Bike Drafting: How Does Drafting Work in Cycling

When a cyclist pedals, the major element he is fighting is the wind. The majority of your effort when riding on the flats at medium and high speeds is spent trying to slice through the wind. You can do this by yourself by getting in an aerodynamic position and choosing the proper pedaling cadence. When you find yourself in a group of people trying to ride efficiently in the wind, there are techniques and skills that can make things a lot easier. Knowing how to get the most speed out of your energy will make for a more enjoyable ride.

Scott Fortner races for the powerful Saturn team. He won the First Union Grand Prix in Atlanta this past May (the second biggest one-day race in the country) by attacking a group near the end and soloing to victory. He then followed up by racing a strong Tour DuPont, placing third in the first stage (making the lead breakaway). We caught up with Scott as he rested after his busy spring and was preparing for the USPRO road racing championships and hit him up for some tips and helpful hints for riding in the wind.

Which Way the Wind Blows

First, you have to judge which way the wind is coming from. You can do this a few different ways: You can look at the riders in front of you and see if they are overlapping a certain way like if the wind is coming from the right, they will be overlapping to the left. You can also feel where the wind is coming from.

You do this by moving around behind the person in front of you until there is the least amount of wind hitting you, until you feel the most efficient. You can also look at objects such as flags, bushes, grass or trees and see which way the wind is blowing.

Pulling Through

After you figure out the wind direction, you want to start rotating in a paceline by pulling around the person in front of you–on the protected side–and into the wind. The length of time you pull depends on your ability and the number of people in your group.

Usually when there are four or less people in the group, it is more efficient to each take a pull at the front individually. The group will be in one line and each rider will pull off, drop back and sit on the back before the next person pulls off. You should keep a steady speed then pull off, after 20 seconds or whatever length feels comfortable depending on your ability and strength.

You should try to keep the speed up.

If a rider in front pulls for 20 seconds at 28 mph but you can’t pull that fast for that long, you should take a shorter pull at the same speed instead of slowing down to take the same length pull. It’s better to pull shorter and keep the speed up. If you slow down, you will lose time and the person who pulls after you is going to have to expend extra energy to get the speed back up.

When there are more people in the group [five or more], it is usually faster to have a rotating paceline. In this situation, your pull length will be shorter. You just want to make it around the person in front of you and pull off so the next person can do the same.

Your group will be constantly rotating, so there will always be someone in front and behind you. Try to keep a steady speed when it’s your turn at the front in the wind–don’t speed up or slow down. If you try to take a pull longer than everyone else, it will disrupt things and make the paceline uneven.

Speeding up at the front makes it especially hard for the people who are at the back trying to rotate and jump back into the line that is going forward. The speed difference between the line pulling forward and the one dropping back usually isn’t that much, maybe a couple of miles per hour.

If you go really fast at the front, there is a big difference in speed from one line to the other, and the transition from dropping back to pulling forward is a lot harder. When I swing over into the forward line and have to judge when to move over, I go by feel. When I started out, I would be ready to move over when my front wheel came even with the person’s bottom bracket–that’s probably a good rule of thumb to use.

Whenever it’s my turn to pull off at the front, I motion with my elbow a little bit (if they’re on my left, I motion to the left and vice versa) and that just lets them know that I’m pulling off and they can start to ease around me. Since I’ve been racing for so long, I now have a feel for when my back wheel clears the other person’s front and it is safe to move over. If you are not yet at this point, you may want to take a quick glance back to see when you clear their wheel. Sometimes the person you are moving in front of will say, “okay” or “clear,” or something to let you know you’ve cleared their wheel and it’s safe to move over. When you are beginning, it’s probably best to leave a little extra space to make sure you’ve cleared them, instead of trying to cut it close. When you pull off and are dropping back, you want to try to stay close side to side–you don’t need to be 5 feet away from the person next to you. When you stay close, you can get a little side draft which makes it easier to jump back on when you get to the back.

The gear I use changes depending on if I’m pulling or not. Personally, I tend to push a bigger gear when I’m in the wind at the front. I keep it in the same gear when I drop back, just trying to soft pedal and keep efficient. I shift into an easier gear right before I swing back into the line that’s going forward. I stay in the easier gear when I’m getting back up toward pulling, concentrating on recovering, then I drop it down and use a bigger gear when I start to take my pull. This doesn’t necessarily mean I speed up; I just prefer to push a bigger gear when I pull.

The Winding Road

If you are riding down a road which is turning and the wind is coming from the side, you may have to switch the side that you rotate on. When you make a turn, you need to again feel out which way the wind is coming from using the same methods I discussed before. Sometimes people will keep rotating to the same side even though the wind has switched. If this happens, you can tell by how the wind is hitting you-you won’t feel as efficient, and you’ll need to tell the group you’re with to start pulling off to the other side. If the wind is either a direct head- or tailwind, you won’t be overlapping in the paceline–you will be directly behind the person in front of you.

The biggest thing I remember when I first started riding with people is that the person in front of me was my eyes and when I was in the front, I was responsible for the people behind me. This means I was responsible for pointing things out and not steering through road obstacles. This lets the people behind you relax so they can have a smooth, comfortable and efficient ride; they don’t have to be white-knuckling their bar thinking they’re going to hit something unexpected.

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