Workout and Tips for Better Pace Line Performance

A few weeks ago we were driving back from the Dirty Kanza 200 and I saw the road sign for Ellicott Highway as we approached Colorado Springs. My mind instantly went back to the early 1990s and Jiri Mainus’ tortuous – but effective – team time trial workouts. This week’s blog was inspired by those sessions, although I’ve modified the workout so it’s applicable to road cyclists, and even triathletes, at all levels.

Before going into the details, it’s important to understand how and why a team time trial workout applies to you when you may never do an actual team time trial in competition. Phrased differently, a team time trial is just a high-speed pace line, and that is instantly applicable to any cyclist. You’ll be going faster than you could maintain on your own, your power output during pulls will be higher than your normal SteadyState or individual time trial intensity, and you’ll dramatically improve your skills for group rides and breakaways.

Jiri devised a very difficult workout when we were at USA Cycling. He had athletes ride about 40 kilometers out east of Colorado Springs to Ellicott Highway, a straight and remote stretch of country road in the middle of nowhere. Then he had them do a 10km individual time trial. After that he paired up the riders by their finishes (1 with 2, 3 with 4, and so on) and had them complete a 10km 2-man team time trial. After that, he consolidated them again into 4-man teams and sent them out to do a 20km team time trial. When it was all said and done, they regrouped for the 40km ride back to the Olympic Training Center. It was a hard, hard day on the bike, especially when it was hot out on the plains.

The point of Jiri’s workout – beyond having athletes at time trial pace for 40km – was to teach riders how to gauge and manage their efforts during these very different types of events. You don’t ride the same way in an individual time trial as you do in a 2-man or 4-man team event. Similarly, you don’t ride the same way when you’re alone compared to riding in a group.

Here’s the modified workout I recommend for anyone who participates in group rides, road races, criteriums. I also think triathletes benefit from this workout, even though it’s less event-specific for non draft-legal races. It’s still a great speed workout that develops awareness of terrain, wind, and effort levels. Find 3 friends to create a 4-man team and map out a relatively flat to gently rolling 20-kilometer time trial course. Your goal is to cover the distance as fast as possible while staying together as a group (no dropping anyone!).

Sounds simple, right? What you’ll find is that there’s a big difference between a rotating paceline at a moderate pace and a high-speed paceline. Maintaining a smooth pace and keeping gaps to a minimum gets more difficult the faster you go. Here are some tips that will make your workout better, and help you become the best rider in your local paceline:

Tip: Be aware of the terrain
Little guys go uphill fast, but big guys roll the downhills and flats faster. You don’t want the group to splinter, which means each rider has to think about the optimal pace for the team when deciding how hard to ride on the front. Killing the big guys by charging the climbs means you’ll be slower on the downhills and flats. Crushing the flats might also put your team’s smaller riders so far into the red that they can’t contribute to the pacemaking, or can’t keep up at all.

Tip: Ride smart in the recovery line
As you rotate off the front, you have to immediately consider what it’s going to take to get back on the last rider’s wheel. My old friend and 7-Eleven teammate Davis Phinney used to pull off and essentially stop pedaling. He’d go backwards really quickly, but he was a sprinter so he could accelerate back onto the last wheel with three pedal strokes. Non-sprinters (like me) pulled off and maintained more speed as we dropped back. That way there was less of an acceleration needed to get back into the pull line.

Tip: Always leave something in the tank to get back into the draft
Part of riding smart in the recovery line is leaving yourself enough energy to get back into the draft. If you pull so hard that you can’t latch onto the last rider’s wheel once you’re turn is over, the team will either leave you behind or everyone will have to slow down to wait for you. In a group setting, a “full pull” is only over when you’re safely back in the draft. Think of it all as one effort (pulling, pulling off, and getting into the draft at the end of the line) rather than only focusing on the time at the front.

Tip: Don’t overgear
The big thing about small breakaway groups and team time trials is that there are a lot of little adjustments in the speed. You want to stay tight as a group, and being in too big a gear at a low cadence makes it difficult to cope with these frequent adjustments. Aim to maintain a cadence around 90-100. You don’t need to exaggerate the cadence to something extremely high, you just don’t want to bog down.

Tip: Forget about standardizing pull lengths
To go fast as a group you have to be flexible and remember that the goal is to keep the speed high. Take shorter pulls in harder terrain, take longer pulls if you have a tailwind assisting you, and don’t fry a rider by pressuring him/her into taking pulls longer than they can handle.

Tip: The second rider in the line gives the marching orders
The second rider (not the leader) is the best person to judge the intensity and position of the team on the road. If the wind has shifted, this rider should let the lead rider know if he needs to move right or left so everyone is drafting but the last guy isn’t stuck in the gutter. The second rider should also tell the lead rider – unless it’s painfully obvious – which side to pull off on. Sometimes the lead rider isn’t as acutely aware of where his teammates are finding the best draft, especially when the road and wind direction change frequently.

Tip: If a gap opens, tell the rider in the recovery line to jump in
This happens all the time in breakaway groups and team time trials. If you’re struggling to hold the wheel ahead of you or you know you need to skip a pull, tell the rider coming back in the recovery line, “In!” This should be the signal for that rider to fill the gap rather than continuing back to get onto your wheel.

A team time trial workout can be a great change of pace for athletes who spend a lot of time doing solo interval workouts, and they teach riders to be far more aware of the riders around them. The more you learn to gauge other riders’ strengths and weaknesses, the better you can work together as a team.

Have a great weekend,
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

2 Responses to “Workout and Tips for Better Pace Line Performance”

  1. Luis E. Martinez on

    Awesome information, very helpful Chris! It really helped me to practice your advise and it did made a difference on my last ride with a group! Thanks.

    Reply

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