Some explanation for non-racing readers. If I were to push into the wind at the head of the peloton, all by myself, I could ride the whole race at 35km p/h, or perhaps a tad more. The problem is, my heart rate would soon climb into the 170s, and stay there. Meanwhile, I could maintain 35km p/h as part of a paceline, taking turns into the wind, with my heart rate in the 150s. However, if I rode in the draft of a paceline, doing no turns into the wind whatsoever, I could maintain such a speed with a heart rate in the 130s. From such a low base rate, I could easily muster the energy for a short burst at 55km p/h, ideally with 200 meters to go, when everyone in the paceline is somewhat fatigued.
But there are times when I can't just sit back and relax. If a rider, or riders, who I know to have stamina, have broken away off the front of the race, I may need to work as part of a paceline, to help reel them back in. Alternatively, I might be in a breakaway, working alongside my temporary comrades to stay ahead of the chase group. In either of the scenarios mentioned, it may suit me to do more, or less, than my fair share of the "work" up the front, breaking the air. The beauty of cycling is that a race's dynamics requires recalculating every few minutes, and every few seconds in the final kilometers. Pacelines are a beautiful thing to be a part of, like trimming a surfboard in the sweet part of a wave, but their beauty depends on them having some purpose, aside from misplaced comradery.
How to win on the weekend: relax in the draft of a meaningless paceline, then go nuts in the last hundred meters.
Riders who brainlessly remain a part of a paceline that has no raison d'être, thus sacrificing their own chance of winning by not keeping their heart rates low for those moments that count, deny weekend racing enthusiasts the full range of scenarios a bike race can throw up as the finish line closes. Consider a 3 person breakaway, in which the riders have carved out a 1 minute lead, and now have 5 minutes to go to the line. If they were pro riders, they would reduce their speed by 20% at that point, to lower their heart rates for that moment when individual strength alone is what matters. Their calculated slowing of pace would be consistent with their commitment to winning, not placing, and would also keep the race alive for the chase group behind them. If it were a pro race, and 2 of those 3 leaders brainlessly ploughed on regardless, giving their rational opponent a win on a plate, there would be claims of race fixing. At club level, ploughing on is thought of as noble, and would entitle our 2 musketeers to an audience back at the clubhouse: "that guy who won, he just sat on and sat on," they would say.
And here's my complaint. No one in Saturday's peloton would ever tell either of our two musketeers that it was them, not the burglar, who ruined the race for everyone chasing, with their non-competitive riding.
When I won a handicap with 100 starters, two weeks ago, and opened my envelope to see thirty measly dollars (just 3% of the club's $10 per head take for the day), it occurred to me why so many races have come to resemble critical mass rides. By that I mean, some races are not sufficiently to do with winning, to be considered races, and not simply "rides". What I realized was, that back in the days when nearly all of the entrance fees were paid out as winnings, when clubs had fewer expenses, riders were desperate to win. As a student, winning meant eating steak, not just more tuna mornay. Now though, who could be bothered? Usually just a few up-and-coming kids who value the glory.
Actually, I recall having what was called a pro-license when I first started racing. Quite fitting, given my eye for prize money. Alas, it's all amateur now. But guys, could you at least treat it as though it's a race?