Riding in a Pack, Part 2, Drafting
NOW this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky; And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back — For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
-Rudyard Kipling "The Law of the Jungle
Once the pack order and communication has been established, it is time to start riding efficiently. The strength of the group is dependent on how efficiently and cooperatively it works. The next skill to master is drafting.
Bar-keep, One Draft Please...
Drafting means riding in the "wake" of another rider. As one rides directly behind a lead rider, he benefits from his companion blocking the wind. Out on the road, the rider constantly battles with the wind, and studies have long shown that aerodynamics play a huge role in efficiency and add to overall speed. The rider tucked in behind a mate can benefit from almost a 30% reduction in wind resistance. That means that you can maintain the same speed with 30% less work. Sounds good to me.
Last month, I was on the front for almost an hour on the local group ride when a teammate came up and asked if anyone wanted a break. I think my response was something like. "I ain't too proud to beg, sure!" For the next five minutes, I blissfully sat on his wheel and did very little work. It was a lifesaver. I jumped back on the front and had legs again! This week, I rode at the back of the pack as the sweep, and my average power for the ride that averaged almost 19 mph was only 130 watts! That's recovery zone 1 for even a rider like me.
So how do you draft? In normal situations, you want to ride directly behind the lead rider and sit in the "pocket" as he blocks the wind. A wheel to a wheel and a half distance behind is a good starting point. I would say that one should only get closer if you know you can trust the lead rider. If he tends to brake a lot, swerve, or bunny-hop things without calling them out, then you need to be careful. If you trust that wheel, you can get closer and closer with more benefit. I have a few friends that I can easily ride two to three inches behind with no worries, but I would say half a wheel's distance is good enough. This leeway is important to maintain so that stopping and changes in pace are safe and efficient.
Make sure not to overlap your wheel with the lead rider's rear wheel. Stay directly behind him. If you overlap wheels, you run the risk of the lead rider turning and taking each other out when your front and his rear wheel touch.
When winds are coming from the left, then it would be best for the rearward rider to be behind and to the right of the lead rider. And vice versa when the wind is coming from the right. When hiding from a cross wind, be sure to not overlap wheels. It's easy to creep up and get yourself in trouble, especially considering that the lead rider is being blown towards you.
If you watch any of the major road races that take place in wide-open spaces like the Middle East or Belgium you often see long echelons of riders who form chevron-like lines to hide from the wind. This awareness of wind direction will also play a role in tomorrow's topic, rotation.
Some other tips for drafting:
1. Maintain a similar cadence and gear to the rider in the lead and try to find a rhythm. Soft-pedaling at a high cadence and lower gear is often the ticket to matching speeds effectively.
2. Do not stare at the lead rider's wheel and get mesmerized. This can easily draw you into a bad situation.
3. Look ahead and through the rider, looking for hazards, turns, and what's up the road.
4. Be mindful to not overuse the brakes.
5. Be careful if the rider in the lead gets out of the seat to climb. This can throw his rear wheel backwards and cause a touch of wheels.
6. Practice with a friend.
Drafting will open up a whole new world of speed and fun for you. The efficiency of the draft is a great way for the group to be strong together, and it is a great way for mismatched riders to be able to ride together. I know that often I will get out on a ride with a much stronger rider, and I can utilize the draft in order to not get dropped.