Drafting Principles: Improve Your Riding Economy

Cycling is an amazing sport that provides a sense of camaraderie and teamwork once a few advanced riding skills are acquired. Riding in cohesion with friends can raise the quality of a training session and create a sense of teamwork on two wheels.

Whether you're a road cyclist, mountain biker or multisport athlete, using a draft to your benefit can add a missing link to your training. Drafting can be used to allow athletes of varying abilities to actually train together and achieve relatively equal training effects.

Try doing this as a runner. How many runners can train alongside Deena Kastor (recent winner of the London Marathon in 2:19) and end the run with the two of you having done relatively the same workout? Not too many.

However, on flat terrain, a world-class triathlete can train on the bike with a back-of-the-pack age-grouper and end the ride having had a high-quality workout. This is only possible due to drafting principles and applying a few advanced bike-handling skills.

Correct Positioning

Finding the draft "sweet spot" is key and can save up to 30 percent or more energy for the rider(s) behind. Finding the correct drafting position behind a rider is directly related to wind direction, which constantly changes with twists and turns in the road.

Try to gauge the wind direction the next time you go out to ride by witnessing trees as they sway in the wind. If the wind isn't affecting trees then the draft behind a rider will most likely be a direct line, or headwind, as you ride.

Tap the potential of your bike and riding partners by starting a simple pace line. Riding with others can also raise the intensity of the workout as the recovery from drafting allows each rider to dig deeper and go anaerobic while on the front. This can be great for short-course triathletes and absolutely perfect for cyclists. Together you'll set new personals on your favorite courses.

All cycling groups rotate and shift whether it's conscious or not. Due to wind and drafting, riders will tend to move forward and back in a natural flow. Be aware of upcoming obstacles by keeping your head up and be on the lookout for dangerous situations as they develop.

Constantly ask yourself questions such as: Is one section of the group getting too tight for comfort? Is one person moving up through the group into an area with restricted space? Do the others ahead see this happening? Will this cause a dangerous situation in a few seconds? If so, what is my exit strategy? Should I move away in order to create a cushion? Are others overlapping my rear wheel behind?

Group-riding Tips

Keep these tips in mind the next time you go out to ride with a group.

  • Be cautious of cars approaching from behind. The riders on the back have the responsibility of letting other riders know if cars are approaching. If there's not enough room to ride two-abreast, they should shout out to the group to go single file: "Car, single up!"
  • The key to an efficient pace line is to maintain speed. Fluctuations in speed quickly sap a group's energy just like when you're on your own doing a time trial. Try to maintain a constant, high speed.
  • Stay relaxed and don't grip the handlebars too tight. The famous French cyclist Bernard Hinault used to say, "You should still be able to play the piano when riding." When you're tight and stiff your front wheel will go wherever your head turns. Look right and your bike will go right. But if you're relaxed you can look right and still hold a straight line. Holding a line is very important within the context of a group as each member is reliant upon the other members to maintain safety.
  • Keep your head up. Watch for upcoming obstacles: cars, potholes, rocks, other riders, etc.
  • Pull off into the wind as others may be overlapping your wheel to the draft side.
  • Don't throw your bike back as you get out of the saddle. Stand up into the bike and bring the bike forward.
  • Go easy on the brakes and anticipate pace changes. Try to reduce the accordion or "yo-yo" effect as much as possible.
  • Recovery is key in a group rotation .Finding the right draft position and staying tight and close have a cumulative effect over time. Riders who know how to make use of the group will save enormous amounts of energy.
Individuals riding as a group can cover distances much faster than one individual and save energy at the same time, as long as the group works well together and safety remains the number one concern.

Cycling Drills

Try these drills to help improve your personal bike handling, pedaling economy and group cycling skills:
  1. Tuck and roll on grass: Yes, we do crash and knowing how to tuck and roll can be a valuable asset.
  2. One-legged drills: Improving your economy means faster race times with no gain in fitness.
  3. Set up a slalom course to practice cornering: Do this solo, then follow someone else, then ride two-by-two to get used to riding next to others on corners.
  4. Pick up a water bottle from the ground while riding. This will teach you balance.
  5. Ride a straight white line and try to look off to one direction: Can you look around and still maintain a straight line? How loose are you?

Let the power of the group lift your cycling to the next level. By getting comfortable riding with others you can eventually ride with more advanced riders in order to learn even more cycling skills and tips. Reaching speeds unachievable as an individual can bring incredible lasting rewards for all involved.


Dirk Friel has raced as a professional cyclist on the roads of Europe, Asia and the Americas since 1992. He is also an Ultrafit Associates coach specializing in road training with power. Dirk is also co-founder of TrainingPeaks.com. He may be reached by e-mail at dfriel@ultrafit.com.

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