My wife is having struggles getting into the happy zone in a pace line. This is something I struggled with myself as a noob, early on. Too often we try to think ourselves into the happy zone, as was the case for me, and certainly my wife. The problem with trying to mentally deduce the proper location is that if you’re over-thinking it, you can end up messing yourself up so bad you can’t hang on to the back.
In my wife’s case, she’s actually faster up front when she’s pulling than when she’s tucked into the draft. A veritable impossibility, unless your melon has you screwed up beyond belief.
Thus the impetus for this post.
Getting that happy zone in low-wind scenarios is simple. Get right behind the person in front of you and call it good. No less than 3″, no more than 1-1/2 to 2′. Generally speaking, a foot is perfect but you can go closer if you know who you’re riding with.
In high-wind scenarios, when you really need a good draft, especially when you’ve got a strong crosswind, the draft is everything, because you’ll be riding 2-5 mph faster than you could ride on your own. You’ll have to be able to recover to take another turn up front again.
If you try to think your way into the draft, it’s plain and simple: You’re pooched.
The wind doesn’t care about angles, about math, about probability… It just wants you to be a simpering puddle of snot, tears and goo on the side of the road. You best the wind by feel.
Now, to shortcut the process, there are a few things that must be learned prior to feeling your way into a good draft. First is distance from the rider in front of you. One of the coolest things about road cycling is that the distance from the cyclist’s ass in front of you to the back of their rear wheel will be the same, within a centimeter, no matter who you ride with. Once you get this distance down, through lots and lots of practice, you won’t have to stare down at the tire in front of you to keep from running into it – you can look three cyclists ahead and get a better sense of the flow. You’ll intuitively know when you’re getting too close.
Second, know how you ride and who you’re drafting. I ride low and I’m thin. If you ride upright and are thick, you don’t want to be next cyclist behind me because I’ll wear your ass out before you get to the front. Ideally, you want someone a little bigger who rides a little more upright than you. You also want to be aware of the horses if you’re a weaker rider. If you’re behind a guy who pulls for three or four miles, at second bike you’re working harder than you would at the back. Sitting there for four miles at a pop will wear you out before you hit the party store for your pick-me-up Coke.
Now, speaking from experience, I’d take a smaller rider than a horse to draft off of six days a week and twice on Sunday. If you’ve got a horse, you’re working hard. For three or four miles plus your pull. If you’ve got a smaller, low-slung rider who can only pull for 1/2 to 3/4’s of a mile, you can get in the drops, wait him out and then take your turn before falling back.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I picked a position, in a seven man pace line, behind a Cat 3 racer. Oh, I failed to mention that I did so on mile ten of a century. Not a metric century. In November. Dude smoked me by mile 85. We’d cruise along at 22-23 mph until he got up front and ramped it up to 25-26, for four miles a turn. Fortunately we stopped for cider and donuts at an apple orchard right at that moment where I seriously thought about weeping. Like a baby.
To make this interesting, the harder the wind is blowing, the tighter you have to be and the more everyone gets blown around. If it was easy, anyone could do it. Suck it up buttercup, or hang with the no-drop folks. Just know that if your front wheel hits the rear dérailleur or the skewer of the guy in front of you, you’ll be stopping your bike with your face – I’ve heard that hurts. A lot.
Now for the goods. You don’t think your way into the draft, you feel your way. Where’s the wind blowing in from? From the left? You’ll be just right of the person in front of you, either overlapping or just behind and to the side. When you get into the happy zone, the wind rushing by your ears will quiet and you’re load will immediately become slightly easier. Once you’re there cautiously work your way around the fringes of the draft (be respectful of the cyclist behind you who is trying to catch a draft and not crash too). Where does the wind whipping by your melon start to pick up? Where do you feel the wind hold you back? Once you find the boundaries of the happy zone, you’re good to go. You don’t have to think anymore, you can worry about more important things… Like recovering for your next turn up front.