The Ask

The Ask

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.

Yes, intimate.

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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  1. Paul S.

    I was riding a century solo this summer and I don’t have much recent experience in a pace line. I ended up getting scooped up in a group of about 5-6 riders that all knew each other and lived in the town where the Century was starting/finishing. I was thinking about about hanging in the back, but the vibe of the crew was generally friendly, and it felt like the respectful thing to do was take a pull.

    A few minutes later, I found myself third from the back, and I heard the rider behind me say, in a low, but annoyed, tone to the rider who had just finished his pull “Watch out, I may have to make a move.”

    Instead of getting huffy, I just yelled out “I haven’t done this a lot. If I’m causing trouble, tell me, and I’ll get out of the way.” Immediately, the rider behind me changed her tone. She stopped treating me as a foreigner on her turf, to acting as a curmudgeonly coach. Telling me to stop looking at the wheel in front of me, and start looking at the person. Telling me to err to the outside, not the inside, so I had some place to go if things went sideways. I was really glad I had picked the right way to ask and be granted permission into their group, and I didn’t have to ride the whole century on my own.

    1. Author

      I’m glad to hear that the rider who initially challenged your presence decided to help you out. That’s terrific. And she gave you great advice, across the board. Glad you had a great ride that day.

  2. MCH

    I think that you’ve highlighted two of the most important elements of riding closely to another rider – it’s both intimate and dangerous. Almost no one would consider silently walking up behind a stranger on a city sidewalk, and then continue to walk inches behind that person for block after block. Yet on a bicycle, many seem to think that this is acceptable behavior. Whether in a group, or riding alone, it happens all the time.
    As you rightly point out, “the ask” makes all the difference. The simple act of asking demonstrates that rider behind understands that not all riders want the company or the responsibility that goes with being drafted. Asking demonstrates respect, empathy, and courtesy – elements of the social contract I’d like to see more of.

    1. Author

      Thanks. Yeah, the social contract is on my mind with some frequency these days. I think a lot about how I interact with my community and what I can do to make my interactions better for others. Cycling seems such a great way to work on these skills.

  3. Mike E.

    These days if I find an unannounced wheel-sucker riding my ass, I start soft-pedaling or even dump a gear or two so I slow down enough that it annoys the crap out of them…then they tend to go around because now I’m going “too slow” for what they want to do.

    1. Author

      I used to do that, or even more often, back in my racing days, I attacked. If they came back, I’d attack as hard or as often as necessary to convey that my back wheel is not a public tow hitch. I regret that now. While I think it can be hard to initiate a conversation from the front, I’ll do what I can to communicate that I might do something that they aren’t expecting, often by putting my palm out to indicate slowing, and then taking action (like going around a pothole) to indicate that my rear wheel isn’t quite the same thing as railroad tracks. Honestly, I’ll try anything that isn’t antisocial.

    2. Scott M.

      There’s an critical distinction between passive tactics (as you’ve described) and behavior that can directly harm another rider. One day while commuting to work along a wide open bike trail, I jumped on the wheel of a passing rider and followed for a brief period.

      Then he brake checked me. Intentionally. THAT IS NEVER OK!!!

      I was attentive enough to avoid a collision but had I been looking down for a split second I likely would have touched wheels.

      No matter how important you think your intervals are; or how much you despise having someone draft you; or how rude you think it is for someone to draft you without asking permission, it is our duty as cyclists to look out for one another. This sport (hobby, habit, proclivity, sport, dereliction) is hard enough without purposely causing harm.

    3. Author

      That’s a bummer. Totally not okay. There’s a grand continuum of ways to address a rider who is drafting without consent. At one end, you’ve got the introduction, which, who knows, could lead to a new friend. At the other end, we’ve got brake checks and hooked wheels, which are distinctly antisocial, hostile, even. I’m not sure where passive tactics become antisocial, but that anyone would do that is really sad.

  4. Andrew

    One of the reasons I have come to prefer riding gravel, and almost always riding with no more than a couple of other people, is that I have gotten tired of drafting and drafting etiquette.

  5. Dizzy

    This is something I’ll take to heart.
    I’ve drafted w/o asking, been kindly booted out of a paceline, been wheel-sucked by riders twice my size and, like Mike E., have deliberately slowed to force them to pass and have dropped into pacelines w/o invitation and participated appropriately.

    Just ask (to echo MCH); just advise; just make my feelings and/or intentions clear. How simple is that. Great advice. It’s something that is so obvious but hasn’t ever clicked in my riding mindset. Much thanx! D

    1. Author

      I’m glad you found something useful. For me, it was an opportunity to explore how my own attitude has evolved. Marking one’s own growth isn’t easy, but every now and then we get a glimpse.

  6. Alex

    Drafting is the essence of road cycling. It is unique to only a handful of sports. I love when people draft off of me. I think it’s a recognition of superior strength. Maybe I think that because I will draft only when I think a rider or a group displays good form or superior strength.

    I always ask, although the ask doesn’t have to be verbal. A gesture or an eye contact often enough to make a connection. It can be quite intimate indeed. Sometimes I like to play with the hitchhiker, test his strength, make him earn it.

    What I do not like is when people pull off without goodbye or a thank you. So I guess for me the farewell is more important then hello.

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. I really love learning about what matters to riders, where they find their takeaways.

    2. Zack

      I second this sentiment, exactly. Riding in Brooklyn and Manhattan, it seems like this behavior is generally tolerated, in parks and across bridges. On surface streets and bike paths in the city, drafting is always a bad idea. You need to read folks, though. Sometimes someone who has great form is also just really focused and doesn’t want distraction, but then maybe they shouldn’t be doing that kind of riding in the city.

  7. Dan Murphy

    This is a topic that has produced many long threads on cycling forums. Riders tell tales of crashes and near-crashes, various tactics to shake secretive wheel-suckers, and recount their version of the unwritten rules of group riding.
    Of all the “rules” I’ve read, I think Patrick has explained a great approach to this issue. It’s simple, non-aggressive, and clear. The trick is, getting people to do something like this.
    First, there are experienced riders that ride in groups a lot and understand all the dynamics of group rides. By and large, these riders get it.
    Next, there are those that are inexperienced, know they are experienced, and are willing to listen and learn. These riders will get it when taught.
    It’s the middle group that can be, uh, a challenge.
    – There’s the clueless (and believe me, I know clueless having spent many years as the clueless one). No matter how you explain it, they simply don’t understand that people are counting on you and that people can and do get seriously hurt when a rider spaces out.
    – There’s the arrogant ones that don’t want anybody suggesting what they should do, because damn it, they’ve been riding for years and know exactly what they’re doing. But they don’t.
    – There’s the “When Harry Met Sally” types. You know, the high-maintenance ones that don’t realize they’re high maintenance. Well, there’s the riders that think they know what they’re doing, but don’t.
    I’m sure we could come up with a few more categories, but you get my drift.
    FWIW, I so rarely end up in group rides and mostly ride alone or on casual rides with one other rider. The only time I end up riding with lots of other riders is in events and I have exclusively done only gravel events for the last 10(?) years. I would be extremely cautious if I were to do a road event with people I didn’t know. So yes, I am an unexperienced group rider. But at least I understand how things work and have respect and concern for the other riders. I know they’re counting on me to do and not do certain things, and I certainly don’t want to see anybody get hurt.
    Thanks, Patrick. I’m going to forward this to a number of riding friends.

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