The other day I had the good fortune to ride with three other riders that knew how to ride in a paceline. I also experienced this when I spent some quality time doing huge efforts with SOC (one of the aforementioned three) and Botto.
A good paceline is a joy. You go faster with less effort. You work together as a team. You contribute your own strength.
However, a paceline consists of a delicate balance of contribution, expectation, and strength.
A bad paceline... it's a disaster. Stressful. Unhelpful. Scary. Embarrassing.
One of the typical problems - riders surge when pulling through. Rested, a bit stressed by the fact that it's their turn, they let adrenaline get the better of them. They pull through hard, causing the glue holding the paceline together to stretch and disintegrate.
Too often the rider pulling off doesn't slow either. Often this is because they expect the same surge to come from the next rider, and they don't want to get dropped on that surge. The rider ends up riding next to the paceline's lead rider, contributing nothing, expending everything.
What I find in my own experiences is that many riders pulling off expect the rider coming through to surge. Since surging is bad form, if the rider coming through doesn't surge, the person sits next to the paceline, pulling without pulling.
The lead rider of the paceline who is (not) surging is doing the right thing - maintaining speed/effort. It's up to the rider pulling off to slow down.
So how do you ride a paceline?
When I pull off it goes something like this:
1. Wiggle elbow on side to come through. Right elbow wiggles if I'm pulling off to left. I've heard opposing opinions on which elbow to wiggle. Other than emulating the pros, the best argument I've heard for pulling off opposite the wiggle is that when the rider behind can see the wiggling elbow even as you move.
When in doubt, wait for the wiggle to end and the rider to move. Note rider's wiggle side and move direction for future reference.
2. Pull off. Get outta the lead, in other words.
3. Immediately coast for a count of 5 to 10, give or take. It takes that long for the first two people to go by me. I always coast, always. It signifies I'm done pulling, and since I pull off in a subtle way (I don't swing 10 feet over), it's a different way to make it very clear I'm done. Note: an experienced rider will immediately realize I've pulled off, but a less experienced one may not.
4. Start soft pedaling. Stay close to the line, no more than 2 feet away, preferably a foot away. Being 8 feet away is bad. Looks dramatic, allows you to check out everyone's form, but if you're in anything but a "feeling super comfortable and we're going way too slow" mode, it's a waste of energy.
5. When second last rider is approaching, ramp up speed. Mind you, if the group is going 25 mph, I've never slowed too much, in this case probably 20-22 mph minimum. Once I stop coasting I basically don't slow anymore.
6. As last rider goes by, start to equal speed. You need to speed up before they pass you completely, so you need to almost equal the last rider's speed. You can't equal it else you'll just ride next to them.
7. When last rider's BB goes by, start moving back in gradually. Accelerate that last bit to get onto the wheel.
8. Slide onto wheel with 3-6" clearance, soft pedal to avoid going into the back of the rider, relax, drink, blow nose, etc. The latter is important - blow your nose when you're last, not leading.
If you think the paceline is going too slow, the best way to contribute is to take much longer pulls (problem is if it's a double paceline) or to pull on downhills.
Tip: if you hear constant coasting, you're going too slow. This is particularly important on downhills. You may be pedaling your brains out at 45 mph and everyone behind you is on their brakes. Either pull off RIGHT NOW or speed up.
You know that expression "Siht or get off the can"? Well, if you hear a lot of coasting you need to get going or move over. You're screwing up the paceline. YOU need to fix it. If you don't fix it you throw away the whole reason for doing the paceline - easier efforts at higher speeds.
Tip: if you have a power meter and you hit a hill, let the power go up a bit but try and maintain a steady pace. Riders naturally go 50%-100% harder (250w to 375-500w), but don't start doing 800-1000w efforts. Keeping it steady, 0% increase, will result in riders touching brakes. I think a safe number is 50% over flat land power.
Tip: if no power meter but you have a heart rate monitor, try and keep HR steady.
Exception: if you're in a race and chasing, it's best to ramp up the speed. It takes much more time and energy to slowly close a gap. It's much better to close it quickly. Those that can follow your increase in pace deserve to be there. Those that don't, don't.
When you ride in a paceline you become a part of it. Do your part and contribute towards making it a good one.
Enjoy the ride!