Training

How WorldTour riders use motorpacing to simulate the demands of racing

Motorpacing is a training technique in which cyclists are paced by a motorized vehicle to train for race scenarios.

You may have seen photos of pro cyclists riding behind a speeding motorcycle, or read columns about the performance benefits of riding tempo in the slipstream of a motorized vehicle. Why do riders complete motorpacing sessions, and what specific benefits does this type of training bring? How and when do cyclists use it as a training tool?

Motorpacing is a training technique — and a former race discipline — in which cyclists are paced by a motorized vehicle. This allows cyclists to benefit as much as possible from the vehicle’s slipstream and to train race-specific skills, for specialized scenarios.

The technique is almost as old as the bike itself. The origins of pacing date back to the end of the 19th century, when pacing races were carried out behind tandem bicycles. The game changed when riders started to follow in the draft from cars at the end of the century. In those years, grueling events like Bordeaux-Paris (595km) and even Paris-Roubaix had cars pacing the riders.

Then motorbikes came and allowed cyclists to reach average speeds of 50, 80, and 100kph. The UCI regulated the practice in 1920 following several deadly accidents. The last motorpaced UCI world championships were held in 1994.

Andre Darrigade, 1959 Circuit Daumesnil. Darrigade chases his derny to a third-place finish. Photo: Republished with permission of VeloPress

Today, riders use motorpacing in training to simulate what they’ll face in a race: Spinning high cadence at high speed and lower torques, experiencing quick accelerations, improving responsiveness, getting used to “playing with the wind,” and saving energy.

“It is good for leg speed and cadence,” said EF Pro Cycling‘s Simon Clarke. “You can’t ride around as fast as we race, and riding with a motorbike enables that. There is also quite a difference in torque when you accelerate at high speed or when you do sprint training from standing start, at 30kph, and then with a motorbike at 50kph. We need to train those accelerations.”

Clarke grew up motorpacing in Australia. When he was 15 years old, his coach was prescribing two sessions of motorpacing twice a week. Track cycling was also predominant at that time, and so was training at high cadence and speed.

Clarke motorpaces less, now, according to what he needs for his goals. If he can race more often, he uses races to develop his leg speed. But if that’s not possible, he focuses on motorpacing. Clarke completed a 6-day motorpacing camp in Italy with his coach Michele Bartoli, following a lockdown spent in Andora during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in which he was mainly on the turbo (stationary) trainer, with just a few sessions on the road, in the hills.

Other riders and teams also individualize the motorpacing approach to the goals of the season.

“In a normal season, we don’t use it much because race frequency is high, and they often get the stimulus of riding at high speed and playing with the wind,” said Mathieu Heijboer, head of performance for Jumbo-Visma. “Only for our sprinters is it a weekly routine. For other riders, it depends on how long the off-racing period is.”

Heijboer believes one of the main benefits of motorpacing teaches riders to stay out of the wind. Plus, riders can achieve high speeds while using the least amount of energy expenditure.

Former world road champion Marta Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubljana) said that she’s doing more motorpacing than ever.

“I program it for at least three weeks before every race and at least three to four times per week for at least one hour,” she said. “I find that it gives me a higher cadence and a better rhythm. It’s a beneficial training, though it has risks, and the first time I tried it, I still heard the sound of the scooter during the night.”

The keirin on the track is a motorpaced event.Photo: Graham Watson

Rider benefits

Clarke and Heijboer agree motor-pacing is more suited to one-day specialists, sprinters, and finisseurs. It’s less ideal for GC contenders and climbers who tend to ride in the mountains at constant power — a kind of performance they could replicate more efficiently in training.

“It can help time-triallists as well because they also need to get used to high speeds. But sprinters need the motorpacing more: In the last 5km of a race, they need to save as much as energy as possible while also going as fast as possible and sprint in the last 300 meters,” said Heijboer. “A time-triallist is always by themself and has different needs, but it could help them to be more responsive to wind direction and to what they can find on the road.”

Heijboer and his team used motorpacing a lot ahead of the team time trial at the 2015 UCI world championships in Richmond. His team (then LottoNL-Jumbo) finished in 6th place.

But there are exceptions. Clarke, for example, remembers Cadel Evans being very fond of motorpacing. Even the Italian Vincenzo Nibali has used it often in preparation for grand tours.

Nibali’s Trek-Segafredo teammate Jacopo Mosca has been motor-pacing since his amateur years, and he used to do it year-round. Mosca believes that it “could help all riders. Uphills can give you that little extra that you wouldn’t do alone because you simulate an attack from an opponent or riding with the group with a smaller expense of energies. It also helps to maintain higher cadence at the end of an ascent.”

Heijboer also concedes that, “It can be motivating to climb at 25kph behind a moto, instead of 18. But I don’t see the advantage of that. When you ride uphill, you always need to push the watts, and kinetic energy is low because the speed is low. And you don’t race 35kph uphill.”

Car or scooter?

Most of the riders prefer to motorpace behind a scooter. That isn’t only for safety reasons (or the law, in some locales), but because it’s more similar to what they’ll experience in the bunch.

“I prefer the smallest scooter possible,” said Clarke. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to replicate riding behind another rider. Riding behind a car gives you too much draft.”

Clarkes does not ride directly behind the scooter, either. He prefers sitting at the side of it and get a little bit of wind. He also rides on the hoods and not on the drops.

“I’m less aerodynamic, but it replicates the correct resistance I would get in a race,” he said. “Often people ride at 60kph in the drops and tell pacers to go faster. But that’s not correct, and you should sit [and motorpace] at the speed you race at.”

Clarke’s go-to for motorpacing is behind a 125cc Vespa. He said it is a good choice because it’s not too big to offer too much draft, yet has a powerful engine.

Someone who has also used motor pacing a lot in the past (both on the track and the road) is track Olympic champion and five-time world champion Elinor Barker.

“I never used a car. I’ve only used scooter because it’s safer,” she said. “But it still allows you to go at the speed you go in races, without doing the high power you would do. On the track, it is easier and safer because you don’t have different terrains, and you have to concentrate less on cornering.”

Bastianelli also notes that behind a car the risk is greater as the speed increases. If there’s a hole in the road, it’s harder to respond on time. “Plus, you need to always be on alert for any wrong movement of the car and remain concentrated the whole time,” she said. “The scooter doesn’t take much space on the road and simulate been behind another cyclist better.”

Bradley Wiggins in a motorpaced race on the track
Bradley Wiggins motorpacing on the track. Photo: Tim De WaeleMVH/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Motorpacing sessions

Motorpacing sessions vary quite a lot according to riders’ goals, and the type of racing they do. Sessions can last about two hours, with different intervals at tempo, threshold, or some sprints in excess of  60kph. Alternatively, a motorpacing set can be done in the last hour of a four- or five-hour ride.

Clarke’s training camp had a different approach: As he lacked racing fitness, he rode for six entire days behind a vehicle. “I rode almost the whole Tirreno-Adriatico behind a scooter,” he said

Barker said her sessions were “longer on the road (up to one hour block), and shorter on the track, so 20 minutes with sprints.” Most of her sessions were also performed close to competitions to replicate her race needs as much as possible. Still, she motorpaced year-round.

Some racers are putting in monster motorpaced rides, too. Mosca remembers a time when he rode from his hometown of Pinerolo (near Turin, Italy), up to Sestriere and back for a total of more than 200km dietro motore (“behind a motor”). He did so a week before the Italian national championships in 2018.

“It was a motorpacing day where we wanted to do it for the whole day to simulate a whole race,” he said. “Up hills, the rhythm was easy, with only a few progressions in the end. The last part of the ride, after the descent from Sestriere, I did the last 40km flat out.”

Dangerous, but worth it

The vehicle operator is a crucial part of the motorpacing puzzle. Riders tend to follow behind a coach, a former rider, or someone familiar with the efforts required (Mosca asked his brother to do the pacing) and who has experience piloting a scooter with a cyclist just behind them. They mustn’t drive too fast, brake too hard, nor accelerate too quickly after a bend. Even increasing the speed from 38 to 42kph — a slight increase for a scooter — is quite significant if you’re on a bicycle.

“I think communicating is also a tricky part of it,” adds Barker. “Especially on the road, it’s hard to say if you need to go faster or slower. But the way I’ve done in the past was generally quite safe, and on the road, I went out on a loop on fairly quiet roads. On the track, it is pretty safe as well. I don’t think I would ever do it if I’d feel it was not safe.”

Still, motor-pacing is not for everybody.

“If you’re not a pro or a full-time rider, you shouldn’t do it,” said Clarke. “I don’t do it for the fun or adrenaline rush, but for specific training that I need for pro racing. Having done it for a long time comes naturally to me, but you need to be alert.”

Heijboer believes it’s an essential part of his riders’ training schedule, but it shouldn’t be overestimated. “It’s still one piece of a bigger puzzle,” he said.