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Good Drafting Technique Saves Energy

There are quite a few variables in drafting, but if done correctly, you can use between 10% and 40% less effort to cover the same distance at the same speed. Whether you’re a sport rider or a racer, knowing how and when to draft can keep you with the main group to the end of the ride.

Drafting a rider means you are in their slipstream, and your wind resistance (or coefficient of drag) is reduced significantly. Wind resistance goes up by the square of velocity, so the faster you’re going, the greater the advantage of drafting. If you share time at the front, being the tip of the arrow, everyone benefits, and the average speed can go up by 3 to 5 mph with two or three riders, or even 10 mph in a very big group.

Last year I penned another Red Rock article on riding a single paceline, and I referred to drafting. This article reiterates some of the same issues.


How to safely draft another cyclist

To draft another rider, both of you have to be smooth and predictable and able to ride a straight line. With your front tire one to two feet away from the other rider’s rear tire, find the spot that’s the “quietest,” where you are exposed to the least amount of wind and turbulence. Keep a relaxed grip on the bars, stay low, but always be prepared to brake or adjust your line. You should be looking “through” the rider in front of you, with your eyes following the middle of his bike frame. Your peripheral vision must be acute to watch for sudden movements, road hazards, and anything approaching you from the side. If you’re following a very smooth rider, you can actually draft as close as 6”…if you’re attentive.

When “trading pulls” with one other rider, you may want to keep your time at the front anywhere from thirty seconds to two or three minutes, depending upon the intensity of the pace. (Harder pulls should be kept shorter.) When the front rider is done, he will gradually move over a foot or two, ease up a mile per hour, or flick his elbow to let you know it’s your turn. Don’t pick up the speed much when you go to the front; move to the front as the other rider moves back to get onto your wheel. The most common mistake made by those who don’t know how to draft is they go to the front and hammer, picking the speed up 5 mph. The tired rider who just took a pull has to sprint up to the rookie to maintain contact. This defeats the purpose of drafting, which is meant to enhance efficiency. Make smooth passes. Again, when you go to the front, don’t accelerate much if at all.


Drafting changes depending upon the terrain

Drafting is most effective on flat or rolling terrain. Because you may be climbing at 8-12 mph, the aerodynamic advantage isn’t as great on hills. If you know that a rider is on your wheel on a climb, be careful if you’re going to stand up or shift gears. Do so without slowing down at all so you don’t crash the rider behind you. On descents at higher speeds, drafting isn’t as important, and riders tend to leave more space between them for safety. Also, if a rider is on your wheel, avoid shifting more than one cog at a time. If you have to shift chainrings, make sure you surge a bit before you shift so the drafting rider doesn’t plow into you. Because that would be bad.

Riders taking turns drafting into a headwind will do far better than if they’re spread out across the road, all in the wind. Drafting is really teamwork, and you rely upon your mates. Pounding into a strong headwind in a group, sending one warrior at a time up into the jaws of nature, is really quite rewarding. And painful.


Anticipate your imminent demise

After ten or fifteen minutes of trading pulls, you may have a revelation…”Uh-oh. I am about to be in trouble.” Recognize the warning signs; high heart rate, lactic acid in your legs, gasping for air, you can’t find a comfortable gear, and you have poor recovery after your turn at the front. If you are more fatigued than the other riders, there is no shame in missing a turn at the front or sitting on the back for a while to get the maximum draft so you can recover. When you feel better, you can slide back into the rotation, and maybe no one will call you a “shameless wheel whore.” If you are capable of taking your turn at the front, but you choose to be a selfish opportunist, you may be labelled a “wheelsucker.” Yes, it’s a pejorative term, but in a race, it’s actually good tactics to never take a pull. Training rides with friends are different, though. If you are able to, go to the front and do just enough work that you aren’t viewed as a slacker. And remember, the guy who spends the most time at the front is the guy who is getting the best workout.

Always get on the best wheel

The type of person in front of you makes a huge difference in drafting. If the rider is smooth, you can draft closer to them, increasing the aerodynamic effect. If they’re a bit squirrely, you need to leave them more room and you’ll have to work harder because of the gap. A short or very thin rider won’t give you as much of a draft, so look for a big, strong, steady wheel. I’ve found that local riders Ron Daniels and Scott Mickelson are ideal to draft off because they’re strong, smooth, predictable, and they’re the size of linebackers. (Actually, Ron is more the build of a tight end.) And drafting a tandem is nirvana, but you’ll never be the one on their wheel because Joel Bingham always gets there first.


Crosswinds are tricky

Drafting in a crosswind requires adjustments. If you’re in front and the wind is blowing from the left, move to the left (into the lane) so the riders behind you can echelon diagonally to the right and stay in the draft. If the wind is coming from the right, stay as far to the shoulder; to the right; as possible so the drafting riders can echelon left and be in the draft. They’ll be hanging out in the lane more than you, so stay as far to the right as is “practicable.” It’s easier to overlap wheels in a crosswind, and although it can provide a better draft, it’s the cause of a high percentage of crashes. If the wind is strong and gusty from the side, just don’t overlap wheels.

If you approach turns, you must also be careful not to overlap. Maybe leave an extra foot or so between you and the bike in front of you until the road straightens out again, and then tighten up the formation.

Drafting is probably safer than an arbitrary array of bicycles all over the road. Done right, it’s predictable, orderly, and safe. Avoid swerving around obstacles, maintain your concentration, avoid overlapping and “half-wheeling,” don’t use earbuds when riding with others even if the music is off, go to your bottle only when you’re in the back, etc. In short, don’t be a hazard to yourself and others.

The best way to learn how to draft properly is to find a local who has racing or group riding experience and have them show you. It won’t take long, and once you learn, you can ride anywhere on Earth with riders you’ve never met before and fit right in. Drafting techniques are universal. Do it right, go faster and be safe!

Written by Paul Scarpelli


3 Responses to “Good Drafting Technique Saves Energy”

  1. Brook Mickelson on 03 Feb 2017 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for the informative, easily understood and enjoyable article!

  2. Robert Wrench on 06 Feb 2017 at 6:52 pm

    Hi Paul,

    You were always fun to ride with because you understood drafting and a lot more. Enjoyed reading your writing. Maybe someday, but perhaps not, we will again be able to draft together on a ride.

  3. Owen on 07 May 2017 at 1:16 am

    Great written by Paul. I really like the good drafting techniques suggested here. To save energy while bicycling I believe these techniques are highly beneficial.

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