You’ve ridden by yourself and feel your fitness increasing. You want to join group rides and jump into pacelines. But you’re uncertain how to learn to draft, and you feel intimidated by more experienced cyclists. (This is also good info if you’re a seasoned rider asked to teach a newbie how to draft.)
Learning to ride with others is relatively easy, although picking up the nuances may take several years of experience. The trick is to learn in sequence, starting with simple drafting on one other rider.
Some Initial Steps to Learn Drafting
First, learn to draft one rider. To get the hang of paceline riding, pair up with an experienced rider. Ride at a moderate pace on a safe road. Put your front wheel about 3 feet (1m) behind his or her rear wheel. Learn to feel comfortable in the draft. As your confidence increases, reduce the gap to 2 feet (66cm).
Notice how the draft is stronger when you’re closer to your partner’s wheel, less as you drift back. Notice how the draft improves when speed increases. Feel how the draft moves slightly to the side in a crosswind. You’ll feel more protection to the right of your partner’s rear wheel when the wind is from the left, and vice versa.
Learn to pedal and brake smoothly. Drafting on your partner also emphasizes the importance of smooth pedaling. If your pedaling is herky-jerky, you’ll run up on the wheel in front and have to brake, which will open a gap. You’ll pedal furiously to close it, then need to slam on the brakes again. This vicious cycle can be eliminated by concentrating on pedaling smoothly at the same speed as the leading rider.
Braking smoothly is also important in the draft. Instead of braking abruptly by applying too much pressure, learn to “feather” the brakes, or smoothly and lightly apply just the right amount of pressure needed. This technique will be invaluable to you whenever you have graduated from drafting with just one partner and advanced to a paceline with several riders. Braking abruptly in a paceline is dangerous both to you and any riders behind you.
Practice rotating the lead. The front rider checks over his or her shoulder to make sure traffic is clear, then moves carefully to one side (determined by wind direction, road conditions and traffic) and begins to soft pedal.
This means turning the crank but without applying enough power to maintain current speed. Doing so lets you come through by riding straight ahead at the same speed you’ve beenriding. No acceleration is necessary because you’ll automatically be going faster than your soft-pedaling friend.
It will feel a bit harder to pedal now because you’re out of the draft and catching the wind. When your partner drops far enough behind, s/he’ll move over into your draft.
Stay close as you pass each other while rotating the lead. The closer your shoulders come, the less wind each of you will have to push and the narrower your combined width — important on narrow roads so motorists can get past. Of course, start out with a comfortable, safe distance between riders, then move in as your confidence and ability grow.
Tip: When you pull off the front, don’t slow down too much, or you’ll struggle mightily to get back on your partner’s wheel — or the wheel of the last rider in the paceline once you’ve graduated to the group.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.