The Importance of Drafting in a Bicycle Race

Davis Phinney breaking away in Baltimore. photo:Fred Hasson

Drafting is a technique with which bike racers can save energy at the expense of the riders in front of them. This phenomenon lies at the heart of bike race strategy.

A drafting bike racer will keep his front wheel dangerously close to the rear wheel of the rider in front of him — only 6 inches or so to be most effective. Scientists have demonstrated that a racer riding in another’s slipstream will expend 30% or so less energy than the rider in front. That’s a lot of energy over a 3-hour bike race, and it obviously would give a huge edge to the drafting rider, come the finishing sprint. In fact, the power of drafting underlies most of the tactics and strategies of bicycle racing.

Drafting in the Peloton

During a road race, teams often share the duty of leading the peloton, or pack. A team at the front creates a huge wind shadow for the rest of the pack. Riders will take brief turns pedaling very hard at the front (“taking a pull”), giving the rest of the pack a respite. An organized peloton with one or more strong teams at the front can move along very quickly indeed — over 30 mph on flat ground. Usually, the team leaders or designated sprinters won’t be seen at the front; they will hide in the draft all day to preserve their strength.

Drafting in a Breakaway

When one or more riders escape the peloton, it is called a breakaway, or an attack. These riders are said to be “off the front.” Their aim is to reduce the number of competitors at the finish line, but they can only do it by working harder, and working together. The success of breakaways is often a numbers game: the more riders to share the work, the less work each rider must do. Two-person attacks often fail, because each rider has to work half the time. Six strong riders working together, on the other hand, can often go faster than the chasing peloton, especially on a twisty course with lots of turns that slow the pack repeatedly. In such a group, called a “paceline,” the front rider pulls and the other 5 draft, so each rider only exerts full power 1/6 of the time.

Bike Race Drafting Strategies

The way a bike race unfolds often dictates who pulls and who drafts. If a big attack is off the front, the teams who don’t have a rider in the breakaway will want to pick up the pace of the peloton to reel the break back in. Teams with riders in the breakaway know this and will force the unrepresented teams to do all the work in chasing down the break. Sometimes, a team with a strong rider in an attack will actually disrupt the chase in order to give the break a chance to succeed. Still, a motivated peloton working together can overtake most breakaways, given enough time.

Tactics in a Breakaway

The strategy of any breakaway is to work together long enough to ensure the break’s success, then to fight it out for the victory. If a rider refuses to “pull through,” or take his turn at the front, he will have more energy at the finish. Riders often feign fatigue on the road to get out of doing their share of the work, then miraculously recover within sight of the finish line. This sort of tactic usually results in acrimony between the riders on the road that can carry over into later races.

Sometimes a racer in a break will refuse to pull as part of a larger team strategy. In fact, some riders are sent by their team into the breakaway to disrupt it and keep it from succeeding. This could be the strategy, for instance, of a team with a strong sprinter who might be expected to win the race if it comes down to a sprint. Conversely, a team weak in the sprint (which obviously entails a pack finish) would hope to get a rider into a small break to increase its chances of winning.

Drafting at the Finish

In a sprint finish, the teams with the strongest sprinters will form their riders into long lines, gradually going faster and faster. Each rider will utterly exhaust himself before swinging off as the next rider pulls through. The last rider through will be the team sprinter, who will rocket the last hundred or two meters to the finish line. At the pro level, only a handful of riders are considered world-class sprinters, and they are among the rock stars of the sport. Still, their success almost always depends on the draft created by their teammates’ “lead-out.”

Even in a small breakaway, the race often ends in a sprint, and riders will jockey for the last position approaching the finish line in order to force the other riders to create a lead-out. A winning strategy entails the drafting rider coming around at the last second for the win.


Originally published at suite.io, the last vestige of Suite 101, where the author was Watersports Topic Editor.