Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Story - Drafting The Dump Truck

I am a big fan of drafting. In bicycle racing it allows someone like myself, with a relatively low level of sustainable power, to finish races and be competitive with others who are much more fit than myself.

In fact, drafting is the essence of road racing. Without drafting we'd just be doing time trials all over the place. In England, after mass start racing was made illegal, that's the only racing they could do for a long, long time - that's why they have not only a 25 mile TT but also a 50 mile, a 100 mile, and various other events, including a 24 hour TT.

The problem is that when I go training, I can't call up 50 or 70 guys to go ride so I can draft them.

So I use substitutes.

I incorporate slight downhills to help me build speed without killing myself. I do some small gear work (lower actual speeds means less air resistance). I do big gear work (going slow in a big gear lets me practice bike throws and sprinting technique, all at energy saving effort levels).

And I use substitute racers.

Cars. Trucks. Buses.

Cars are worth maybe 5 to 8 racers. Trucks, little ones, maybe 20. Big trucks and buses, 80-100 racers.

It's much, much easier to find a bus than to call 80-100 of your closest racing friends. So I go bus hunting, truck hunting, whatever I can find to act as a sub for a field of racers. Just yesterday, in the sleepy town of Simsbury, I managed to time trial up to a bus.

The problem was in the sleepy town of Simsbury they're really polite, so the bus driver slowed, moved left, and let me pass.


I honored him by going as hard as I could until I blew, then made it obvious I blew - sat up, stretched legs, and waved as he drove by.

Anyway, as a big fan of drafting vehicles, there are a few tricks to pulling it off without ending up under someone's tire or face planted on some random mailbox or other road side obstacle.

1. Always check what you're about to draft. Someone claimed to have had a friend who tucked in behind a passing truck. Only thing was the truck was pulling a trailer, and the rider ended up getting run over by the trailer. Now I never heard of anyone getting taken out by a trailer like this in my verifiable life but checking the rear of the truck would prevent that from happening. I normally check where the next car is, since pulling out in front of a (much faster) car is never a good idea. I also wait for trailers and such, including the big jump I made the day before I got married (sprinting jump, not a more symbolic one).

2. When you draft a big vehicle, you can get a significant draft while still on the fringes of the "drafting area", i.e. you can be just behind and outside of the outer rear wheel and still get a huge draft. Since a dump truck (or similar) is so big, you'll find yourself either coasting or pulling out into the wind to slow down.

One rider's power chart had massive power spikes and valleys while they were drafting a truck for a few minutes - that seems to reflect this process of "sprint and coast". I do this "peeking out" to check for unknown or new road obstacles. However I've double flatted (twice) at 45 mph or so when I miscalculated where a known manhole cover or pothole was, partially because I didn't peek out (I was tiring quickly and gambled on remembering where things were). Both on clinchers, and both were a bit scary to bring under control (one was on a slight bend and I barely made it - in fact, I had to put my foot down on the curb since the flat clinchers didn't allow me to make even the small curve in the road).

I prefer tubulars when setting out on a drafting mission since they basically don't pinch flat and they also are lighter and wind up faster. It used to be that I drove to my drafting mission rides so I could make equipment choices before I leave.

3. To draft a smaller vehicle (car, a hatchback or wagon is better), you get close enough that you can see through the front window. Even little ole me is taller than a driver in a car so I can see through both the rear and front window and over the hood. I tried to draft a Lotus Espirit once but my body was over the roof of the car. It felt a bit odd and also offered no draft so I let it go.

Most cars are nice to draft because you can see the driver, any passengers, and make a judgement on how they'll drive. An ex-pro friend had a 93 Civic hatchback (I've since bought it from him and still have it). The rear bumper is gouged with tire burn marks from motorpacing workouts.

Note the grooves in the bumper, caused by a front tire hitting the bumper while at speed.

The Civic is nice because you can pop the glass up so it forms a little windscreen for the rider/s behind. The USCF in the 80s would use the Campy Buick wagon for similar workouts - they'd open the rear hatch and blast the heat on cold days so the riders would be training in a little pocket of heat.

4. I don't like drafting SUVs or minivans because they're too high to see through, too small to draft to one side (you really have to be behind them), and they tend to be driven by people who are least likely to know how to drive or are the most distracted. I can't even see into most of them so I have no idea what the driver is focusing on - kids, phone, looking for a store/street, etc. The same may be true for a car driver but at least I can see them being distracted.

5. To catch a truck, it has to be going slower than fast. Even in Breaking Away the truck starts out at 35 or 40 mph (since he holds out 4 fingers after a bit). I normally latch on when they pull away from a light or if they're in slower moving traffic (35 or slower). Someone with a good jump should be able to accelerate smartly to 35+ mph from a 15-25 mph cruising speed, and if the truck is going 30-35 mph, that's all you need. If it's at a light and you are there too, then you'll wait for the truck to make about 4-5 shifts before it gets going more than 18-20 mph, but then you hang on because they can accelerate at that pace for a while. I also run out of breath after about a minute or so.

Incidentally I run a 53x11, and I used to run a 54x11 - you need the big gears to go fast.

6. Finally, although I've drafted police cars (at night, on my favorite sprint loop in SW CT), some don't appreciate the drafting thing. Some will drive a steady pace and let me sit in. Others will move one lane over (it's a 3-4 lane street, one way) so that I have my own lane. This is the worst because I can't draft anything. Finally others will follow me (at night usually) so that I can see where I'm going (car headlights beat bike ones) and no one hits me. I appreciate the concern but this also prevents me from drafting anything. For the latter two types of super-nice cops, I just go as hard as I can until I blow up, then wave thanks to the helpful officer. Then hope the next lap goes a bit better.

One night two friends and I met up to do some sprints on the aforementioned loop. Since one guy was my actual leadout guy and another was his then girlfriend, it was really a training ride for me to get some sprints in. I'd lead out a bunch too, and so would the girlfriend.

As it got late - probably 10 or 11 PM - and both the traffic and our energy started dwindling, we started easing up and skipping sprints every now and then. One lap we approached the right turn onto the "sprint road" (the other roads were the "apres sprint road", the "backstretch", and the "before sprint road" which we were on at that point) and we heard the familiar nasal sound of a jake brake (like that of Mac sleeping from Cars) as a big dump truck slowed a bit for an intersection. With a green light he was good to go and started rowing through the gears to get back up to speed.

My ears perked up, my eyes lit up, and I tore off after the truck, leaving my two friends behind, chuckling I'm sure.

I rounded the slight turn onto the "sprint road" and accelerated hard. Everything seemed right - the cooler night temperatures, the big gear turning at the right rpm range, my legs, everything, and I rode up to the back of the truck.

Normally I look for things like wobbly wheels, missing mudflaps (I read someone a brick/stone caught between two rear tires of a truck and flung out the back is the worst thing that could happen to a motorcyclist behind a truck - and with my more fragile outfit, I'd imagine it'd be worse for a cyclist), broken or extremely dirty taillights (no warning of brakes), things like that. I can't remember anything being out of whack so I think the truck was in fine condition.

I found myself in the 11T all too soon. I had to slide to the tip of the seat (fastest position when seated) and I spun like mad to stay with the truck. When I got going a bit too fast I'd pull out slightly instead of touching the brakes, and pull up next to the rear-most wheel, and coast a touch. Once I slowed enough, I'd tuck back in.

My "speed adjustments" got more radical as I got tired. I'd sprint up to the back of the truck, pull out, coast as long as possible, and tuck in again, hoping I could sprint one more time. My sprints got ragged, out of the saddle efforts that rocked the bike until I felt like I'd scrape my knuckles on the ground. My whole life started revolving around the right rear pair of tires - I'd pull up next to them then tuck in and sprint back up to them.

At some point I became conscious of some flashing red and blue lights. As a driver I've been pulled over a couple times, and there's nothing quite like that sinking feeling when you first see the lights behind you.

But I was on a bike.

And I knew that we were going fast, probably 40-45+ mph.

And the speed limit on the road was 30 or 35 mph.

I figured, oh, man, I got the truck in trouble. You know, like Breaking Away.

I pulled left to let the police car pull the dump truck over (remember, 3-4 lanes, one way, so no oncoming traffic) and sat up.

The dump truck, to my disbelief, kept going.

The police car stayed behind me. I could hear his loudspeaker blaring something, maybe just the "whoop whoop" noises, but something.

You know that feeling I described before, the one you get when you see lights in the mirror? Well, let me tell you, at that moment I felt that sinking feeling. It's not the same as when you're driving a car, but having been pulled over before on a bike before, it too is a somewhat familiar and unpleasant feeling.

I stopped.

I read somewhere that cops that pull you over get really nervous if they can't see your hands. So I tried to keep them in view. I climbed off the bike, holding the seat and bars with my hands. Plain view.

An absolutely furious officer strode up to me.

"What were you trying to do, kill yourself?"

In the half second it took me to answer, I thought of some various answers.

"Well, actually, what I was doing was the safest way to draft a big truck. See, I could check out the upcoming road conditions by swinging out of the draft. I could also recover a bit so when I was in the draft I was less likely to make an oxygen deprived mistake. Plus, since it's night out, it's harder to pick out a cyclist. Drafting such a big vehicle makes it less likely that someone would hit me. So it was really the safest way to ride."

I didn't think that would fly.

I also nixed "It might have looked dangerous but I was in total control the whole time..." as well as "Did you ever see Breaking Away?"

Instead, like a good boy, I answered a quiet and subdued, "No, sir."

He ranted and raved about how stupid I was (well, technically, how stupidly I was behaving) and how immature it was and some other stuff. I mainly remember the stupid and immature.

And, yes, in hind sight it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. But I'm not a risk taker and when I make decisions like that I've figured the odds. I never set one of my goals when I go out and ride to "come back in an ambulance" or worse. We'd done laps on the road for an hour or two already, there was no construction, no weird weather that might knock over a tree or three, and very little traffic. And although in the past I've misjudged where a manhole cover was (the 45 mph double flat on the slight bend took place on the "back stretch" road), by peeking out from behind the truck I could assess the road in front of me and make corrections to my slightly inaccurate mental map as necessary.

But I still had a furious police officer in front of me.

Finally he stopped yelling, I stopped answered his questions, and he told me to get going. At some point he told me I shouldn't do something like this ever again.

I climbed on my bike and rode down the road. I think I went backwards on the loop to catch my friends on the back stretch, and at some point we reconnected and started riding again. We passed the officer parked on the side of the road - I think he was checking to make sure that I didn't blow by him at 45 mph, glued to another dump truck's mudflap.

My friends told me they'd watched me scamper off after the truck, lost sight of me, then, one turn and three bends later, saw flashing lights.

"No, you don't think..."
"No, couldn't be."
"Wait I see some legs in front of that cruiser."

Legs in lycra, standing.

Standing is good (as opposed to sprawled on the pavement) so they rode by like they had no idea who I was. In fact, I didn't see them ride by and the officer probably didn't either.

We laughed, I told them how cool it was to follow that dump truck, they asked me what the cop said, blah blah blah.

We turned onto the very short "before sprint road".

And heard the familiar sound of a jake brake.

A dump truck, cruising down the hill, started to slow for the intersection. The light turned green for him and he started accelerating again, shifting through his gears.

I looked at the truck. Thought about where the officer had parked his car - at the end of the mile long sprint road.

I instantly put my hands in the drops, jumped as I shifted, chain slamming into gear as I sprinted after the truck.

"Don't...." I heard behind me.

I sprinted through the corner in the 14T and started accelerating and shifting, tagging the truck at 40 or so in my 11T.

Life was good.


Giles said...

Good post. Well written. You are flippin' crazy. I like your style. I have a few places in and around Portsmouth NH that have the proper mixture of traffic lights, large vehicle traffic, and long, slightly-downhill straightaways. Nothing beats knowing you can keep up with a car, and when I race my automotive friends across town (usually a mile or less) I win because of a combination of drafting and them being unable to find a parking spot.
One thing to be aware of though is that drafting is, of course, illegal, since it constitutes "following too closely" (UVC §11-310), and bicyclists have the same responsibilities as drivers.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not being sanctimonious--I do it all the time and I love it. Just last night, at about midnight, I was racing the cops around the Portsmouth Criterium loop (and kicking their asses, I might add).

I recently picked up Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist, it has some good advice about motorpacing, as well as everything else (crash liability, how to deal with cops and driver harassment, stuff like that). It's also not a surprisingly good read, anyway. Check it out.

Giles said...

I mean, is a surprisingly good read. It is.

Aki said...

Thanks, I think :) Normally I don't thank someone for calling me "flippin' crazy" but I think in this case it's a big compliment. I like your recent/latest post on making a left turn in traffic. What matters most, and you pointed this out, is that you get out of the way quickly.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Have you every trained behind a motorcycle? If so, any tips/suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Excellent post buddy.U have done nice work.Thanks for sharing.
keep up the work.

Aki said...

van-fan - I haven't trained behind a motorcycle on purpose, but I have friends who have.

1. Use a small motorcycle - 250cc is fine. Moped or something should be okay too but I don't know if it'll be fast enough for the fast bits.
2. A cyclist should pilot the motorcycle if possible. If not, the motorcycle rider should understand the difference in effort when dealing with flat roads, slight rises, hills, and downhills. The motorcyclist should also be familiar with close quarters riding. The biggest difficulty is with moderating the throttle - usually the motorcycle goes too hard on slight uphills, ones that hurt the cyclist but feel like nothing to the throttle twister.
3. A roller (i.e. one roller from a set of rollers) mounted on the back makes it safe and easy for the cyclist to follow closely. They can bump up against the roller without endangering themselves.
4. Understand that motorpacing is normally illegal on public roads. Depending on where you go, you may be able to do it, you may not. I've seen a lot of motorpacing done on closed airfields (i.e. no planes anymore, not just "closed for the night") and somewhat private roads (closed loop, private property). I've also seen it done on public roads but not as frequently.

In Europe it's not a big deal, as far as I know.

Anonymous said...

Haha! Awesome read. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Haha! Awesome read. Thanks!

Giles said...

Mythbusters takes on drafting. Nothing surprising, but fun to watch.