Cycling is 50% pedaling hard and 50% staying out of the wind.
Bicycle racing is a tactical game. Riding behind somebody, in their slipstream, saves you energy, while riding at the front of the group gets you fully exposed to the wind, requiring you to work harder. Cleverly combining the two is a very valuable skill.
When strong crosswinds start to buffet the road, positioning becomes even more important. In addition, as the road winds left and right, wind direction can change, requiring you to readjust your place in the group. The Spring Classics are a good example of smart drafting on narrow and winding roads.
For me an echelon was something I kept hearing about, however, after getting dropped on two consecutive days in the 35+kph (20+mph) winds I learned by ‘trial and error’ what it takes to ride smart into a crosswind.
Let’s take a look at cyclists riding in a single file on a windless day. The blue yellow and green cyclists are all drafting each other, saving more than 30% energy compared to the rider with the red shirt. After ‘taking a pull’ the red cyclist will drop on the left and rejoin the group at the back. Now the blue rider is doing most of the work.
Desperately trying to hang behind that wheel is not always the best option.
When the wind comes from the side, the group forms and echelon in the direction of the wind. When the red cyclist finishes his turn at the front he drops back, using the wind to push him close to the group so he can quickly get into the slipstream of the green rider. Cycling directly behind a rider in a crosswind does NOT provide any benefit!!! Desperately trying to hang behind that wheel is not always the best option.
“In the Gutter”
When the road can accommodate only 4 cyclists in an echelon, the cyclist in the black shirt will be “guttered.” He is not able to get into the slipstream of the echelon, so he will be working much harder and will eventually lose contact. The purple cyclist is in the WORST possible position. This is how the front four riders would be able to ride away away from the rest. The remaining riders need to form a second echelon of their own and start working together. Last week when I got dropped from the group ride I was in the exact same position as the purple rider on both occasions.
Crosswinds and YOU; Adapting and Attacking
In the following diagram I am using a square loop with the wind coming diagonally across the course (i.e in a criterium). The important point here is that as you turn, the wind direction WILL change so the echelon will have to adjust! This is the perfect time to wreck havoc during a race, since getting an echelon going takes some coordinated efforts. Riders that were not in the wind, suddenly become exposed and pushed around, so you can attack and possibly ride away from the group. It works like a charm…being the one left behind in the buffeting headwind is a very tough position to be into…ask me how I know!
Segments A and B, where the wind has a head direction, are more crucial than segments C and D, where the wind turns into a tailwind, helping the group forward.
Here is a recent example of echelons during the final kilometers of the 2013 Tour of Qatar. The breakaway managed to hold off the charging peloton by using the crosswind to their advantage.
Crosswinds can cause a lot of chaos for a group of cyclists. It takes careful and smart positioning to stay out of the wind. In addition as wind direction changes, re-positioning accordingly is equally important. As a consequence strong crosswinds are the perfect opportunity for an attack.
Staying in Touch
For further information check the ever-increasing Reading List