Cycling is a sport of skinny margins. The difference that a slight aerodynamic adjustment to a bike, its rider, or even clothing makes in a longer race can be astronomical.
But no matter how aero high-tech bikes, components, and apparel becomehow riders interact with variable elements like air resistance, wind, rain, and varying terrain usually becomes the deciding factor in who goes home with a win.
Drafting is the key strategic element in cycling. It allows riders to keep a high pace while protecting themselves and others from punishing winds or air resistance during a bike race.
Anyone who watches motorsports knows how draft drivers off other vehicles to save power or make passing moves. The tactic is the same in cycling.
The idea is to send riders out in front or along the sides of their team’s most competitive rider to shield them from air resistance or other riders. This allows them to conserve energy by riding in protected slipstreams where they do not have to exert as much energy to maintain a competitive spot in the group.
The premise of drafting is simple. Riders must stay within a couple of inches behind another rider to stay locked into a slipstream. The riders up front bear the brunt of the wind and air resistance hitting the group, saving those behind them.
Usually, riders will rotate to share the burden throughout a race. Those vying for the win break out with all-out efforts. If they get caught, they fall back into the main peloton to save energy again.
How Breakaways Work
Typically, more riders working together means increased overall speed and the ability to keep pace longer, as more riders can stay fresh and share in the workload.
In many cases, larger stage races, including the Tour de France and other World Tour contests, follow formulas in how they develop, all of which involve some form of drafting.
In one such formula, a small group of riders will shoot off at the beginning of the race or just before or after a big climb to put distance between themselves and the peloton.
These breakaway groups always show a great glimpse of how drafting works. One rider will hit the front of the group and stay there for several seconds before pulling off the side and dropping back into the rear of the line. The next leader will do the same, and so on and so on.
If they work together consistently, groups of even just a handful of riders can establish and maintain a lead that forces the remaining riders, who held back, to keep a fast pace to stay in the fight for a win.
If the breakaway riders don’t cooperate reasonably, however, the main peloton, which has a significant aerodynamic advantage and is peppered with fresh riders, can easily catch them.
How Pace Lines Work
In drafting, riders get into a few different formations depending on conditions and numbers.
The simplest is the single-space line. Like the examples above, single-pace lines involve riders in single file trading turns at the front.
Next, there are double-pace lines. These function the same as single-pace lines, only with two side-by-side lines. The leaders of each line peel off on opposite sides while changing position.
Rotating or circular pace lines are a bit more complicated. Riders in a rotating pace line rotate around each other like a wheel, constantly moving from front to back and between.
Revolving pace lines are a bit more tricky. Riders navigate forward and backward while holding a tight formation rather than just ducking out of the lead and rejoining at the back.
Echelons are another pace line that adds a bit more complexity. Riders use these in crosswinds. Rather than riding in a straight line, riders stack up in diagonals across a race course against the blowing wind.
How Effective Is Drafting?
There’s no question that drafting is essential in bike races. One example of how even two riders can work together to get an edge over one riding alone was displayed during Stage 11 of the 2022 Tour de France.
Defending champion Tadej Pogačar found himself without teammates while Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingagaard and Primoz Roglic traded off a series of attacks. Because they could draft off each other, they forced Pogačar to continuously chase at maximum effort while they could catch their breath before attacking again.
The tactic led Pogačar to crack and lose the yellow jersey to Vingagaard, who went on to win the tour.
Aside from that example, a wealth of research highlights drafting’s efficacy. In the 2018 article “Aerodynamic drag in cycling team time trials,” published in the Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics, Bert Blocken and his fellow authors described the percentage of drag riders in a team time trial pace line.
According to Blocken, riders in the back of pacelines of four or more riders can experience less than half of the drag compared to the rider up front.
Now, professional riders can compete with power meters on their bikes that show how much energy they save while drafting in real time.
Why Does It Matter?
Understanding the ins and outs of drafting and tactics makes watching races way more fun. It also makes the racing far more competitive. Drafting and the related team tactics can provide a rider with less fitness enough advantage to win over a rider with superior fitness.
For non-racers or casual riders, knowing drafting mechanics may not seem necessary. That’s not the case. Cyclists use these strategies in group rides.
So, even in more informal settings, learning the etiquette of how to stack up and move around in a pace line, especially when sharing the road with cars, goes a long way.
Plus, you’ll be faster even if you aren’t seeking a new KOM.