Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tactics - Drafting, A Note

Or "What New Riders Need To Understand To Race"

It seems straightforward to explain to a new rider how to do a group ride. Learn to draft in a smaller group, maybe groups of 2 to 4 riders. Then go on a larger group ride (10 to 20 riders) and practice drafting, watch the group's dynamics, and get into a "group rhythm". Then, as you get more comfortable drafting, explore other things - pulling, attacking, chasing, even sprinting.

Then try racing.

And if you race, you should know that after a bit of suffering, maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe even a year, you'll be able to hang in there. You'd be able to make it past some of the hard bits, and eventually, at some point, you'll be the one laying out the advice, even if it's as simple as "Well, first you need to learn to draft".

You've made it.

The reality, for many, ends up being totally different. Throw a bunch of those new riders into a bunch of group rides and you'll see a huge portion of them simply drop out. Discouraged, they ride away, at some point not returning to the sport.

I can't tell you why. I mean, yes, I've talked to some "never-raced" riders (one has been riding for 20 or 30 years on the road) about what it is about racing that keeps them from racing. Some guys worry about being able to go to work on Monday, after hearing all about the crashes and wrecks and various disasters in the races. Others point at their lack of pace. Still others simply don't feel the need to enter a race, a competitive event.

For sure there's a certain intimidation factor, the fear of the unknown, the reluctance to leave one's comfort zone. I don't know why that didn't dissuade me from racing, but somehow I made it through that obstacle. I think that an always supportive group helps a lot. It helps too that I could see some progress, even if it meant that I got dropped just a bit later in the group ride.

And finally, with the long term approach to learning that I discovered with the violin, bike racing seemed like a pretty easy-to-master sport. After all, it only took me a year to start placing in races. With the violin, it was maybe 10 years before I started feeling comfortable expressing myself with the "fiddle", as my last teacher called it.

Anyway, the other night the missus and I went out on the tandem. For the first time for us, though, we went on a group ride of regular riders. Meaning riders on normal bikes, on "singles" in tandem-speak.

We got shelled almost immediately.

Okay, on the tandem we climb worse than I climb alone, and for a number of reasons.

The tandem has what I consider, under physiological pressure, "widely spaced gearing", with relatively large jumps between commonly used cogs, and that's with the "close ratio" cassette I installed. This widely spaced gearing makes it difficult to fine tune cadence when at the edge of threshold.

Another gearing issue - we have an inability to stand while pedaling. I just don't know how to approach it. We've tried once and almost rode off both sides of the road. We simple never managed to make it work. Whatever my single-bike instincts, for standing they definitely don't cross over to the tandem.

There's this weight thing too. We have a heavier bike, equivalent of two 19 pound singles. With our gear on it (just bottles, flat tire stuff, some lights), it pushes the weight well over 40 pounds. With us on board, the bike weighed well north of 350 pounds.

And as much as I love and respect the missus, she puts out just a tad bit less power than I can, so it wasn't like there were two racers on the bike. She pedals for sure, and at times I've had to go over 600 watts to stay with her when riding singles, but no, it's not quite the same as riding the single.

Add that to the fact that I basically tossed the missus into the deep end - she'd ridden all of 10 miles on a bike this year prior to the day's 40-ish mile ride - and you can see that we entered the ride with less than ideal conditions.

All in all, poor preparation and a bike that handicapped us (or that we handicapped by not mastering).

On the good side, we could never drop each other, so I could pedal as hard as I wanted and I could still talk to the missus. Or, if I was struggling on a hill, she'd dig extra deep and turn on the reserve power to crank over the top. And coasting downhills... well, let's just say that I used the brakes a lot. And finally, since I was piloting the bike, we could sneak into tighter spots than most riders, sit on wheels, etc.

At least until the road went up.

The tandem did teach me a couple things about group rides. I think those things were so ingrained in my head, learned so long ago, that I didn't even think of them as "things". They just "were", like the sky is above and the pavement is below.

For new riders (we were all new riders at one point), my observations below may seem obvious. But for more experienced riders, like me, the ideas are so basic that they may have already been filed away as "it's just part of pedaling the bike".

My two huge observations on group rides based on riding the tandem the other night:
1. You must learn how to draft, and you must get comfortable riding 3 feet or less behind the rider in front of you.
2. If the gap opens up beyond that 3 feet (or less, if you're okay with that), you must close that gap immediately. Immediately. Not in 3 seconds, not in 2 seconds, you need to close it NOW.

Note: the distance increases with speed, and I'm talking drafting distances at 20-25 mph on flat and slightly rolling roads. For 35+ mph descents, you can back off perhaps a bike length per 10 mph, so at 40 mph, maybe 4 bike lengths. Mind you, that's for descents. For a flat road 40 mph effort, I would have to be inside of a foot to find enough draft to hang on. But I consider that to be "advanced" group riding. First get the 20 mph stuff down.

The first point is a rehash of sorts for experienced riders. They'll think, "Three feet? It should be just a foot, not three!" But, for everything that I've forgotten, I do remember a sense of abject terror when approaching closer than three feet to the rider in front of me. So 3 feet it is. Work on a foot, but the minimum needs to be a yard.

The second point... I never realized how critical that second point is for effective drafting. When the gap opens even a little, you need to close it immediately. Not, "Oh, the gap is 5 feet, let me pedal a bit faster... okay, it's 4, I'm making progress... Okay it's 3 and ah, hm... oh they just accelerated, and now it's 7 feet..."

It should be "Gap is 3.5 feet" (if you want to stay at 3 feet) and you immediately, and I mean immediately, throw in one hard downstroke. Then continue pedaling normally and see what happens - you should find the bike rolling up the extra gap, slowing gently as you get within 3 feet of the bike.

If the gap is a bit bigger because you weren't paying attention, you'll need to accelerate accordingly. Two hard downstrokes. Maybe three.

Now, for many riders, the first thing to pop into their heads is, "Wait, he's telling riders to surge while in a group? In a paceline?"

Yes. And no.

When a new rider does these surges, it will result in some surges and corresponding braking. It's like a new driver in a car trying to drive a constant speed. The experienced driver may find it a bit annoy to see a car surge, then brake, then surge, then brake, but everyone has to start somewhere.

In this case, hopefully, the speed's sine waves taper down quickly, so that first the brakes become unnecessary, then second the surges seem more gentle.

With the additional mass of the tandem, I learned really quickly exactly how hard I go to close a tiny gap. I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly, doing a hard downstroke or two. Then, to my total dismay, I realized that I had not reduced the gap in front of me.

(Note: as the pilot or "captain" of the tandem, my view is similar to one of a single bike, with bars, levers, and a front wheel. Therefore it seems that my instincts are honed as if I were riding a single bike, even on a double.)

What I found was that instead of one or two hard instinctive downstrokes, I needed to go 10 or 15. 10 or 15, that's like accelerating out of a hairpin turn from 15 mph to 35 mph.

That, in case you didn't know, is hard.

After about 10 or 12 gaps, all along one meandering road, my legs exploded. I couldn't keep the bike in the draft, on the flats, we would drop further behind on the hills, and that was that.

We did the rest of the ride pretty much solo. And I filed what I learned in my mental "I should write about this" folder.

One of the hard things about drafting is learning to deal that whole sine wave curve, where the rider learning to draft alternately accelerates and brakes. This needless braking, and the resulting acceleration, wastes a lot of energy.

In fact, I read an article where the author mentions something about Tom Boonen. Apparently he's not just a good sprinter, he's a good bike rider (duh!). He's good enough that even in tight field situations, you can see him riding the tops regularly.

Tops, in case you don't know, means he can't brake without moving his hands.

And in fact, he doesn't need to brake. Even as other guys are alternately pedaling and braking, Boonen is simply pedaling and coasting along. No brakes. Efficient.

You've got to believe that this efficiency translates to some additional power in the last 200-300 meters.

You can't just decide to have this skill though - it's not like Boonen got on the bike and said, "Okay, from now on I'm not going to brake in the field unless I absolutely have to." It's something he learned over the course of riding from age 12 or whatever.

So how do you get to this point?

Lots of practice.

Seriously, though, it takes a lot of saddle time while you're focused on actually drafting. This means not looking around at the scenery, although you should keep an eye out on traffic.

You can definitely try "not braking" while in the group, although I'd do it with your fingers near your brake levers first. Save riding the tops for later.

You can also isolate your own sine wave so it doesn't affect the other riders in the group. Let me explain.

When I first learned to draft, I had problems dealing with the "I surged, but now I'm going too fast, now what?" My first "trick" was to coast up alongside the rider in front, meaning I'd slide over a foot and roll up next to the rear wheel, or derailleur, or even the cranks of the rider in front of me. Then, as my speed dropped (due to soft pedaling, coasting, or even braking a touch), I'd slide over and get back behind the wheel.

I figured out, too, that keeping an eye out on the second rider in front of me helped. If that rider surged a bit, I knew I should expect "my" rider to surge too. I tried to focus less on my front tire and more on the two or three riders in front of me's front tires.

(It's kind of like driving - you don't keep your eyes glued on the road 10 feet in front of your bumper, you look up at 50-100 yards away, or around the bend, at the cars 3-4 cars in front of you... don't you?)

Suddenly, as I mastered this drafting thing, I forgot about the surges. I'd toned them down so that a discrete pedal mash or two would keep me within my drafting window. I would ease a touch when I noticed the riders in front of the riders in front of me easing, and I would find myself slowing just enough to ease onto the wheel in front of me.

Then the field would naturally accelerate a bit and I'd do my one downstroke.

I didn't realize this after a while. In fact, I don't ever remembering telling myself, "Okay, if the field surges just a touch, do one slightly harder downstroke."

I didn't realize, that is, until I rode the tandem with the missus. And then suddenly, with my single bike reactions slowed by the tandem, it became crystal clear to me.

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