Bike-handling is integral to riding outdoors, and this series covers the basics — from cornering to descending, handling rough surfaces, riding out of the saddle, riding in a paceline and doing tricks on the bike— and now how to draft.
Before you head out for a group ride or sign up for your first cycling event, it’s important to get comfortable with the basics of drafting on a road bike. Use this guide to learn how improving your drafting skills can help you stay safe, ride faster and go further the next time you head out for a ride.
Drafting behind another cyclist helps you conserve energy while riding farther and faster than you could alone. It’s estimated you can conserve between 27–50% of your energy depending on factors such as the size of the rider in front of you, the strength of the wind, speed of travel and the overall distance between your front wheel and your partner’s back wheel.
There’s no doubt the closer you can get to the wheel in front of you, the greater the aerodynamic advantage will be. But even if you stay a full bike’s length behind the rider in front, you can still get some benefits. The largest drafting benefits in the 45–50% energy conservation ranges are seen most often in large groups when you can stay behind several riders to shield your entire body from the wind.
Head and cross winds can really slow you down when you’re cycling solo, so knowing some solid drafting techniques like taking turns at the front with other riders can pay big dividends over long distances. Riding on flats is also an ideal time to draft to improve overall speed — and although you won’t get as much benefit from going uphill at slower speeds, there’s still some drafting advantages to be had when climbing.
On the surface, drafting might seem simple. All you need to do is stay as close as possible to the rider’s wheel in front of you without overlapping wheels. But to do so safely and not put those you’re riding with at risk, you’ll need plenty of practice.
Here are a few basic tips you can use to gain comfort and confidence so you can get the most possible benefit out of your drafting technique.
MAKE SURE EVERYONE IS ON THE SAME PAGE
Before you head out for that big weekend group ride with 40 other cyclists, practice drafting in smaller groups with 3–4 cyclists. Before you head out, have a quick chat about the drafting strategy you want to use. Will you be utilizing a single paceline or a double paceline? Which side of the line will you be falling back on? How long are the pulls at the front going to be? Does everyone in the group use the same hand signals for things like stops and turns? These are all questions that should be answered within the group before you take off. On the road, make sure you communicate verbally with each other if changes to pace need to be made, and when hand signals aren’t reasonable, also verbally alert your ride partners to let them know your intentions or alert them of any obstacles up the road that need to be avoided.
WATCH YOUR WHEEL
One of the biggest mistakes cyclists make when drafting is overlapping the wheel directly in front of you. In this scenario, if the rider in the lead needs to make a small correction to avoid an obstacle or even just moves slightly off line when taking a drink, his or her wheel will move directly into yours, causing you both to go down in addition to the riders behind you.
Another mistake that might not have the potential to cause an accident but can annoy your ride mates is half wheeling. Half wheeling is when you are riding directly beside another cyclist at the front of a group but are constantly riding a half wheel in front of the other cyclist, forcing them to adjust their pace to ride next to you. This is especially important in a dual paceline, as the need to make constant slight adjustments to pace to stay even can throw off the rhythm and function of the group.
KEEP A CONSISTENT PACE
A big part of successful drafting is keeping a consistent pace when it’s your turn at the front. Surging forward and riding faster than the rest of the group won’t allow others to draft off of you as effectively, and the change in pace makes it harder to maintain an even effort throughout the duration of the ride. Keeping an even pace makes you more predictable when you’re on the front, allowing others to follow your wheel closer and with more confidence without having to worry about sudden accelerations or hitting the brakes.