So there have been some changes in the ways races in my area are organized and Iíve ended up sharing a pack with new racers more often than last year. Iíve noticed that many, particularly unattached racers who have limited group riding experience are unknowingly racing against their own interests and squelching the enjoyment of those around them in the race pack. I think there is some advice that is thrown at new racers that is over-generalized and requires clarification.
First, we need to know what a rotating pace-line is. Often when there are riders off the front, you will see two parallel lines of riders form at the front of the pack, doing something like this:
by doing this, the pack moves substantially faster than it otherwise might. In a successful break the riders will usually be rotating in a similar way.
Some common advice new racers are given are, "stay near the front of the pack", "stay on a wheel and don't let yourself end up in the wind", or "Get on the faster moving wheels in order to 'surf' to the front of the pack". Following this advice, new racers who fail to recognize what is happening will tend to hop on a wheel in the faster moving line to move up to the front. When the person they're following pulls through and moves over to the receding line, the new racer will try to stick to his wheel in order to avoid being in the wind and will end up fighting with the front rider in the receding side of the pace-line for the wheel. Most of the time, the rider who is participating in the pace-line in order to help chase the break down is more experienced and will win that fight, leaving the new racer dangling in the wind, or dangerously trying to force his way into the pace line, and repeating the process.
While a pace line was forming to chase down a brake, a guy hopped onto the back of the advancing side of the pace line, and I got on his wheel. when he should have pulled through and over into the receding side of the pace line, he just sat, looking for a place to force himself into the other side of the pace-line without moving to the front. I yelled "pull though!" a couple of times, but he didn't respond, so I went around him and pulled though. As I drifted back and ended up riding next to the new rider who was obstructing the rotation, he started asking me questions:
him, "what does 'pull though' mean?
me, "Pull up to the front and the move over to the other lane."
me, "Teamwork... we're trying to catch the break."
him. "but I'm not on a team"
me, "right, so why are you blocking for the break?"
Realizing I wasn't going to be able to explain the whole thing to the guy in the middle of a race, and that a pack with a bunch of people like this wasn't going to put up much of a chase, I bridged up to the break to join it. Unfortunately organizing the break to work together didn't prove any easier than organizing the chase and we didn't stay off. In the end, I did still manage lead out a teammate to score some points in the sprint, but the race was pretty frustrating.
Now that we've illustrated what a pace line is, I'm sure that there are new racers who are wondering the same thing that guy was.
Why pull through?
There is a break off the front, You're not in it, and you want to win. If nobody works to catch the break, they are likely to stay off the front and you won't win. If you think somebody else will do the work to catch the break with or without you, and you don't want to burn the energy in order to help, you aren't obligated to do so. You should, however, get out of the way so the people in the pace line can do their thing. Unless you have a teammate in the break, there is no reason to obstruct the rotation. This might mean not being as close to the front of the pack as you like, but you'll benefit from other people's work when the break doesn't stick and you get to sprint for 1st rather than 5th. If you're in the break, you will want it to stick, and working in a pace-line will help that happen. If you some how end up in a pace line and want out, just pull through, then drift back into the pack rather than rotating through so as not to disrupt the chase.
In a road race with a break off the front, there are really only two teams; the one that wants the break to stick, and the one that doesn't. Figure out which side you're on and lead, follow or get out of the way.