Financial advisors will tell you that the way to get (or stay) rich is to not just make more money, but also avoid wasting it. The same is true with how athletes get faster. It’s not just about how much power you can produce or how high you can push your lactate threshold pace. It also pays to be frugal with your energy and economical with your efforts. And just like a great financial plan, it’s best to establish good habits and learn the fundamentals early on so you’re an expert by the time the stakes are much higher.
In cycling, mountain biking, and triathlon the stakes get higher as the speeds increase. That’s why I think it’s crucial for athletes – competitors and non-competitors alike – to focus on skills right from the beginning. A classic example from cycling is the young criterium racer who upgrades through the racing categories as quickly as possible on points, but never learns to win a race in the lower categories. When you get to Category 2 you’re racing Pro-1-2 events, and that’s a hard place to learn how to finish at the front. In contrast, when you learn how to win by winning races as a Cat 4 and Cat 3 you have the fundamentals down and you’ll have a fighting chance when you finally develop the speed to be in contention in the final lap of a Pro-1-2 crit.
A more common example everyone can relate to is following a wheel in a group ride. The time to learn the fundamentals is when the group is going relatively steady at a moderate pace. But instead, that’s often when athletes get complacent. You don’t see the importance of sticking close to the wheel ahead of you or finding the optimal drafting position because the effort required to maintain your position isn’t hard.
If you can position yourself perfectly when the going is easy, then you’ll be able to do it when the group is going flat out in a 30mph crosswind. But if you’re not an expert at finding a draft on a calm day how can you expect to be any good at it when it really matters? Remember, it’s not just about the power you can produce. It’s also about not wasting energy. Poor positioning and inefficient drafting wastes power with every pedal stroke you make, every gasping breath you take.
When you’re working on becoming an expert at drafting I tell athletes to envision a drafting pocket. When you’re in the pocket you’re getting a great draft and saving as much energy as you can. But the pocket is rarely directly behind the wheel in front of you. It moves right and left based on where the wind is coming from, and it gets bigger and smaller based on the speed you’re going, the speed of the wind, and the size of the rider ahead of you. The benefits of being perfectly in the pocket may be smaller when you’re going at a moderate pace, but the consequences of being outside the pocket are dire when the going gets tough.
Here are a few tips for finding and staying in the pocket:
1. GET COMFORTABLE DRAFTING CLOSE BEHIND THE RIDER IN FRONT OF YOU
The benefit of drafting drops off very rapidly as the distance between you and the rider ahead of you increases. Whether it’s behind or beside the rider ahead of you, being closer is better than being farther away. The only way to get comfortable with close quarters riding is to do it over and over again.
2. USE THE DRAFTING POCKET TO ADJUST YOUR SPEED
By moving out of the pocket a bit to catch more wind you can slow down without touching your brakes. This keeps you from running up on the wheel ahead of you and gives you the opportunity to get a better view of what’s up the road.
3. LOOK FOR EXTERNAL CLUES FOR WIND DIRECTION
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly where the wind is coming from. Look at long grasses, bushes, trees, flags etc. at the side of the road for information. High flagpoles are sometimes the best because they often have unobstructed exposure to the wind.
Get in the drops or drop your elbows so your forearms are nearly horizontal if you’re riding on the hoods. The point is to make yourself smaller in the wind. This will be especially important if the rider you’re drafting on is either small or has a low, aerodynamic riding position. If the only place you’re comfortable and powerful on your bike is upright with your hands on the hoods or tops, there’s a problem with your bike fit. If you want to survive in the wind, you have to be able to ride powerfully with your shoulders relatively low (whether that’s in the drops or with horizontal forearms, which in some cases is an even more aero position than in the drops).
4. LEARN TO LOOK “THROUGH” THE RIDER AHEAD OF YOU
The closer you get to the rider ahead of you the more that person blocks your view of the world ahead of you. You end up zeroed in on their butt, and even if it’s a nice butt it’s not a good idea to stare at it. You need to use glances to the sides and down to the road ahead to build a composite view of what’s ahead. As you move in and out of the pocket to the side you get short glimpses of the terrain and pack ahead, and looking diagonally to the sides you can pick up cues from riders nearby. Basically, your focal point should be in front of the rider ahead of you – and much farther ahead if possible – so that you’re not focused on the stitching on the seams of his or her chamois.
Looking “through” the rider ahead of you also helps with stability. When you’re walking a balance beam it’s best to look farther out ahead of you rather than at the beam at your feet. The same is true on the bike. If you look at the wheel or butt a foot away your handling will be squirrely. If your focus is further ahead of you, “through” the rider directly blocking your view, you’ll ride a straighter line.
Relatively calm days with little to no wind can be the best opportunities to master your drafting techniques. Remember, there’s never any benefit to catching more wind than you have to and the mark of a truly expert cyclist is riding close and comfortable, in the draft, even when the going is easy. When it’s time to ride in the wind at the front, give a good effort. When it’s time to draft, be awesome at it.