Knowing how to use the wind to your advantage while riding in a group can help conserve your energy for when it’s needed most, whether that’s for an all-out attack towards the end of a race or simply to enable you to get to the end of a long group ride.
In a headwind, drafting directly behind another rider can save up to 40 per cent of the power needed to ride at the same speed into the wind.
While the rider in front of you is pushing through the air, they create an air pocket directly behind them that means you can maintain the same speed with less effort.
According to Bert Blocken, professor of physics at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the benefits are still noticeable further down the line and actually increase slightly from the second rider to the fifth, so in groups up to five, the last rider enjoys the most aerodynamic benefit.
In a group of six to eight riders, Blocken found that the second last rider gets the least wind resistance while the best position in a large peloton is between fifth and eighth.
Unless there’s a very strong headwind and the pace is easy, you don’t want to be right at the back of the line. With gaps opening up between the riders ahead coming out of corners and from stalls in the bunch, this can feel like you’re on the end of an elastic band and have to do a lot of little sprints just to hold the wheels.
While there doesn’t seem to be one clear answer as to how close you should ride to the wheel in front of you and still save some energy, your reaction times and competency on a bike will determine a safe distance for you.
Remember that while the wind doesn’t suddenly change direction, changes of direction and turns in the road will affect which way it comes at you and where you should be positioned for maximum shelter.
While riding directly behind somebody into a direct headwind gives you maximum shelter, the direction the wind is coming from determines where the greatest draft can be found and you will have to change your angle of shelter if riding into a crosswind.
An echelon occurs when a cross-headwind is blowing diagonally across a group from one side or the other.
Any experienced cyclist would be able to tell which way the wind was blowing at any given moment in a race simply by looking at a photograph of an echelon.
If the wind is from the left, for example, the best position for the front rider to start an echelon is on the left-hand side of the road, with everyone else in the group staggered diagonally to the right of the lead rider to get maximum shelter.
In a small group, when the front rider has done their turn, they should pull off the front into the wind, drift back down the line and slot in behind the last man to get shelter again while following their way up the line and back to the front.
The problem that occurs most often is that no road is wide enough for a large peloton to stretch out diagonally across it, so there are often lots of riders scrambling in the gutter at the back of the group and getting no shelter at all.
Apart from the obvious danger of oncoming traffic if the roads are open, riding in the gutter also increases your chances of puncturing, hitting a hole, getting caught in a gripe or crashing.
The fact that everyone’s wheels are overlapping also means that the rider in front of the echelon must ride steadily and keep their line as best as possible. Any sudden movement up front will send a Mexican wave of danger down through the group, with the last riders often bearing the brunt of the backlash and finding themselves ‘flicked’ into the ditch.
The best thing to do if you find yourself at the back of an echelon and scrambling for shelter is to pull across the road into the wind and start another echelon behind the first one.
Riders from the windy open flatlands of Belgium and Holland are experts at this. They instinctively know that it’s easier to get some shelter by starting a new echelon, even if it means you have to ride on the front for a while. This is why you will often see the professional peloton split into three or more echelons in a strong crosswind.
Of course, echelons can also be used by teams to break up a race and to make life hard for their opposition.
Instead of pulling all the way across the road to whichever side the wind is coming from, clever teams will ramp up the pace in a crosswind section but will only pull across enough to give their own riders shelter, forcing everyone else to scramble behind them.
If you have enough strong team-mates up front, a split can easily be forced in this way and a big advantage built up before the finish. Even a small gap between groups becomes very hard to close in a strong crosswind and often the race is decided in that moment.
■ Keep a steady pace on the front to avoid waves rippling back and affecting other riders.
■ Always pull off the front of the group into the wind.
■ When you near the back of the group, get ready to up the pace and latch onto the last rider as they go past.
■ Try and position yourself behind a big rider in any group riding together. The bigger a rider, the more shelter they create behind them.
■ Try not to get in and out of the saddle erratically in a group. Often when you stand up, your bike ‘stalls’ for a split second and ‘throws’ itself backwards at the rider behind.
■ Remember that changes of road direction means the wind changes too and the echelon or paceline will have to change shape with it.
■ Be near the front before approaching a crosswind section. The further back you are the less likely it is you will make it into the front echelon.