheral vision, keep the white line below your hand. You don’t want to stare at the white line, just have your hand on the line, out of the corner of your eye. This will put you in the best spot on the road- about 18 inches from the edge of the pavement and will make you ride a smooth, straight line.

Occasionally a rider will start over on the right side of the lane and slowly drift left toward the center line. They realize they are too far out and suddenly veer right to get back to the white line. This type of sudden movement can be dangerous for riders who are following because they may assume the leader is pulling off. Be predictable and hold your line. By the way, your bike always wants to go straight. You are what makes it go crooked. Don’t believe me? Find a deserted road and ride with your hands off the handlebars (not in the paceline!).

If you are on the front of the group, it is very important to not ride too close to the edge of the road as that is where all the trash and broken pavement lurks. The front rider of a paceline needs to do real heads-up riding. Look far enough up the road for hazards so you can gently move over to avoid them instead of abruptly swerving and yelling. Hold the pace and do not stop pedaling while you are on the front. Remember, there are riders very close behind you.

A common mistake many people make is to sit up and slow a bit right before they pull off. This is quite dangerous as it causes following riders to hit their brakes and possibly the wheel in front of them. At 18 mph, a sudden drop of only 1mph is enough to cause a swerve or crash. When you pull off, don’t back off until you are clear of the front.

Most people pull too long. MILES too long. If you have a group of twenty riders, the pulls should be one minute or less. Here’s why: BOREDOM. How many times have you been stuck in a long line and would give a king’s ransom to be able to tug the knot out of your chamois? Or munch on your Clif bar? Or you just zoned out and found yourself over- lapped on the guy in front of you up to his crank? Many crashes in the paceline are caused by riders that have quit paying attention. They are just following the wheel in front of them. Think about it, if each rider in a 20 bike line pulls 4 miles you will be most of the way through a century before you see something in front of you besides the guy that really should have retired those shorts three years ago. With just a handful of riders, the pulls can be longer.

The closer to the front of the paceline, the easier it is. You will use much less energy pedaling in the third position than the thirteenth because you won’t be fighting the yo-yo’s and weaves. Again, take short pulls so that everyone can work their way up the line.

Experienced riders do not watch the bike directly in front of them. Instead, they are watching the riders three or four bikes up the paceline so they are prepared for what is happening ahead. They also keep close track of what is going on up the road.

If you are second in the line, be ready to pull at any time and stay in a straight line. If the front rider moves over, you simply squeeze power to the pedals and take your pull. Common problems at the front are when the first rider slowly moves to the left and the second rider just blindly follows them. The lead rider slows, thinking that number two will pull through and suddenly number two has to brake hard to miss the wheel of the pulling off rider. The ugly result is lots of swerving, braking and, hopefully no one goes down.

Always take the pull. Even if you are tired, pull through just long enough to clear the rider that just pulled off. Refusing to pull or pulling out of the line when you get close to the front is very disruptive to the paceline and causes confusion. If you are that fried, when you get to the back, stay there and allow pulling off riders to enter the paceline in front of you. Don’t be guilty of doing “death weaves”, which happen when an extremely tired rider is trying desperately to hang on to the wheel in front of them.

Yes, squirrels are stupid, squishy, expendable and biodegradable. If one runs out in front of you, don’t panic and swerve or slam on your brakes. If you hit one, they will squish, but will not likely take you down. Chances are they will just scare a few heartbeats out of you. By nature, they will head whatever direction you go to attempt to miss them. It is not worth getting hurt to miss one.

Bulls, cows, alligators and turkeys have all been encountered on Freewheeler rides over the years. Because they tend to plug up the whole road, riders may have to dismount to get around them. Again, the lead rider in the paceline needs to be looking far up the road for dangers and alert the paceline.

Sand and water in the road is not hazardous unless it is over 1 inch deep. Ride straight ahead and relaxed. A road wet from a sprinkler is not going to crash out a bicyclist. Yes, in turns, you need to be cautious of those hazards. Look ahead!

Back off. Yes, those “ How to ride a paceline” articles say to ride inches off the rear wheel of the rider in front of you, but for the sake of safety, add a few more. It will give a bit of wiggle room to react to the movement of the paceline and let you relax.

You may notice that no mention is made of the constant bleating of “car up”, “car back” or any of the other overly used “warnings”. Riders need to use their eyes and ears to keep track of traffic and road hazards and not depend on someone at the back of the paceline screaming “car up”. Be responsible for your own safety. Pay attention to what is going on around you on the road.

Ride safe and have fun.

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