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To Draft or Not to Draft: What Does it Accomplish?

The practice of drafting, or following another cyclist or cyclists and (usually) taking turns in the lead (“pulling”) is time-honored and highly effective. It bestows a huge energy savings— a power meter shows wattage reductions while drafting of 30% or more (25-30% closely drafting a single rider, and approaching 50% in a larger pack). That is of course huge, since aside from energy savings by whatever the numbers, it can drop one’s effort from anaerobic to aerobic.

Drafting in a race

In the Everest Challenge, drafting a competitor is legal so long as it s/he is in the same category. That doesn’t stop cheating, which is not uncommon, and some riders continue it even when advised as such. Indeed, I have more than once advised riders of the rules as I pass, and some choose to ignore them. But those are generally few. To win by cheating is so perverse that I just cannot understand it myself. If a guy does this for a long period and I see it I might report it; s/he should receive a time penalty to be sure.

I follow a simple rule: drafting in a race by taking turns “pulling” makes eminent sense. Drafting and not pulling is technically legal, but it violates the spirit of fair play. Pulling less long or often is justifiable if one is at perceived limits, but to not do it at all is lame. I speak of solo participants, not much more complex team dynamics.

Taking the legal drafting case, I recall the 2012 Everest Challenge effort on a steep uphill into the wind. A competitor was right on my rear wheel. I dodged and weaved in ways that made it plain I didn’t want him there, but this guy stayed on me like glue and would not take a polite hint (he knew exactly what was going on). When after some time I verbalized my displeasure, he finally took the lead and I noted a ~20 watt drop in my power demands (same speed), and that was up a ~10% grade. But the climb was mostly over by then. So his was in theory a smart effort, but at some point it’s devolves into cheating the sense of fair play. If someone does not want to draft/pull together, then I go around or side by side or drop back.

Drafting in an event

In many events, one might see groups of varying sizes from two or three riders pacelining to groups of 20 or even 50 riders. Consider a double century in particular: huge energy savings can be had by gluing oneself onto the back of a 10+ rider pack, to the tune of several miles per hour. Going that fast, when done you assuredly can brag how fast you did XYZ double century because most of the participants end up not drafting over most of the course.

Which is comparing apples to oranges. Comparing an event time based on drafting versus a solo effort speaks to luck or timing or both, not necessarily ability or skill.

Which is why I generally eschew drafting even in distance events (non race events): for me it’s about testing myself, my best effort against my other efforts. If I were to draft, I can’t say how well I really did, and that undermines much of the satisfaction of a fast time, and invalidates metrics against any other solo event. In short, it’s a ride that is degraded in aesthetic and technical value for my purposes.

For double centuries and similar, I decide in advance whether it is to be a solo effort and as of 2014/2015 that means always solo. To find some riding buddies and plan to draft each other in advance, well it just makes it a different experience. Neither good nor bad, but different. And since I like to do solo events like the Everest Challenge and Four Horsemen of the Solstice, my training schedule relies in part on getting a sense of my actual condition. And that cannot be done reliably if drafting for a significant portion of the event.

The 2012 Alta Alpina 8-Pass Challenge is a case in satisfaction: it was a solo-effort event and I finished 2nd. I don’t have to wonder if I gained 20 minutes (or whatever) by drafting and thus “beat” some poor sap who did not have the drafting opportunity. Because I solo'd it. That’s worth a lot to me.

How is drafting different from an electric motor?

Out on a ride today, I mentioned to another rider as I briefly rode side by side that I always solo double centuries and that “drafting means you didn’t really do it”, or something similar to that.

He was wearing a double century jersey, so I suppose he didn’t like that idea much. I’m not surprised—the dogma surrounding drafting leads to knee-jerk reactions rather than applying Miller’s Law. And certainly in a sanctioned race and team cycling, drafting is part of the sport—nothing wrong with it, indeed it is mandatory to be competitive. But I separate racing from personal efforts, and just how real and legitimate those “personal” efforts are—whether they are in fact personal, or assisted:

Drafting means that you didn’t do it by your own effort. It means that you might have reduced your effort by 20%, 30% or even 50% (in longer pacelines). You did the distance and the event, but not the full effort. You didn’t push yourself to the limit; you rested some of the time. But it’s not just lower effort some of the time; it is time to recover. So drafting is a “double whammy” advantage in terms of reducing effort.

That drafting is a huge advantage is trivially seen with a power meter: pull the paceline out in front and see that the wattage is, say 260 watts. Then pull back behind just one person and you’re down to 200 watts. Get in back of 4-5-10 people and maybe 160 watts. It’s HUGE. Well, a power meter is not needed to feel that—it’s obviously far, far easier going inside a paceline. And with a headwind, the reduction in effort level is night and day from being out in front, or solo.

Drafting is an external assist: effort is reduced by means external to yourself. This is a self-evident fact. The fact that it is widely done and accepted by most riders is irrelevant to that reality; drafting is a team effort, not a personal effort. As such, I see it as antithetical to the whole idea of a double century effort as per my own goals, which is as far as it goes.

That’s crazy thinking, right? Surely drafting is not a sub-standard effort? Well, I think it is exactly that—a team effort, not a personal maximal best effort.

That encounter got me to thinking: how is drafting different from using an electric motor bicycle? Indeed, an electric motor could quantify how much aid was received (how many watt-hours); it would be full disclosure and fully honest about how much assist. As opposed to drafting in a paceline which cannot be quantified easily. And in a double century, the watt-hours in an electric motor is surely far less than drafting for even 50 miles in a paceline.

None of the foregoing should be taken as criticism of those who choose to draft. But it does lay bare the hypocrisy of considering an electric motor inappropriate, and yet doing a century or double century while drafting/pacelining, and calling it a personal effort. If one soloes a double century with a small electric motor, is that actually any different than drafting in a paceline? Both are external assists, fundamentally no different in terms of personal effort.

Racing is another ballgame of course: strategies around drafting and break-aways are part of it. Indeed, in a race like the Everest Challenge I certainly draft; that’s part of the race and it would be foolish not to draft in a competition where it is expected.

Racing could codify electric motors: the rules could, for example, allow an X watt-hour electric motor on a bike, which could be used as part of breakaway strategy. Eminently fair, but not something I am in favor of.

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