Everyone needs a little help from time to time. In amongst a packed peloton, drafting is an accepted part of the game. Essential in fact. Out on lonely roads sparsely populated with amateurs, isolated country lanes where on occasion the inner-chimps of strangers meet. One on one, drafting becomes either an entente cordiale or a duel to the death.
I love drafting in both of these forms, be it a competitive ‘let’s see who drops first’ or a more friendly ‘let’s help one another out here’. Each is always welcome for it provides me with the motivation to ride harder or a much needed rest. Either way, I’m doing a turn on the front, taking a pull. Most of the time.
Drafting. Slipstreaming. Sitting in. Sheltering. Holding the wheel. Wheelsucking. Leeching. The latter two refer specifically to when drafting is unreciprocated and one cyclist pulls the other, the leech sheltering in the shadow, stubbornly refusing to take a turn on the front. This I can forgive if said passenger is truly knackered and is in need of a safe passage home. Hell, I’ve been that beaten man.
It is the kling-on that I cannot understand. The one who sits there looking fresh. The one who still doesn’t pull a turn when you slow down. The kling-on sits tight no matter what. I know this infuriates many a rider who fear for their safety or do not want to break the isolation of their ride. Not me. I don’t mind too much except in one circumstance. They have a noisy bike (or are heavy breathing). Sit silent on my wheel if you wish for you are not disturbing my ride. I will ride at my pace and pick my route. Squeaky chain? I’ll do everything I can to lose you.
For those who get angry with wheelsuckers, remember, every story has two sides.
Wheel sucking like a cretin
Is he still there, on my wheel, hiding, the coward. Come on out, damn you. Mustn’t look, must carry on with my own ride, do my own thing. Must not show weaknesss. Must not show how irritated I am by another’s presence. Ruining my ride. Whoa, why am I speeding up? Must drop him. Just you wait until the next incline my friend, whoosh, I’m off. Oh, he’s still there, the leech, the bloodsucker, the parasite.
How is he feeling? Mustn’t look around. Can I hear him breathing? Panting? Struggling? Do tired muscles make noises or is that just his chainset? Oil it my friend, you’re ruining the tranquillity of my ride. This is really hurting. I’m on the rivet, must push on, must not show how much I am pushing on. Where the hell am I? It matters not, this duel must end in victory.
Don’t you dare overlap wheels. Must pick up the pace. Hear my inner-chimp roar. Oh, wait. He’s gone. When did that happen? Did he turn off? Nah. I dropped him. Obviously.
Drafting like a pro
The bonk struck two days ago, so long ago that I know the man with the hammer’s first name. Exhausted. I don’t think I can turn the cranks much longer, not in this headwind. And that’s when you came gliding effortlessly by, my ride home. Taxi! I splurge the last of my energy to catch your wheel and hunker down in the protection of your shadow. Hello, I say, thank you, I think. Weary limbs, aching heart. You are my protector, my shield.
The headwind is hurting you but you’re doing well not to show it for you must never display weakness. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the pace increasing, oh no. Not that you’ll hear my increasingly laboured breathing. I am silent. Your ghost, an evil shadow from which you will try, and fail, to outrun.
We’re slowing. I know your game, want me to take a fair turn so you do? On another day, sure, but not today, no way. Not a chance. Besides you were doing so well. Hmmm, this really is slow. Maybe I’ll sneak out, take a peek. Whoa, that’s a gale force wind. Maybe not, keep going my friend, I’m your ghost for as long as you travel towards my home. Thank you, I say, turning off, you saved me, I don’t say, but we both know it.
How to get rid of a wheelsucker
It so happens that my favourite cycling video folk at GCN released this wheelsucking video whilst I was writing this blog. It mentions a few techniques for losing a wheelsucker but for some reason doesn’t mention the most effective method. Slow down.
Whilst I understand why some of you get angry with wheelsuckers, I don’t understand the social etiquette involved in the scenario which, as the video suggests, says you should never acknowledge the wheelsucker or let them know you are attempting to lose them. Oh humans, what are we like?
How to draft on a bike and what to avoid
Why? Why put yourself at the mercy of the rider in front by cycling millimetres away from their back wheel? Simply put, you’ll save energy. Some say up to 30 percent and I’d say at least 10 percent depending on the wind direction, the size of the rider in front of you, your position on the bike and more importantly, how close to the rider’s back wheel you are cycling. The person on the front is said to benefit slightly too. Both from the drafting and the mental knowledge that they must keep pulling.
Here’s some tips if you’re new to drafting.
Trust. Are you an experienced group rider? Know the rider in front? Know the roads you’re riding? Stay as close to his wheel as you dare. Is that a stranger’s wheel you are following? Be sensible and keep your distance. Give yourself a comfortable safety margin should the rider in front need to stop suddenly.
Signal. The rider behind you is blind. Imagine all they see is your wheel. Signal for potholes, obstructions in the road, when you’re slowing for traffic lights etc. A gentle arm signal will do, no need to ruin the peace by shouting out the name of every obstruction.
Avoid overlapping. When your front wheel overlaps very closely to the rear wheel of the rider in front, such that if they move to the side suddenly, they will take you down.
Half wheeling faux pas. Not to be confused with overlapping (above), this is where two riders find themselves riding side-by-side but one rider is constantly half a bike length in front, forcing the pace on what is meant to be a club ride. This is generally considered bad form in the sometimes unfathomable world of cycling etiquette. Not sure why because half-wheeling is very easily dealt with. Let the person edging ahead go ahead and then either draft them or leave them be whilst you work with the remainder of the group.
Don’t up the pace. When taking a pull on the front it is important to maintain a consistent pace. Most new riders often fall foul of this rule. Intimidated or feeling the need to impress, the rider on the front ups the speed and pulls away from the wheel behind. If this happens to you, let the rider go. Sometimes I’ll stick with them if the pace is in my comfort zone but you’ll often find that a mile or so up the road the person on the front is cooked and soon drops off your wheel when you hit the front. Bizarre.
Pull off in good time at a consistent speed. Tired of working on the front? Don’t slow down, pull off before dropping comfortably to the shelter at the back of the last rider.
Stay downwind. The direction of the wind will influence your position behind the rider in front. Wind coming in from the left? Move to the right to remain protected.
Know when not to draft. City commuting? Don’t draft. Heavy traffic, lots of pedestrians or traffic lights? Don’t draft. It’s dangerous for both you and the rider in front.
Look beyond the wheel. The cyclist in front will be your eyes, signalling when required but you should still be looking ahead. You’ll be quicker reacting to something you see happen rather than something somebody else has seen happen. Scan the horizon where possible.
Practice. And then practice some more.
Say hello. And thank you, then goodbye. Keeping pace with a passing group? Ask them if they mind you tagging along.
Oil your damn bike. You might not mind the sound of a squeaking chain ruining the tranquillity of the ride but I do. The silence of a ride is one of the great pleasures of cycling. I don’t want my ride to squeak more than a rat brothel on discount day.
The guiltiest of drafting pleasures
Buses. Now that’s a shield. Yes, yes, I know. Lunacy, idiot, etc. I know all of this yet I can’t help but draft a bus here in London Town. It’s dangerous and exhilarating at the same time. Many aspects of cycling bring me great pleasure and this is one of them. Most of them have some element of risk, as does daily life.
Getting sucked along by the bus, listening to the engine and speeding up or slowing down accordingly, eyes glued to the brake lights and searching the road for potholes, fingers poised on the brake levers. Sure, I know the bus routes, I know the bus stops, I know the roads, the pinch points, the dodgy corners and junctions. Does that make me invincible? Of course not.
What if the bus brakes suddenly? What if. What if my front tyre punctures when descending? What if a car rides into the back of me because they fail to see me? What if I choke on my next meal? There’s many what ifs in life, that’s for sure. Life is for the ‘what next’ not the ‘what if’.
Don’t try this at home
Some extreme drafting here at speeds that would break the speed record for cars here in the UK.