The Best of the Bunch

JOHN STUART-CLARK, German team coach Peter Konopka PETER KONOPKA and BEN SEARLE explain, each in turn, advanced riding techniques for fast group or peleton riding.

Drafting for fast tourists

John Stuart-Clark rode in a group across the Great Hungarian Plain

In road racing the competition never lets up. We have the joy of watching those vertiginous helicopter shots of the Tour de France and the chance to study the team donkeys (domestiques) jockeying dangerously for position in support of the stars. But you don't need to be a challenger for the Yellow Jersey to benefit from the skill of drafting, as I found out on the Great Hungarian Plain, a vast 'puszta' blasted by winds capable of pushing a cyclist backwards.

The locals find the easiest way to ride from village to village is to form an ad hoc echelon and work together, rotating responsibility at the front at every kilometre waymarker. In the process of crossing the Plain, I was swept up in several bunches of assorted communist clunkers, babushkas on mountain bikes and Hungarian tourists with tennis rackets sprouting from their panniers. Their 'bit and bitting' technique was a little ropey, but it served the purpose well. Of course it does help if you speak the same language. Commands and instructions are the lubricants that keep the machine rolling smoothly. On the Hungarian Plain we did our best with whistles and yelps.

How does it work? By using drafting techniques in a group you can reduce your battle against the elements by as much as 40%. Solo cyclists encounter two main points of friction beyond those integral in the mechanisms of the bicycle. Wind resistance is between you and the atmosphere around you. Rolling resistance is between your tyres and the road. At speeds over 8 mph, wind drag is the enemy of the solo cyclist, and group riding offers a protective embrace.

The physics of this are not cut and dried, since the measuring of aerodynamic drag and energy expenditure relies on wind tunnel readings that vary from one test lab to another. Broadly speaking, plopping into the low pressure area behind another cyclist will reduce the wind resistance by 34% to 44%, depending on how close you ride to your leader. Tucked in the back of a delta formation of eight cyclists, this transforms into about a 33% saving on your energy consumption, an experience not to be missed. For further information on the physics, read Serious Cycling by Edmund Burke, published in the USA by Human Kinetics.

Drafts for the advanced student

Germany's team coach, Peter Konopka, explains how to get the best out of drafting:

To make best use of the 'wind shadow' you need to ride something like 5 or 10cm behind the leader's rear tyre. You should ride slightly to the side, so you don't crash if the leading rider suddenly brakes. Following a wheel in this way demands concentration and skill. To stop your concentration lapsing, let your eye wander a little, from the rear tyre to his/her freewheel, legs, and back, then return your gaze to the rear tyre.

Place yourself behind according to the wind direction. In a side wind coming from the right, ride slightly to the left of the front rider. If from the left, ride slightly to their right, with your front wheel parallel to their rear. In a headwind ride directly behind. As every rider will seek this ideal position, it is normal for an echelon to form (see diagram). Under ordinary traffic conditions this is not really possible, but you can still ride slightly to one side.

In races, cyclists share the work against wind resistance, the front rider swinging off and drifting to the back of the string of riders, moving gradually sideways out of the wind as s/he does so, until reaching the back of the line, then starting to move up again as others take their turn at the front. Doing 'bit and bit', as this work-sharing is called, works well on narrow roads where echelons are not possible. The motion of the group is that of a continually revolving circle or chain.

Riders' turns at the front of such a working group tend to be shorter as the headwind increases. Weaker riders take even shorter turns at the front, but all this presupposes that members of the group are really doing their best share of the work.

From The Complete Cycle Sport Guide (EP Publishing)

Professional Practice

Ben Searle gives insights into tactical riding within a professional bunch:

Your priorities in a race are to conserve as much energy as possible for when you need it most, at the same time keeping yourself safe and in contention. The first rule is to avoid the rear end of the bunch where you get a harder ride and are at a greater risk from crashes up ahead. Equally, at the front end, you will be putting in a greater effort and using up vital energy that may be needed later. The ideal position is in the first quarter of the bunch – out of trouble and out of the wind, but in contention.

Be aware that twists and turns in the road will alter the direction of the wind and consequently where you need to ride. Try to seek shelter at all times, staying somewhere in the middle of the group. If you are not near the front, you might be forced to ride in the gutter, behind the echelon, where there is no shelter. On windy sections, it pays to force your way to the front, even if this means a short spell of solo riding.

Whether you climb well or not, you should aim to be near the front on hills, staying in contention when the inevitable pressure is applied. If you start to suffer, you will simply drift back through the bunch instead of dropping off the back. On short climbs, stay with the bunch at all costs. On longer climbs, ride at your own pace, limiting your losses as much as possible. Try not to find yourself on your own. It will be difficult to climb back into the bunch without someone to pace you.

On descents and short fast circuits, aim to stay well to the front of the bunch. It may be hard to get up there, but the ride will be much easier than towards the rear. You not only remain in contention, but also stay out of danger.

From The Racing Bike Book, Ben Searle (Haynes, 1997)