The politics of drafting….the politics of ooohh feelin’ good…..

For as long as there has been cycling there have been bunches. Bunches are sociable, have unique performance effects and are energy efficient. Gains in energy efficiency come from drafting.

Ride close enough behind someone and you can make reported savings of up to 40%. If you get it right, the person in front also makes aerodynamic gains. Furthermore, the faster you go, the greater the relative savings made. It is argued that 80% of the work done at by a rider at 30kph is to overcome wind resistance. The net effect of drafting in a bunch is not just aerodynamics, but also energetic in that riders can and do work at a higher intensity for brief periods contributing to the net speed of the bunch. On my own I might ride steadily at 30kmh, in a functioning bunch I might ride for brief periods at up to 40kph on the front before returning to the back and recovering at speed. This has a net benefit for the whole bunch, in racing it is “doing your turn”. Arguably, the highest form of this activity is called the Belgian Tourniquet where speeds are high and turns quite short. When racing, the art is in doing enough on your turn, but not too much if you want to cross the finish line first. Watchers of road races will notice the increasing reluctance of riders in a small leading bunch to do work as the finish line approaches. This is because they don’t want to do the last few turns before the finish line. Generally speaking though, when drafting, expect to do your turn and be drafted in the knowledge that you will get to where you are going more quickly. Remember, if someone is hanging on to your wheel there may still be a benefit to you, even if they don’t do a turn at the front. The only reason not to do a turn is if you know you are going to get dropped and people will have to come back for you. If so simple, then why does drafting often end in a little race? Because the social psychology of riding messes things up.

There exists an interesting relationship embedded in any occasion where two or more riders are together. The first aspect of this, captured by Norman Triplett almost 120 years ago is social facilitation. When someone else is watching, you will pedal faster. There are multiple explanations and theories built around this phenomenon; I’m best acquainted with ego-driven approaches which suggest we have an in-built desire to demonstrate ability in the presence of others. It explains why even now, on the wrong side of fifty, I will chase anything I think I can catch when riding. It explains why, when people know they are being drafted they speed up. But here’s the thing, catching or dropping anyone on an open road is rarely a fair index of ability. Did you ride the same course? At the same speed? Did you train the day before? The catch-drop thing is at best futile and at worst Pyrrhic if the next outcome is a tactical turn or a big slowdown. Compared to riding together it seems a bit daft. Catching up to work together as suggested, makes sense, unfortunately our little ego devils mess up what quite often could be a win with benefits. At certain times of they year I’m out for up to 5/6 hours at a time. I’d love some company I don’t care if it comes with a motor, or slower than me, I care that I get to fill in time and possibly ride a bit quicker overall.

But yeah, what about e-bikes? If it has pedals it is a potential ally, unless ridden by an arsehat. There is good research supporting the view, that with more cyclists on the road, cycling becomes safer. No, you don’t have to share your bidon, but most of the snarking seems unnecessary. A common mamil myth is that e-biking isn’t hard work, well no, as long as the pedals are being pushed then work is being done. Choosing how hard to work isn’t any more of an affront than choosing to take a draft. Encouraging e-bikers has benefits for health and society. Your e-biker will be more empathetic to cyclists when driving. They are healthier, therefore less of a burden to the community in the long run and they take up way less space than the currently trendy big-cab pick-ups. If a motor helping the pedals go around makes the process of riding a bike agreeable, I would call that a win. It’s still another bike on the road, there is still a draft to share. Bagging me for wearing Lycra? It’s frankly none of your f**king business.

To summarise, there is everything to gain and little to lose when drafting on a bike, battery powered or otherwise. That is, once you take your fragile ego out of it. If you think your commute is a race you are doing it wrong. Tamaki drive is only suitable for racing when it is closed to traffic. If you wanna be a racer, train hard, enter a race and do the rest of us a favour (there are even e-bike categories). Otherwise, let’s all have fun out there.

Some advice if you are going to draft properly;

  1. Unless it’s a proper race think hard about whether you are racing; if you are, you will probably be a hazard to everyone.
  2. Look where you are going, which means don’t look at the wheel in front of you. Look for hazards in front of the person you are drafting. Sometimes the person in front will indicate upcoming hazards, but sometimes there isn’t the time. Either way, the wheel in front will tell you too little too late.
  3. Effective drafting is a skill best learned following someone who knows how to behave in a bunch. Generally speaking if you touch someone’s back wheel it is you that will go down, so following a wheel that doesn’t change speed/direction arbitrarily is a good thing.

About me; I an amateur athlete, cyclist, proud mamil and multiple IronmanNZ finisher. I have had a bicycle in my life for as long as I can remember. I own several bikes of different types and am now a getting close to my 5th decade of riding.

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