Drafting for the Recreational Bicyclist

As most of you know, riding behind other bicyclists for protection from the wind can be quite beneficial.  Studies have shown that having other bikers on all sides of you can result in up to a 25% reduction in your workload.  That’s why bicycle racers do it, but doing so comes with an increased risk of having an accident. This risk can be significantly reduced, however, if everyone in a group of riders follows some rules and guidelines that are listed here in a random order:

    • When drafting one or more riders, you should always be looking ahead of them – not just at the wheel in front of you.  You need to pay attention to what’s coming up so that you can react quickly and appropriately.
    • Drafting distance from your front wheel to the back of the wheel you are following should be in the range of one to two feet or more, depending on your skill level and that of the group you are riding with. More distance gives you more time to react to speed changes, road hazards, etc.
    • You should never overlap the wheel in front of you; if that person changes their line of travel suddenly and hits your front wheel, it’s 98% certain that you will go down.
    • Always ride a straight line when in a group of bicyclists; if you need to drop back or change your line of riding in any way, announce your intentions to everyone around you verbally and with hand signals.
    • Unless you are the first rider in a line, always keep your hands on the brake hoods so that you can react in a timely manner to other riders slowing or stopping.  Never ride no-handed in a group. Never use tri-bars while in a group.
    • If you must slow or stop in a group, always announce it and avoid sudden changes in your speed. Gently feather your rear brake to modulate your speed when necessary.
    • Do not ride beyond your ability; if you find yourself very frequently unable to talk, you are likely riding much too fast for your physical conditioning.  This puts you and everyone in the group at greater risk.
    • When riding in a group, it’s much easier to keep up if you are in approximately the same gear as everyone else.  Avoid spinning too much or cranking too hard.
    • Groups can ride in either a single or double line, depending on road and traffic conditions.   Recreational cyclists should avoid the more skill-demanding strategies that professionals use for front rider rotation. The one or two front riders who are “pulling” the group should stay in that position for as long as they are comfortable doing so.  When they wish to drop to the rear of the group, both riders should exit to the left after announcing their intention and checking for vehicles coming from behind.
    • Use of a helmet or eyeglass mirror allows the front riders to more accurately and safely regulate their speed, because they do not have to turn their heads to see how the group is doing.  These mirrors are also extremely helpful in monitoring the motorized traffic behind the group.
    • The lead riders of a group should never freewheel, and should try to ride a nice steady pace so that everyone in the group can keep up.  Surges in speed can cause the group to split and make riders sprint to catch up.  Lead riders need to avoid the “hero” mentality of showing everyone how strong they are. Conversely, if you are in the lead position and are unable to maintain the pace of the group, safely drop back and let someone else take over.
    • Lead riders also need to keep a sharp eye out for road hazards, and either steer the group around them or alert the group to them.
    • Lead riders are responsible for announcing aloud “Group passing!” whenever overtaking other solitary or group riders.
    • Never ride up on the right side of another rider without letting them know that you are doing that. The right side is the blind side; always pass on the left side and always announce “On your left!”
    • Passing a group and then slowing down so that they have to go around you is very bad form and can lead to unsafe situations, especially if car traffic is around.  If you want to ride faster than a group is going, make certain that you can cleanly get away and stay away!
    • Avoid animated conversations when in a group and do not look at the person you are talking with; your attention needs to be always focused on the road and the riders ahead of you.
    • Be extra careful when using a water bottle; a dropped bottle can bring everyone behind you down.
    • If you are riding solo and come up on one or more other cyclists that you want to draft, always let them know that you are there and ask for their permission to draft.
    • If you are in a group and you do not like how they are riding, get out.  It’s not worth the risk!

It can take several seasons of riding before most cyclists are ready for drafting in a group, but when you are ready, and you follow the rules and guidelines above, you will start to appreciate the advantages drafting in a group offers.

There may be some things that have been omitted from this list, but that’s where learning from experience and close observation of others will play big roles here.  When you do decide to try drafting in a group, pay close attention to what others are doing and, unless it’s unsafe riding, learn from them.

Above all, keep safety as your top priority and enjoy your ride!

Pete Hawkins – TCBC Leader Trainer