To determine when secondary structure forms as two chains coalesce to form an alpha-helical dimer, the folding rates of variants of the coiled coil region of GCN4 were compared. Residues at non-perturbing positions along the exterior length of the helices were substituted one at a time with alanine and glycine to vary helix propensity and therefore dimer stability. For all variants, the bimolecular folding rate remains largely unchanged; the unfolding rate changes to largely account for the change in stability. Thus, contrary to most folding models, widespread helix is not yet formed at the rate-limiting step in the folding pathway. The high-energy transition state is a collapsed form that contains little if any secondary structure, as suggested for the globular protein cytochrome c (Sosnick et al., Proteins 24: 413-426, 1996).