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How To Master the Echelon: 10+ Tips on Drafting

Recently, on a ride, I watched from the safety of the draft, a rider far stronger and fitter than me, get blown out the back on a windy, but otherwise,...

Recently, on a ride, I watched from the safety of the draft, a rider far stronger and fitter than me, get blown out the back on a windy, but otherwise, decent day. I watched it happen. I was on his wheel. We were on a straight road at the time and the wind was coming from the left (11 o-clock) and thus most of the 15 or so riders were lining up to the right of the wheel in front of them. But not this rider, he was on the other side, the wind side, taking on the brunt of the on-coming wind. It only took a couple minutes (the time it took for 3 people at the front to do their turn) before he came unhinged and flew out the back. A little later in the ride, after we had regrouped (and the wind had actually died down), several us started talking about the nuances of drafting. Below are some of those tips - they are mainly poignant to smaller groups, but can be extrapolated to the larger peloton. 


  1. Feel the wind. Easy said, but since you can’t see the wind you need to look, listen, and feel for it. Look: You can look at trees and grass or a flag if you’re lucky for clues about wind direction. Listen: The wind makes sound. Get in the zone where that sound dies down; it means you're in the draft. Feel: Similar to sound, wind can be felt. If you can feel the full force of the wind on your face, you’re probably not in the draft. If that feeling goes away and you can't feel the wind on your face, then you've got it. The wind will keep micro changing so you have to constantly adjust your position relative to the person in front of you.
  2. Pull into the Wind. When the direction of the wind keeps changing (or the course is twisting and turning), keep in mind this one mantra, “always pull into the wind”. This sets up the echelon in the correct direction making it possible to pull through cleanly. If you don’t and you pull off on the wrong side, you’ll just run into the rider behind you and they won’t be able to clear your wheel. It is possible that in the course of a short distance, you and your small group will need to change this direction - sometime multiple times. A good example is if you and your group are driving away on an open road with fields on both sides and then you come up on a town with buildings, trees, and fences; the wind that you feel will change because you will be in an eddy (like on a river), thus you will need to change the side that you pull off on - until you get past the town.
  3. Don’t look at the tire in front of you. Look at nothing, see everything. You need to know what the others are doing and you need to be ready for any adjustments made by the other riders or by the terrain and direction of the road ahead.
  4. Watch the riders who have been successful. Keep an eye on the local pro or wiseman/wisewoman of the group. They are pros or wise for a reason. Learn from them.
  5. The most important time in an echelon or paceline is not pulling through, it’s grabbing the wheel of the guy or gal who pulls through after you. If the paceline is taking short pulls, it is easier to get on that wheel rather than having to grab the last wheel. If people are taking longer pulls, then no worries, the pace is usually softer and thus easier to get on the last wheel.
  6. Don’t accelerate when it’s your turn to pull through - take note of your gear and cadence and keep it there; it will be harder to keep the cadence, but you don’t need to go beyond that cadence. This is the single biggest mistake people make. Pulling through harder than the pace that has been set is 1. harder for you (and not so hard for everyone else because they are IN the draft), and 2) it disrupts the entire paceline. The only time you change the cadence and pace is when you want to amp up the pace of the entire group. And... once you do pull off, let off the gas. Don't keep that same cadence, drift backwards.
  7. Don’t Pull off at the bottom of a hill or one the hill. Keep pulling to the top. The reason is because if you pull into the hill and pull off before the top, the riders behind you are fresh and tend to accelerate, making it very difficult for you to get back on. If you simply stay on the front until the top, you'll have a very easy time getting back on at or just beyond the crest of the hill.
  8. Find the big and tall guy or gal to follow. They provide the most draft. This is an obvious one, but a tip that a lot of strong riders mentioned. Over the course of - say a half hour break - you can save a lot of energy simply following the person who gives the largest draft. Conversely, don't follow the skinny hill climber with the wing span of a finch.
  9. Corollary to #7: Don’t follow the strongest guy or gal. They usually pull though the hardest making it difficult to grab a wheel. The strong ones are also the riders who can best ride the gutter (ride close to the edge) and so if you find yourself behind this talented person, you will be SOL.
  10. But If you do find yourself that last rider and you are in the gutter and having trouble grabbing draft, try putting your body in the draft while keeping your bike on the road. This will give you some draft.
  11. Don’t NOT pull through, it’s actually easier to keep pulling through and resting rather than find yourself further back in that long single file line of riders riding the edge of the gutter. If you pull though, you’re pain lasts 15-20 seconds; if you don’t pull through and find yourself in the gutter, you’re pain will last all day.
  12. Head winds are actually the easiest - 30% easier on average - making it easy to “hide”. The real hard sections are tailwinds… Thus be closer to the front in tailwind sections. In fact, on those days when it is super windy and people start getting anxious, relax, it’s actually more difficult to “get away”. One rider, or even a small group, riding into a strong wind are no match for a well organized chase. (This is also why you want to attack into a tailwind if you’re the strong guy).
  13. Anticipate wind direction. When you’re approaching a turn, think about the consequences. If you’re turning into a tailwind, be at the front. If you’re turning into a headwind, relax, there will be ample draft. If you’re turning into another cross wind, anticipate and line up where you need to be.
  14. When pulling off the front in a small echelon, a good trick, to guarantee that you have enough room at the back to get back on, is to pull far enough into the wind (left or right) so that you won’t be guttered when you have to get back on the group. Often, by the nature of the blowing wind, small echelons find themselves guttering themselves.


And lastly, a tip on how to get comfortable in a paceline or echelon: Practice on grass. You can't learn how to master the echelon without experiencing some of the bumps, nudges, and tire taps without experiencing them first hand. Go onto a grass field with some friends and ride close together to see what it feels like to bump and nudge. Ride up on another rider's tire to see what hitting and crossing wheels feels like. Getting out there on a soft surface makes great sense. Grass can hurt, but not like asphalt at 40mph!

Hopefully, this has been helpful. We are always looking to learn as well so let us know your tips!

Below are some good links that Illustrate some of the above ideas:

VeloNews: Lotto Soudal getting rid of the competition in a cross wind here.

Eurosports version using graphics for the same race here.

UCI: A simple How To with guests like Boonen here.




Good luck!

The Panache Crew


24 comments on How To Master the Echelon: 10+ Tips on Drafting
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