Learning to draft is a rite of passage. It’s the first skill beyond learning how to operate a bike itself that a rider must internalize for the simple reason that it is the foundation on which nearly every other aspect of riding road bikes is built. Without learning to draft it’s hard to understand what it means to hold a line. Without it, learning to ride in a paceline is impossible, as well as how to pull through without accelerating, plus how to accelerate in a way that doesn’t rip apart a group.
Riding at a sustained level of effort rather at a constant speed is a nuanced lesson, one that can be difficult to impart to others even when sitting at a coffee shop, post-ride. It’s the key ingredient to maintaining a consistent distance to the rider in front and it’s the skill that enables a rider to cut the draft down from six feet to three, from three to one.
The opportunities for mistakes are endless. Toward the end of one of my first group rides, back when PowerBars were $2 and stuck to their wrappers like kindergartners to parents’ legs, a buddy dropped one just as we were rolling away from a stop sign. Without thinking, I braked to a stop and reached down to grab the bar. My hand never even made it to the bar before another, much more experienced, rider plowed into me, sending us both to the ground. I’d violated a trust and my sprained wrist and his shredded tubular drove that lesson home in a lasting way.
Consider the rider behind. That was the lesson; it is as much a part of drafting as following the rider in front. It comes out in other ways, such as when a rider stands; without a few extra watts it will appear to nearby riders as if the bike slid backward within the group. It can send riders scattering toward painted lines and gutters.
You’ve known these lessons long enough to make them reflexive. My purpose isn’t to point out how dangerous riding in a pack can be, but to remind us how intimate an act it is.
I don’t think there’s another word that better characterizes the degree of trust we grant those with whom we ride. Those who follow depend on us to ride that consistent effort so that we slow going uphill and accelerate going downhill and knowing how much to speed up or slow down can only be learned over thousands of miles pedaled in groups. It means carving not a perfect arc, but rather the widest possible so that riders to the inside of the turn have as much room to negotiate the corner as possible.
How much I had learned, the depth of the trust other riders had placed in me, didn’t fully register until one day when I showed up for a group ride to which I was a stranger. Initially, I was simply relegated to the back. Eventually, I forced my way into the rotation only to have a rider yell at me for doing something he found unpredictable. I had to explain that while I didn’t know him, that ride, those roads, I did know how to ride in a group.
As the years passed, I learned to introduce myself and establish that I knew how to ride in a group, that I carried a racing license. Even that didn’t cure all. There was the time, while visiting another city, I showed up for a ride held by a local club. It was a ride for members and membership is something I lacked. I did something then that I should have been doing all along: I asked if they’d allow me to join them for the ride.
It was a simple gesture, but it gave the dozen riders assembled a chance to process that there would be a stranger with them, an unfamiliar wheel taking pulls.
And as much as the rider in front must consider the needs of the rider behind, the rider behind has a role to play in that social contract.
A friend on his way home from one of our group rides braked to turn onto the local bike path and suddenly found himself on the ground. Another rider was on the ground as well. She rose quickly and began saying repeatedly, “I didn’t do anything.” But of course she had; she’d rammed his rear wheel because she was drafting a foot off of him, didn’t mention she was back there and had no idea where he was headed.
Building trust isn’t easy, no matter what the environment is. Asking if I might join a group for their ride is a way to show them respect, to give them a choice, a way to acknowledge that their collective isn’t just a random assembly of people, but a real community, no matter how small.
Finding a reason to trust a stranger grows much easier if that stranger starts with the basics of etiquette: an introduction, followed by a request. The smaller the group, the more my presence is felt, the greater my intrusion, and the more intimate my presence becomes. And what is more intimate than one rider drafting another? It’s why I never ride up to someone and just start drafting them. If someone is riding alone, having another rider suddenly following three feet behind can be an intrusion.
If I encounter another rider far enough from town that I think we are probably doing a similar loop, I’ll pull alongside and either invite them to hop on, or ask if they want to trade pulls. No matter what they prefer, it acknowledges that they have options, and in that I feel better about my presence because it demonstrates my recognition of their right to choose.
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