Believe it or not, cycling is a team sport, and knowing how to draft is a major factor in a cyclist’s success. In fact, sitting on the wheel of another cyclist can provide an energy savings of 30–40% when compared to braving the road solo at the same speed.
And while you can get some of the benefits of drafting up to seven meters behind, the closer you are to the wheel in front of you, the more you’ll benefit. Since riding safely in close-proximity to others can be a tough skill to master, here are six things you need to practice to do it right.
1. GAIN COMFORT
Why: To become effective at drafting, you’re going to need to get comfortable riding close to the wheel in front of you. The best way to do this is to practice as much as possible in a safe environment.
How to: Avoid practicing in large groups at first. Instead, ride with one training partner. Find a road where you won’t have to worry about braking too much and take turns sitting on each other’s wheel. Try to maintain a half wheel distance, which provides you with a little bit of a cushion to adjust to slight changes in speed. Remember to stay relaxed and breathe, as tension in your shoulders and hands is more likely to cause an overreaction.
As you become more comfortable with your following distance, begin translating this skill into larger group rides.
2. LOOK UP
Why: The natural tendency as you inch closer to the wheel in front of you will be to look down. But while keeping an eye on the distance between your front wheel and the back wheel of the rider you’re drafting off of is important, not looking up at the road can put you at a greater risk for a collision.
How to: As you practice drafting, keep an eye on the road at all times. This helps you anticipate obstacles and changes in terrain that could cause a change in speed, which makes adjustments easier as you try to maintain a safe distance.
On the other hand, if you’re staring at the wheel in front of you and not paying attention the road ahead, these changes will come as a surprise and make riding into the wheel in front of you more likely if the rider in front slows suddenly.
3. DON’T OVERREACT
Why: Any decrease in speed at the front of a group can cause the riders following you to overreact. To be safe, it’s important to avoid sudden braking when you need to control your speed — especially if you have other cyclists following you.
How to: Instead, practice feathering your brakes very lightly to make minor adjustments to your speed as necessary. As you get more comfortable riding close to other riders, you’ll find that you’ll use your brakes less and rely on other techniques to slow your speed, such as soft pedaling or sitting up to expose yourself more to the wind.
4. KNOW THE DIRECTION OF THE WIND
Why: If you’re new to drafting, you might think that being directly behind the rider in front of you is the only way to go. But the direction of the wind should determine how you draft.
Here’s a basic breakdown:
Headwind: Ride directly behind the rider.
Crosswind from the right: Ride just to the left of the rider in front of you.
Crosswind from the left: Ride just to the right of the rider in front of you.
How to: Keep in mind that when you are riding off center to draft in a crosswind, it’s a safer practice to avoid overlapping the wheel in front of you — especially if you’re riding with less experienced cyclists who may not know you’re on the left or right of their wheel. Doing so makes a collision more likely when the rider in front needs to change direction to avoid an obstacle such as a pothole or debris.
As you gain more experience, riding in an echelon helps you get the most benefits when riding in a crosswind. To do it right, and depending on the angle of the wind, some overlapping of wheels may be necessary — just make sure everyone in your group is on the same page before putting this technique into practice.
5. MANAGE YOUR FOLLOWING DISTANCE
Why: In some instances, you may need to increase your following distance when drafting. Since your speed increases significantly when descending, you should maintain at least one full bike length between you and the rider in front to give you more time to react. The same is true in nasty weather conditions, as it takes more braking power to stop your bike when the roads are slick.
How to: Always err on the side of safety in these situations and increase your following distance since energy savings gained from drafting won’t make much of a difference if you end up on your backside.
6. BE SMART ON THE FRONT
Why: One of the big benefits of drafting is it helps everyone go faster and farther while expending less energy. While this means you’ll benefit plenty during the course of a ride, you’ll also need to take your turn at the front every now and then.
How to: When you’re on the front, here are a few things you should do to keep those riders following your wheel safe:
Use hand signals: Since the riders following you often have an obstructed view of the road, you’ll need to point out obstacles and make others aware of an approaching turn using hand signals.
Don’t brake suddenly: Grabbing a handful of your brake levers when no one behind you is expecting it is one good way to cause a pile up. When you do have to stop, alert others by calling out before you brake or by using a hand signal when possible.
Be careful during the transition from sitting to standing: If you jump up out of the saddle suddenly, the natural reaction is for the bike to move backward. To avoid having your rear wheel collide with the wheel behind you, do your best to maintain a constant speed as you move into a standing position.