Road Cycling Skills

10 Things You Need to Know About Drafting

Drafting is a fascinating phenomena but it does makes you go faster!

We see drafting a lot in pro races when a peloton pack rides tightly together, often alternating positions and sitting tight on someone’s else back wheel. But why do they do it?

It works

And not just an ‘elite sportsperson’, 0.001 of a second amount of working. The difference it makes is huge: the rider drafting will expend 20-40 percent less energy.

The other more surprising benefit is that it also works for the person doing the leading too; the rider that’s drafting reduces the turbulence coming off the leader and less swirling air behind you makes you more aerodynamic.

Explaining drafting gives you a chance to use the word ‘vortex’

You create vortices as you cycle forward, aka a low-pressure area with no wind. It’s a little pocket of air, carrying you along and doing loads of work for you. Awesome.

The closer the better

The optimum drafting position is as close to the leader’s wheel as possible, or if there’s a crosswind, slightly overlapping can also be helpful. However, in most situations staying parallel and close is the best bet.

You will start saving energy from about half a wheel back, so don’t make yourself anxious by trying to go too close off the bat.

Keeping your head up helps

As your mother used to say – don’t stare at the ground!

It’s easy to get caught up with staring at the wheel in front, but judging your distance from your leader by looking at their back is a much safer way of drafting. Occasionally checking your wheel distance is, of course, necessary, but you want to develop a sixth sense so you can make adjustments to your position like a pro.

Smoothness is the drafter’s friend

Riding smoothly and minimising the use of your brakes will make you the most chivalrous of drafters. You don’t want to suddenly shove your pedals or emergency brake. Ride predictably. Soon you’ll gain confidence in your consistency and will be able to inch closer to your leader.

There’s a sweet spot

The break that dominated the race. Image: Larry Hickmott.

More than two of you riding? It’s not just the first drafter that benefits. The amount of energy saved gradually increases from the second to the fifth rider in the paceline. Number five gets the most aerodynamic benefit. But then if you’ve got a bigger group (between six and eight), it’s actually the one-before-last cyclist that gets the boost. Of course, it’s good to be aware of this sweet spot but remember to take your turn at the front!

Learning to be a leader is hard, but important

No sudden braking or change in direction if you can avoid it: someone behind might touch your wheel if they’re not forewarned as to your movements. Leading is about keeping a good pace, but also about keeping everyone safe. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s one the whole group shares. This is why cycling is awesome. It’s about working as a team.

Also, remember to give those behind you that may not be as fit a chance to find their rhythm before you increase the pace.

Peeling off looks scarier than it is

The break extended their lead to over 3 minutes at one point

When you watch grand tour cyclists doing ring-around-the-rosy at high speeds, it looks proper scary. But as long as you check behind you before dropping off from the head of the paceline, you should be fine. Make sure to clear the pack with a burst of speed before veering to the side and coasting to the pack. Get a group good enough and you may be able to create a very pleasing Belgian tourniquet.

Annoyingly: practice does make perfect

Get yourself a buddy! Someone of a similar ability is probably best. You can work together on being smooth and predictable before you join the pack at your next sportive!

Those who draft have their own language

Wondering how to communicate with your fellow cyclists? Make sure to read our Road Cycling Hand Signals and Calls for Group Riding article.

You may also enjoy:

Top Tips for Riding in a Crosswind

How to Cycle on Winter Roads

When should you be riding on your drops?


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