The Joy of Drafting

I was doing an afterwork ride this week at the Veloway,  when a couple passed me by. He seemed to be a little older than she, and seemed to be the more experienced biker. He was leading, and she was glued to his rear wheel. Obviously they were practicing something. Perhaps he was pacing her. They went by me easily, and I thought they’d be out of sight soon. But they weren’t going as fast as I thought. I soon found myself caught back up to them. I decided to latch on.

It looked like she was practicing drafting. She did a good job of keeping her front wheel about a foot behind his rear wheel. I tried to get as close to her as she was to him, but I’ve always been leery of following too close. Gradually, I closed the gap.

On a closed course like Austin’s Veloway, it’s easy to keep a paceline together. You’re not worried about traffic, and the kinds of road debris you encounter on shoulders just doesn’t exist there. I noticed both of them were down in the drops, pedaling in their big rings. I usually tour the Veloway in my small ring at a high cadence. I shifted up to match their style, and got down in my drops, too.

We glided around the course. The benefits of riding closely like we were showed themselves. On a flat straight stretch, we were hitting 24 mph into the wind. (Admittedly not a very strong wind this evening.) The woman glanced over her shoulder and saw that I was there, but made no gesture.

If I do ride in the drops, I do it for a relatively short period of time. This evening we stayed in the drops for the entire lap. They swooped through the last few bends before the end of the lap, then started a new one. I hung in there.

After three laps like this, I had reached the end of my ride. I still had almost three miles to pedal to reach home, and it would soon be time to eat. The couple continued for yet another lap. I peeled off and went through the gate, through the parking lot, and out onto the street.

The speed we had reached was, of course, higher and more sustained than I could have done on my own. Several times, I found myself soft pedaling because they were pulling me along. Staying in the drops allowed me to apply more power to the pedals without much increase in effort. The experience left me exhilarated, and I felt like I could do a lot more.

It was also much different from group riding on the road. I’m not crazy about long pacelines in traffic. For one thing, you can’t see any obstacles ahead. Even if people signal, when you’re tailing them so close, it’s often hard to miss debris. More importantly, I never feel sure I know what the person in front of me is going to do. I find myself concentrating really hard to anticipate what will happen next, and to keep my wheel from touching his, that it drains my energy really fast.

Behind two folks on a close course, it was different. I felt part of a team (although I didn’t take a pull — either did the woman) and was very comfortable riding as close as I did. I resolved to try to duplicate the way we rode on future visits to the Veloway.

I also resolved to ask permission in the future before jumping into a paceline.

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5 thoughts on “The Joy of Drafting

  1. I’ve never ridden on a veloway; someday I’ll remedy that. I share your opinion of pacelines on roads. The benefits are still there – fast pace and less effort – but it definitely is WORK. There is constant communication about road hazards, braking, cars up and back, etc… And the rider who doesn’t keep his eyes glued on the wheel in front of him (and his periphial vision on things just in front and to the side) is asking to wreck in a painful way. There is little time for gazing about and enjoying the scenery.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned asking permission before joining a paceline. On the road sometimes you get stuck behind a large group but what you did could have been perceived as creepy.

  3. The only time I will paceline with a group is when I know/trust them. I’ve been in some rough pacelines where obstacles are not pointed out and communication is nonexistent, which is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, it’s amazing the speeds and distances you can accomplish with the right group.

  4. You should NOT keep your eyes glued to the wheel in front of you. You should be looking ahead of the paceline to spot hazards and be able to move ahead of time. If you only monitor the wheel in front of you, you will not be able to react in time if they shift the line to avoid a hazard. It takes some experience to follow closely and avoid overlapping. If you find yourself overtaking the person in front, you can modulate your speed with the rear brake (which the rider behind can see move and ease accordingly) or increase your wind resistance by sitting up or moving slightly to the side into the wind.

    Moreover you should know who the rider is in front if you follow closely . If you don’t know their experience level and handling skills (some folks are very jerky in the movement), keep some distance between you.

    If the line rotates and you become the front rider, avoid the tendency to speeding up too quickly (since you’ll will be hit by the wind) and breaking the rhythm. Also, don’t stand to ride in a paceline, most folks don’t ride smooth enough and inexperienced paceliners often slow slightly when they initially stand.

    Riding with familiar riders in a paceline is a great way to tackle long distance rides or really windy days.

    And yes, ask permission. Besides, if they don’t know you’re behind and slow suddenly, it’s a bit impolite to plow into the rider in front of you. :-)

    Next step after paceline is double pacelines and echelons!

  5. There is a guy who seems to try to draft off of me every time I pass him (which oddly enough has happened a few times, which is weird enough in itself), but he then starts to draft off of me and I feel like brake checking him to get him off of me. I’ve got no problem working with someone, but I’d prefer that the guy ask me first and then, of course, return the favor.

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