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How is Drafting in a Paceline Different from an Electric Motor?

Back in 2014, I wrote To Draft or Not to Draft: What Does it Accomplish?.

I’ve added an addendum to that post, excerpted here.

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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