Sometimes, riding by myself is really satisfying–go out and ride at my pace (usually, as hard as I can ride), on a course I determine. No being cut off, no one not pulling their weight, no stress. But much of the time, I enjoy riding with a group–and I really enjoy riding with a group of people I know, or people that I don’t know but who are good riders….riders who know how to work together…who become one organism going down the road. Riders who become a living paceline.
You don’t notice it when you’re at the front…you notice it when you’re at the back. If you’re just a little to the side, you can see the rhythmic pumping of legs in synchronization, as each rider matches pace.
You see the subtle sway of shoulders as the pace increases.
You see how a crosswind hits the group and the whole group moves over a few inches, and crabs into the handlebars in response, in unison.
You see how the front rider drops some fingers to call out a roadside imperfection and moves over ever so slightly, and then watch the gesture and movement be mirrored from the front of the paceline to the back.
You see each rider staring intently at the rider ahead of them, and beyond, watching for the nonverbal communication that controls the pace of the group.
There’s a ripple of words as someone calls “car back”, and the message is conveyed to the front of the group.
There’s the flurry of hands going up and down in the universal ‘slowing’ motion as we approach the intersection–the pivot of heads back and forth looking for traffic. The click of gears being dropped. The shout of “Clear” echoes back through the group and then everyone is out of the saddles, in unison, accelerating through the intersection and back up to speed.
The ride continues like that–balanced. Strangely silent. Perfect communication without a word. Some small transgression is committed–a rider gets too close pulling through the front of the line perhaps, and that transgression is instantly forgiven with eye contact and an apologetic nod.
The world is a silent whir of wind and chains. Of skinny tires on hot pavement. Only the occasional hazard penetrates the silence of the paceline. The group spins through, front front to back, in perpetual rotation, in perpetual pedaling.
And then in the distance, the yellow “stop ahead” sign looms.
Hands move from hoods to drops.
As quietly as possible, riders try to shift their gears.
The group working together–the pulling through–it all freezes as people subtly try to position themselves for the coming sprint.
And then one rider goes. The paceline–that common organism–instantly splits apart into a long string of independent riders.
The front rider goes out hard and tries to drop the group, but those who were well-positioned take the draft and wait for the right moment.
Suddenly, one of the group moves left and sprints hard–and then another moves even further left.
The world starts to go blurry. Vision narrows to a skinny little round tunnel, a tiny patch of pavement just beyond the yellow sign. Breathing as hard as possible. Pedaling as hard as possible. Out of the saddle, pulling up on the bars, pushing down on the pedals, hips rocking, bike rocketing forward.
The invisible City Limits line is crossed and people collapse back into their saddles. Short-lived glory for one rider as the group coalesces again. Back into a silent paceline. Slowly into conversation. Less organization. Less effort. Less strain. One organism again, but filled with entropy and lactic acid.
The living paceline.