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Group Riding

I saw an online question posed, “When is a group ride too big.” The answer I would give is that it is not the size of the group that is the issue, it is the makeup of the group and their collective bike riding experience and skills.

A group of 20 or even 30 professional riders, or even top experienced amateurs, might not be too big, whereas a group of six complete novices might be.

I stopped riding with my local group, because the experienced guys are just too fast for me, and the slower group has just enough people in the mix that don’t have a clue about the basic group riding skills. At best it makes the group not fun to ride with, and at worst, downright dangerous.

Probably the single most important thing in group riding is the ability to ‘Follow a Wheel.’ To draft effectively a rider must maintain a distance of no more than 18 inches from the rider ahead. Once the gap opens up to half a bike length then the following rider has no benefit from drafting.

The ideal minimum distance to follow a wheel is 6 to 8 inches. Many do not have the confidence or the skill to ride that close, so they leave a bike length, or two, or three, between each rider, as a result a group of 20 or so is strung out over a quarter of a mile, making it impossible for cars to pass the whole group without cutting in front of someone somewhere.

Others are trying to get from the back to the front of this long strung out line, the result being that there are riders two abreast in several places. Okay, so it is legal for a cyclist to pass another cyclist, but to an outsider it just appears to be an unorganized rabble all over the road. Which is pretty much what it is.

Then if the group does manage to form something that resembles a pace line, there is the rider who can’t ride smoothly, and is constantly pedal, pedal, coast. Pedal, pedal, coast. Or worse still is constantly on the brakes.

A newcomer should aim to maintain a gap of about 12 inches to start with. That way the distance can fluctuate from 6 inches to 18 inches. Try to avoid using the brakes to regulate speed, if one should find themselves getting too close to the wheel they are following, ease off on the pedaling, and pull off to one side or the other. That way the rider pulls out of the lead rider's slipstream and catches a little head wind that it will slow him down, naturally and gently.

Applying the brakes will slow the rider too quickly, and he will start to yoyo on and off. Braking opens a gap, the rider then sprints to catch up, finds himself running into the rider ahead, then has to use the brakes again and the whole cycle starts over.

This also becomes uncomfortable and dangerous for others following. Even a gentle touch of the brakes, and with the delay in reaction before the rider behind realizes what is happening. He has to slam on his brakes a little harder, and the whole effect gets magnified as it goes from one rider to the next. Often the result is someone runs into the rider ahead and brings down several riders behind him.

Don’t even stop pedaling and freewheel. This can be annoying for the following rider, better to just ease of the pressure, and keep the pedals turning at slightly less revs, just partially freewheeling.

Try to avoid overlapping the wheel in front, but if a rider should find the gap between wheels getting to be 6 inches or less, just pull off slightly to one side. Better that wheels overlap briefly than to have them actually touch.

Don’t panic, don’t use the brakes, just ease off on the pedals and let the wind the rider is catching slow him gently so he can drop back in behind the leader. The rider next in line will follow not even aware that the rider ahead changed his line slightly.

Smoothness is the key to riding in a pace line. That includes smoothness when going to the front to take your turn. Don’t sprint through and increase the speed. Gaps will open up, and cause a chain reaction down the pace line in the same way braking did, with each rider having to sprint harder and harder to close the gap ahead.

Cycling is one of the few athletic activities where one can socialize while participating. But in order to socialize one must ride in a group. With more and more new people coming into the sport all the time the situation will get worse before it gets better.

What are your pet peeves with inexperienced riders on group rides?


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Reader Comments (29)

Forty years ago I realized that I did not like following a wheel, and not looking at all the neat things there are to see while riding a bike. I became a genuine fred, and I have no regrets.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdvenable


One of my pet peeves is when someone decides to jump on your wheel as you pass them Often, I come up on these guys from way back, meaning their pace is much slower than mine (which isn't exactly fast), but then I come by, and when I look back the guy is trying to lock on my wheel. Ironically, it's usually guys in their 50s (i.e., old enough to know better). Very early on, I was taught by experienced riders that you only draft someone you went riding with, or have asked permission to draft ("Mind if I jump on?"). I'm so sick of guys whose skill level I don't know suddenly six inches behind me, huffing and puffing, while I'm just out for some fresh air and exercise. Curious if that etiquette was part of your upbringing.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterED

Some riders shoot back farther than others when they transition from seated to standing to get up a hill. You go from 6 inches back to overlapping instantaneously. Then you get to fight to keep your balance, and your nerves, in check.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJK

I am just learning (in my 40s! too late am I getting 'serious' about cycling!) about riding in a paceline. Thanks for this helpful post. I am still uncomfortable at 6-18", and I do 'feather' the brakes, in attempt to just scrub the tiniest amount of speed, but next time I have the opportunity I will try your recommendation of using an 'air brake'.

ED above, as a newb I am not aware of this etiquette, but what's the problem with stealing a draft? The guy in front doesn't lose anything, and the guy behind gets a chance to go faster, easier for a little while. Is it just the concern of perhaps braking without knowing there's a trailer and getting rear-ended?

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad


The etiquette, I think, has to do with a rider not having to deal with someone whose inexperience level is unclear. If I'm riding and a stranger gets on my tail and I suddenly have something up ahead - car, dog, sand, etc - I don't want to have to think about someone piling into me from behind. For someone joining a group ride, you're essentially volunteering to take a chance. When I'm out riding on my own - my version of personal meditation - I am wary of someone suddenly making me have to think about them behind me.
Invariably, it's the experienced rider who asks to jump on, or breaks the ice with a greeting (Beautiful day!"). I can't stand the guys who, when I turn around, are just are there, as if we're racing when we're not.


August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterED

It's considered rude or at best bad form to sit on a rider who is not a riding companion or friend without at least asking. Having someone you don't know riding behind you creates an uncomfortable feeling and actually drags the pace albeit psychologically. Just not done.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJW

I ride in Colorado where there are always fast guys, ultra fast guys out there. I've jumped on a wheel or two but ALWAYS with the "OK if suck your wheel for a bit?" Kinda ....I don't know...rude otherwise. Usually I can only hang on for a short period anyway if they're really moving. I've had guys on my wheel before that I didn't know were there and it made me jump a bit. "Holy cow! There's a lamprey on my wheel!" But the situation never felt dangerous to me. And again, they did not last that long.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterskylab

Sorry, several thoughts here.

Where I ride, there are hundreds of unrelated riders of widely differing experience on the road. This would look a lot like your inexperienced group ride picture. A clump of 2 or 3 here and a clump there. Bikes range from beach cruisers to tri bikes. For the most part everyone gets along except when the big bike clubs come through in a tight double pace line blowing stop signs and running the unworthy off the road.

I had an ex pro racer riding buddy years ago before the advent of click pedals and he was only capable of being glued to my wheel if I was leading, no matter the conditions. One day I had to take evasive action due to a car pulling out of a parking lot. I ended up with him up on my back: still strapped in, while I was stopped, hopping to maintain balance, because I couldn't unclip either. This lasted until my rear wheel collapsed.

I'm pretty patient with inexperienced riders and try to teach them how to follow a wheel if they are interested. If not that's ok too. I had several great teachers over the years, one in particular back in the 70s that taught me how to follow. I pay it forward when I can. I think expecting a group of inexperienced riders to line up just so is a bit like requiring them to wear a particular kit. From my point of view it is better to have them try to put together smaller lines of 2 or 3 to work out the technique and practice. Some groups aren't interested in riding racer style even if it is more efficient.


(Footnote from Dave. Just rescued this from the spam folder 3 days after you posted it. I have no idea why it went there. Sorry.)

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterredtaildd

I AM going to get a sign on the back of MY jersey that says 'Where does it say PASS old guy' I know I am the slowest rider on the paths and road NOW but why is everyone passing me? Seems everyone is out to show how fast they can ride. How about when you are about to pass someone you ride along side for a while and SOCIALIZE? Amazing the people you could meet, even has beens LIKE ME could be interesting to talk to. THEN if I catch up with a rider that HAS passed me it becomes WAR shoulders haunch, muscles flex, pace quickens. SLOW DOWN SMELL THE ROSES life's to short to race away what you have left. You wanna race find a group that does jut that.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

I agree with ED- it's bad etiquette to latch onto the wheel of someone you don't know without asking if it's alright. Safety and skill issues aside, what if they don't want your company, what if they just want to have some solitude during an otherwise busy day? If you were hiking and came upon another hiker would you start walking with them uninvited? I have a term for these unwanted wheelsuckers: "Leeches." A good way to remove a leech is to shift into a low gear and slow your pace down. Taking your hands off the bars and sitting up also helps.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn C

Cycling is a good way to test our limits. It teaches us modesty. At 72 I'm rarely going fast enough to interest others. I can now even accept being overtaken by a teenager with a bag of school books , a flapping anorak and music in his ears riding a clapped out MTB up a hill. Then I know I'm no longer 17 - but so what. I'm out of the house, clearing my head, getting some exercise and enjoying myself.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

Another pet peeve is where someone rides along side you at the front and always pushes the pace by trying to keep their front wheel ahead of yours. We used to call it "half wheeling" back in the UK.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJW

I confess to being a leacher in the last two weeks, twice. Both times I thanked the "other" guy. I won't do it again. There are others who have done it to me. It really didn't bother me as I watched how they did and had confidence they new what they were doing. If a rider can ride his bike without having his front wheel change directions while he is pedaling up hill, he might actual know how to ride!
It is a trust thing. I can ride with a person I know and have wheel overlap without concern. Others I will back off from. I always watch how they ride before getting close. After watching people dirve whatever, you can get a sense of their driving language enough to know how much risk you can take with them.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSJX426

I guess I'm an old fart and a confirmed fred, too. I don't enjoy group riding, unless it's just a social ride.

I don't like to ride near pace lines. I don't ride on peoples' wheels and don't like them doing it to me. If someone is on my wheel, I generally stop pedaling so they can figure out that they might want to be someplace else.

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul S

It's interesting to observe how the social-psychological aspects of cycling get us all tapping these keys in a way that purely technical things rarely do.

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

I really don't like group riding. Like Paul and dvenable, I prefer to experience the views on my rides, and I'll sometimes stop to admire a particularly fine view.

That's not to say I ride slowly, and there have been plenty of times when I've had 'lampreys' stuck on my wheel. It gave me a shock when I looked back to see some guy I had passed a mile ago just there on my wheel. Scared the bejesus out of me. I wish they had the etiquette to announce themselves when this happened.

Since I don't ride in a group, I don't feel the need to adjust my pace when climbing with someone attached to my wheel. If you can't keep up, I ain't waiting for you.

Of course, there are many occasions when I get passed by groups or individual riders going at a pace I envy, but since I have no interest in riding with them, I just let them go. As I get older, this happens more than I'd like. It's motivation to lose some pounds and push a bit harder. :)

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohann

The BEST thing ANY cyclist can buy for their bike is a BLOODY BIG BELL. Yes a DING DONG DING DONG. Sound your BELL when you pass, warn the rider in front. IF his jumping on your wheel annoys you SO WHAT you caught and passed him, keep YOUR pace, don't let him intimidate you. You obviously where going FASTER so keep it up, Soon they will drop OFF! One thing I learnt (and I am sure Dave did) from OUR racing days, is; never worry about whats BEHIND you its what in front that matters. By the way as a still very alive 80 year old MALE when a good looking YOUNG gal passes, JUMP ON HER WHEEL. ENJOY THE VIEW!

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

Dave, I notice in the picture at the beginning of this article, the riders are strung out, neither in a single pace line, nor two-up for the most part. Surely you remember back in your youth club riding always two-up, only singling out if a car needed to pass on a narrow, winding road. Even in Canada we still rode like that 25 years ago when I was still club riding.

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

How does one's riding become sociable if distracted pacelining endangers your fellow cyclists? Save it for out of paceline.

I am so glad I never took up bicycle racing.

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPoor Sport

John B,

The riders pictured above are not even riding in the road, but the shoulder, so whether single-file or doubled up makes no difference to auto traffic.

I'm far less skilled than had I rode with a racing club, but frankly, I don't want to be wearing a uniform when I ride my bike. And I like to tour, not go fast for the sake of speed and sacrificing my enjoyment. Crumpy, what about those who like young male bums?

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPoor Sport

The advantage of riding side by side instead of in a single line is so you can talk and socialize. That was the whole point of club riding.

August 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

I have to chuckle reading the comments about 'Wheel leaches' I can suggest ONE way to stop this. Before going on a ride EAT A CAN OF BAKED BEANS! I can assure you NO one will ride your wheel.

August 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Crump

22 comments ! Are we going for the record ?

August 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

I spend all day in a classroom with 4th graders and I prefer, definitely prefer riding alone.

In the Woodside / Portola Valley / Menlo Park region (San Francisco Bay Area) we have wonderful bicycling roads but group riding etiquette can really spoil it for everyone. Bunches of bicyclists clog roads every Saturday and Sunday morning - making it near impossible for cars to get around. A honk gets a myriad of angry gestures. A bad attitude methinks.

It's nice to keep out of the wind but since my bicycle riding is for commuting and exercising the wind isn't an issue.

August 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames Thurber

If you don't let someone know you are on their wheel, you can't complain if they blow their nose.

August 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterleroy

Group riding with media headlines designed to strike fear:
"Local, State Police Prepare for Thousands of Stunt Bike Riders"

I have contacted the news organization many times in the hope of getting "bike riders" changed when referencing motorcyclists but these problems continue.

August 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack

James Thurber wrote: I spend all day in a classroom with 4th graders and I prefer, definitely prefer riding alone.

Thanks for the laugh. No kidding! I'd be riding alone, too.

In fact, most of my riding is done alone these days. We were a small group of three riders who articulated well with each other. Similar skills, similar preferences, similar riding styles. It worked great until each of us moved such that it became difficult to get together.

My short lived experience riding with a larger group was one sponsored by a bike store. It was fine for starting my adventures on the road; learning the etiquette, safety maneuvers, gaining a bit of confidence. I'm sure I made all the errors, and created all of the annoyances cited. We all start somewhere... but, once I caught on, I found I had little patience for those annoyances - some of which create real safety issues. Ergo, the threesome that split off; and, we rode together most weekends and holidays.

I admit that I liked riding with that small, select group more than I like riding on my own. We mostly rode single file, and with very little chatter. It just felt safer on these narrow country roads. They say, Three's a crowd... but that number worked well for us. We filled in each other's gaps well; the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Disappointed that I've not been able to replicate it.

August 29, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbystander

I just enjoy reading the posts .
Very informative and amusing :)


August 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpvpope

I know I'm a couple months late to this post but thought I'd chime in anyway...

Given the choice, 95% of the time I'll choose to ride with friends. I've been blessed with a great group of guys who taught me how to ride in a pace line and I'm fairly comfortable doing so.

One comment above struck me from John Crump about passing "old guys." When I'm on the local bike path and pass anyone, young or old, I almost always offer a greeting of some kind. Beside just being friendly (and this has resulted in meeting and chatting with some very interesting people) I am also trying to defuse the idea that my passing should be perceived as a "challenge." I have no desire to race (especially on a multi-use bike path!!)

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian
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