If you’ve ever watched a bike race or even seen a group of riders go by, you’ve seen drafting on a bike. But what are the real benefits of drafting? Drafting on a bike is a relatively straightforward bike riding skill that any cyclist can learn. It will make cycling with other riders dramatically more efficient, and also safer if you are using the correct technique.
What is Drafting?
In simple terms, if you are cycling behind another rider it can reduce your pedaling effort up to as much as 30 to 40 percent. This big benefit is based on simple aerodynamics. The rider in front of you is actually pushing through the air in front of you, creating an air pocket directly behind that you can ride in at a reduced effort, while still maintaining the same speed.
The benefits are still noticeable even as the distance you are riding behind the cyclist in front increases. When you are even as far as three bike lengths away from the first bike, you can still see a reduction in effort of up to 20 percent.
It gets even more interesting when you are riding in a bigger group. Even the cyclist in front can also save up to 3 percent in effort, as the cyclists behind them break up the air current, although cyclists near the end of the group can benefit the most. The next to the last rider will see the some of the biggest drafting benefits, as there is still one more bike behind, according to the same principle.
So how do you even start drafting and how can you develop the skills which are required to master it?
Practice Drafting with A Friend
Cycling so close to the rear wheel of the rider in front of you can take some time to get used to. The good news is that you have the ability to practice this skill with just one other rider. In fact, it’s much safer to learn by riding behind a fellow cyclist who’s willing ride at a steady and predictable pace so you can get the hang of it, and most experienced cyclists are always happy to teach you how. A good place to start is to master keeping the distance at around half of a wheel to a full wheel distance away from the rider in front. If that feels too scary at first, increase the distance until you are more comfortable.
Maintaining a steady distance behind the cyclist in front of you is a skill in itself, and you will improve over time. But a safe following distance allows you the time for adjustments, if needed. These adjustments include changes in speed or even direction. Mastering cycling at the same speed comes with its benefits. As the rider at the back, you should feel the benefits immediately, as soon as you get behind another rider. Over time, you’ll gain more confidence and feel comfortable riding closer to the read wheel in front of you.
One good tip to master this art is to keep your head up, with an eye on the rider in front on you and the road ahead. Don’t stare at the rear wheel in front of you. Staring down at the back wheel you are drafting can be dangerous, because you won’t have enough time to react when the rider in front of you brakes or moves to avoid something in the road or approaches a turn. Keeping your head up and your eyes ahead gives you a feeling for the pace of the group, the road ahead, and where you are situated in terms of distance from the bikes ahead of you. Always make sure that your front wheel never overlaps the rear wheel of the rider in front of you.
Working for a better and smoother cycling experience also involves mastering the changes in speed. It’s extremely important to avoid braking suddenly or erratically, but at the same time to be prepared to brake or take action there is a crash ahead of you, or if a car pulls in front of the group or turns or brakes without warning. If you’re riding near the front, it’s important to call out things like potholes, dogs, upcoming turns and other traffic so that the riders in back know what’s coming. And if you’re in back, you need to pay attention when the riders in front are calling out or pointing at something in the road.
Pay Attention to Wind Direction
Wind direction has an important influence on drafting. If the wind is coming directly from the front, then you can easily position yourself directly behind the first rider at the appropriate distance. But when the wind comes from an angle, you will also need to adjust your position for maximum benefits. The two main adjustments are done to each side. If the wind is coming from the left, you will need to position yourself to the right. If the wind is coming from the right, you will cycle to the left.
When there is a strong crosswind, it’s called an echelon when the other riders are forced to draft at an angle that goes diagonally across the road. If you are riding in such a crosswind, never cross the yellow line to get a draft and always stay out of other traffic lanes if you are riding on open roads. It’s better to lose your draft than to be hit by a car.
Things to Avoid While Drafting on a Bike
While riding in larger groups can be even more complex, the important thing to remember is that your actions in the group affect others. No matter your position in the group, avoid sudden moves and braking.
Changes in pace can also be a challenge. In order to avoid accidents, you should always speed up and slow down smoothly, taking into account that there are other riders close by. Always stay aware of whether there are other riders behind you, especially with a cross wind where they could be on one side or the other. It is here accidents can happen if you stand up and get out the saddle to speed up and throw your rear wheel backwards where it might touch the front wheel of the rider behind you. Always make sure there is plenty of space when standing up, and do it smoothly so that your bike doesn’t shoot backwards behind you.
Staying alert is key. Keep an eye on the body language of the riders in front of you. Is the pace steady? Is the someone at the very front of the group speeding up or slowing down? The better you pay attention and stay aware, the more time you have to react smoothly and calmly.
Eventually, you’ll also need to master riding at the front. This is why during practice, it is recommended that you switch positions during the ride. This way you’ll know what to do when you get to the front of a group or paceline. Learn how to signal that you are finishing your turn at the front so that someone else can ride through and take over. Never just
Cyclists who race sometimes even practice contact. While you always want to avoid actually getting in contact with another rider, knowing not to panic if you do can save you in a tight, tricky situation. You can actually practice this on a field or somewhere with no hard surfaces. Alternatively, you can also practice the contact with the body of another rider (but be sure they are also aware that you’re practicing first!), by touching elbows or putting a hand on a rider’s shoulder, and not just wheels’ contact. Avoid ever letting your handlebars make contact with another rider’s bars, because that almost always leads to a crash for one or both riders.
Learning how to master the art of draft also means that you need to learn how to sacrifice draft temporarily in order to avoid accidents as well.
Andrew Lowen helps manage content at Moment Bicycles and has been in love with bikes ever since his mom bought him his first tricycle. He plans to compete in his first triathlon next year. Though, he did say the same thing last year.
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