Below is an excerpt from the book "The No-Drop Zone: Everything You Need to Know About the Peloton, Your Gear, and Riding Strong" by Patrick Brady. The 250-page book outlines all aspects of road cycling for beginners, from riding skills to bike gear to the cycling lifestyle. Learn more about the book here.
The first step toward riding in a group is learning to draft another rider. Drafting can cut your effort by a third—sometimes more—depending on how close you follow the rider ahead of you and how large that rider is. The bigger the rider, the better the draft. The best way to learn how to draft is to ride in a paceline—and they come in three flavors.
The simplest form of group riding to learn is the single paceline. Single pacelines are usually made up of a small group of riders—they can be hard to keep organized with more than 10 or 12 riders. Your turn at the front is like playing locomotive to a train and it is called "taking a pull." This isn't literal, of course, but your effort is referred to as your "pull."
After pulling at the front for a period of time (some groups might choose 30 seconds, a minute, or more depending on speed, fitness, or other factors such as traffic), the rider will "pull off," meaning the rider moves either to the left or right out of the line and drops to the back of the group. In this version, riders line up single-file and the rider at the front pulls the group for a period of time (again, the length of time may be dictated by speed, fitness, or road conditions) and then rotates off and drops back. For the safety of the group, it is generally best to pull off to the left after checking the traffic behind the group.
The pace should remain consistent when you get to the front. If the pace is high—higher than you are accustomed to—it is preferable to take a shorter pull at the higher pace than a longer pull at a slower pace. Do not slow until you have pulled off, that is, until you have moved far enough to the left or right that the rider just behind you may pass unimpeded. When you drop back, begin to accelerate when you are even with the last rider so that you move smoothly into that rider's draft. If you wait to accelerate until that rider is ahead of you, you are likely to have trouble getting back into his draft.
Riding in a paceline is easier to learn if the other riders are experienced. Initially, the most difficult skill to learn is how to keep a constant pace that matches the speed of the rider in front of you. Many riders try to learn with other inexperienced riders; it's nearly impossible to learn how to maintain a consistent pace if the rider you are following doesn't know how to do it either. A single paceline is an easier circumstance to learn in because if you find yourself gaining on the rider in front of you, you can move either to the left or right of the rider.
Try to maintain a distance of three to six feet behind the rider you follow. As you become more comfortable drafting, you can shrink that distance. Experienced riders can ride inches from the rider ahead of them. Most skilled riders will maintain a safety margin of a foot to the rider ahead. Try to limit your side-to-side distance from their line to a maximum of one foot to either side.
Peel off before you feel you need to. Until you have a clear picture of your fitness, keep your pulls short. If you wait to pull off until you feel tired, there's a good chance that you'll get spit out of the group rather than making it back into the paceline.