The Art of the Group Ride: Rotating Pacelines and Plato’s Forms
The highest form of group road riding must be the rotating paceline. Plato talks in The Republic about his theory of knowledge – and argues the existence of “Platonic Forms” as the ideal, conceptualized, highest-truth version of things that we only vaguely perceive in our human world. He writes that we humans are hampered in knowing the true “forms” – it’s like we are viewing life in a smoky and dark cave. Nonetheless, the virtuous among us seek to know these forms and their truth.
Well – the sunlight and wind from years of riding outdoors has cleared my vision. I can recognize the highest “form” of road cycling: the rotating double paceline – where you and your friends together cut through the wind, tarmac, and elements with the greatest of ease.
Of course, a rotating double paceline is when a group of cyclists forms itself into two tightly spaced lines. The leeward side (or wind-protected side) begins to advance forward relative to the wind-exposed side. This windward side correspondingly begins to retreat or recede relative to the other. You — as an individual member of this exclusive group — smoothly move forward in the protective lee of the “advancing” line hearing only the quiet whirl of bikes’ chains and cogs and your own beating heart. As a group, you are flying at 20 to 30 mph, but it seems as if time slows, and – in that advancing line — you move slowly forward at 1 to 2 mph, riding… by … one … rider… at a time … as those in the adjoining line recede from the corner of your eye’s view.
After all, Einstein teaches that time and speed are relative.
You are inches from the riders in front, in back, and beside you. You move forward hunkered down and protected from the wind by those around you. With this cover, despite your higher speed compared to the receding line, your effort or power is only slightly higher than when in the receding line. You emerge into the front of the advancing line, exposed for a few seconds to the forces of wind and air resistance as you lose the protective draft of the riders in front of you. You keep your cadence up, and your effort increases slightly until you are clear of the rider slowing next to you. You soft-pedal once or twice as you move gently over to the front of the receding line. Soon you are slipping backwards as another rider moves in front of you and slows ever so slightly.
You are lightly pushed by the crosswinds as you recede slowly back in this perpetual motion machine. Soon you find yourself in the rear. It’s time to apply a little power and move back over into the advancing line,. For a moment here you enjoy the protection and draft of the entire group from this most protected position in the leeward rear. You now start again your slow journey forward.
The group is now like an organism, resembling an amoeba. It changes shape slightly as it moves through and adapts to its environment. Always rotating, it bends but not breaks to go around slower riders it passes. It occasionally engulfs, gobbles up, and digests riders it comes by. It sometimes spits out riders. It may slow and bunch slightly as it emerges from the wind cover of a stand of trees on the road’s side. It stretches out — long and lean — on faster-paced descents. In the face of strong crosswinds, it may echelon or bend to the side.
It is axiomatic that the group is no faster than the slowest member of the group. Still, the strongest and fastest in the group is advantaged from taking part. Occasionally one of the group needs to rest, remain at the back, and forego moving forward. They sit out a rotation or two and then rejoin.
Tension inevitably occurs from the difference between the slowest and fastest rider. It can be like a cancer which slowly destroys from within. The group will fail if there is no communication or commitment. Often, one rider is dropped under the pace dictated by the fastest. Then another is dropped – and another. Before long there are only one or two strongmen left – in truth, now struggling themselves against the elements. The former pieces of the group are left behind as a long trail of detritus.
On the other side of this equation, it is not at all uncommon for a high-performing and communicating group to jettison the fastest rider out the front. This may actually be best for the stronger rider, and best for keeping the group working harmoniously together.
Physics demonstrates time and again that a long, stretched-out single paceline is inefficient – especially in the presence of crosswinds. Crosswinds string out and push riders into a thin and desperate line along the road “gutter” or the road’s center-line where each is deprived of a large portion of the protection afforded in the rotating double line.
The rotating double line is more rewarding than hammering and being hammered in a free form group – with one attack leading to another attack leading to another – until just one victor is left. The rotating paceline requires better bike handling skills, better judgment, a higher social IQ, and more patience. And, compared to the big blob of a shapeless and brainless peloton, the rotating double paceline is more intelligent – always refreshing itself – and, if large and smooth enough, faster.
So, my friend, the next time you are out cycling with a small group of friends, why not seek this highest of cycling truths and form a double paceline – and then commence the rotation. The intense focus, the teamwork, the use of all of your cycling skills, and the intense consideration of both the whole and each individual within – will permit you to experience one of Plato’s highest forms of truth.
What do you think?