Pace Line Leadership

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

Cycling can be a lot of fun.  It’s a great sport that has significantly evolved in my lifetime.  My first bike cost $5, had one gear, and to stop or slow down, I simply used my feet to push backwards on the pedals.  Accessories included a baseball card clothes-pinned to the fender bracket, positioned to make a clicking noise in the spokes, or, multi-colored tassels that were inserted into the small holes on the ends of the handle bar grips.  My bike today cost significantly more than $5, has 21 gears, requires special shoes to lock onto the pedals, and nothing happens when my feet push backwards on the pedals; to slow down or stop, I have to use the hand brake levers which also serve as gear shifters.  Accessories are limitless, as much as your budget will allow.  The one thing that remains the same though is that it’s fun to ride a bike!

Last weekend, cycling was not only a fun sport, it was also part of a great cause.   5,700 cyclists gathered in Massachusetts last Saturday and Sunday to ride in the Pan Mass Challenge, the largest single fundraising sports event in the United States.  100% of the money raised by riders goes to cancer research and care.  My group of ten business colleagues rode 110 miles on Saturday and another 80 miles on Sunday and raised nearly $50,000 for cancer care and research.


It always amazes me how a group of strangers can come together and ride together using effective communication tools for the safety of all.  In cycling, there are hand signals and voice commands that are universally accepted.  Cyclists point out road hazards such as pot holes or gravel, and during the downpour we experienced on Saturday, this included pointing out water hazards.  Effective cycling requires effective communication.

When cycling as a group for any distance, it’s always fun to form a pace line.  When executed properly, a pace line is an effective tool for a group ride. When executed poorly, it is counterproductive.  Effective pace lines help participating cyclists share the workload by pushing through the wind.  Each cyclist takes a turn in the lead or pull position, then drops to the back of the line.  This process is continuously repeated with everyone in the line taking a turn in the lead position, then going to the end of the line, gradually working your way back to the lead position again.

We can learn a lot about leadership when analyzing the concepts that are involved in cycling in a pace line. Pace lines are designed to share the work, so the time spent in the pull position should be limited.  This keeps everyone fresh and gives the other riders their chance.   Effective leaders aren’t afraid to let others take the lead by getting out of the way.

One of the most common mistakes pace line cyclists make is when taking the lead position, they go too fast.  It is important for riders to be aware of the proper pace that keeps the group together.  Then, when in the lead position, that same pace needs to be maintained to keep the group together, not blow it apart by going too fast.  This happens when the lead rider wants to show off or, he may have the best intentions but misjudges the pace.  The lead rider knows he needs to pull the line, so he pulls.  Have you ever observed or experienced someone who assumed a leadership position and did the same thing to the group?

It’s nearly impossible for everyone to maintain the exact same pace, particularly if riding a hilly course.  Effective pace line cyclists make adjustments to help keep the line together no matter what position in the line they are in.  Adjustments can be made by soft pedaling, air braking and feather braking.  To soft pedal, a rider takes a light pedal stroke or two to adjust speed.  To air brake, a rider sits up and uses his body to catch some wind to slow down slightly.  Feather braking is simply squeezing the brakes slightly while continuing to pedal.  Likewise leaders need to be aware of the need to make subtle adjustments to keep the group on track.  Whether cycling or leading, the key is continuously making adjustments as needed, not continuously slamming on the brakes and hitting the gas.

Focus is another important element of riding in a pace line.  It’s easy to stare at the rear wheel of the bike in front of you.  I’ve done this myself.  The problem with this technique is that it doesn’t allow enough reaction time if something goes wrong which could cause the entire line to go down.  Your focus needs to be further down the road to be able to respond accordingly.  The same can be said of leadership — keep focused on what lies ahead, not just on what’s immediately in front of you.

The ability to accurately self-evaluate is also key. If you are tired, it’s okay to pass on taking the lead.  Effective leaders need to recognize their limitations and not be afraid to admit them to themselves and the group.  Showing your human side often leads to a better result.

Effective cycling in a pace line and effective leadership have a lot in common.  A good leader shares the workload, looks ahead and anticipates what is to come, maintains a pace that the entire group can follow and passes on the reins when someone else would be a better fit for the job at hand. Above all, keep pedaling and making adjustments until you find the pace that works best for your organization.


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