Road Bike Skills 101: Drafting

One of the biggest benefits of riding in a group versus riding alone is experiencing the benefit of drafting by effectively riding in a paceline. Drafting occurs when a cyclist moves into an area of low pressure behind another cyclist, reducing the wind resistance and the amount of energy required to pedal. Over the course of a ride, everyone in the group can experience drafting benefits by rotating the lead rider to the back of the pack, or riding in a paceline. Doing this correctly can reduce the amount of effort you’re putting in by 30%, meaning you can go farther, faster and get more PRs!

How to Save Energy by Drafting on a Bike

How to Draft

First off, find a group of friends around your same speed. Attending a local bike shop or club ride can be a great place to perfect your drafting technique, but it is always a good idea to get some experience with a smaller group first. Even riding with one other friend, you can practice finding the “sweet spot” and getting closer to the rider in front of you as well as your rotating technique.

So, how close do you need to be to experience the benefits of drafting? Even if you are a full bike-length behind the rider in front of you, you are still experiencing some benefit. However, the closer you get to the wheel of the rider in front of you, the more energy you will conserve. Riding as close as possible without overlapping wheels with the rider in front of you will give you to up to 30% energy savings.

Wind direction also plays a key role in where you should be positioned behind the rider in front of you. If the wind is blowing from the right, you will want to move slightly to the left of the rider in front of you. If the wind is blowing from the left, you will move slightly to the right. This way, the rider in front is blocking most of the wind, and you are tucked behind her, out of the wind. You can figure out wind direction by looking at trees or flags blowing on the side of the road as you ride.

When it is time to rotate, the action comes from the front. The lead rider will look out in the direction they are going to make sure there are no people or cars coming up from behind. She will then signal she is dropping off by pointing with her elbow or hand in the direction she is moving. Slowly, her cadence will reduce to allow her to fall to the back of the pack. The last rider will communicate she is the last in line, and the lead rider will now move in to take up the rear position. The frequency of rotation is up to the group and how you are personally feeling, but generally “pulling” or leading the group for a 0.5 – 1 mile (1 – 2 km) will keep the group alert and feeling fresh.

While riding in a single paceline, the fifth rider in line will experience the most energy-saving benefits. Before and after this position, the savings begin to slowly taper off. However, even the lead rider experiences a little boost from the rider drafting behind. The low-pressure air bubble between the riders actually pushes the lead rider along, allowing for a 3% decrease in energy output to go the same speed.

Tips for a Smooth and Safe Ride

1. Communicate: Talk with the group before heading out on the ride. Discuss if you are going to ride in a single paceline (one line) or double paceline (two lines) and a general amount of time the lead rider should be expected to pull.

Double paceline on a road bike

2. Don’t overlap wheels: Even though getting as close as possible to the rider in front of you will allow you to experience the most energy savings, overlapping wheels can be dangerous. When your front wheel overlaps with the person in front of you, any movement could cause an accident.

3. Don’t stare down at the wheel in front of you: It takes time to develop a sense of space and know where your wheel is in relation to the rider in front of you. Less experienced group riders may need to occasionally look down to ensure their wheel isn’t getting too close or overlapping. However, it is important to try to look ahead of the rider in front of you and not at the wheel. Looking through her arm or over her shoulder will ensure you know what is coming up, whether it is a stop sign, a curve in the road, or a pothole!

4. Don’t half-wheel: Half-wheeling can occur when riding in a double paceline or when you are just riding next to a partner. If you or your partner is always riding with a wheel slightly ahead of the other person, this is half-wheeling. It causes the other rider to surge forward to keep pace, which leads to an uneven cadence throughout the group.

5. Avoid the “Slinky Effect”: The “slinky effect” can occur within the paceline when the lead rider suddenly puts out more power or when riders slam on brakes within the group. It is best for the lead rider to maintain a consistent, predictable cadence. Sudden surges in power cause gaps to form between riders and, as a result, loss of the benefits of drafting. Likewise, when riders slow down, get too close to one another, and slam on the brakes, this also causes gaps to form. When riding in a paceline and drafting, try to adjust your speed by lightening up on your pedal stroke or lifting your chest to create wind drag rather than slamming on the brakes.

6. Don’t be a hero: It’s never a good idea to show off when you move into the front position in a paceline. Even if you think you can pull for a longer period of time, stick to what the group discussed at the start of the ride. Over-staying your welcome at the front of the group could cause confusion in the group… or you could even unexpectedly bonk! On the flip side, if you are struggling, don’t feel like you have to take a pull at the front. Simply communicate within the group how you are feeling and when it is your turn at the front, just go ahead and rotate to the back. Trust us, the group will appreciate your honesty and it will keep the paceline running smooth – and fast!

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