How to Draft in Bike Racing and Why It Matters

Cycling is a sport with thin margins. The difference that a slight aerodynamic adjustment of a bike, its rider or even clothing makes in a longer race can be astronomical.

But no matter how high-tech bikes, components and aero apparel becomehow runners interact with variable elements like air resistance, wind, rain and variable terrain usually becomes the deciding factor in who goes home with a win.

The writing is the key strategic element in cycling. It allows cyclists to maintain a high pace while protecting themselves and others from high winds or air resistance during a cycling race.

Most runners group together in a peloton to protect themselves from the wind during a race; (photo/Graham Duerden)

Anyone who watches motorsport knows how drivers pull away from other vehicles to save energy or overtake. The tactic is the same in cycling.

The idea is to send runners ahead or beside the most competitive runner on their team to protect them from air resistance or other runners. This allows them to conserve energy when riding in protected wakes where they don’t have to expend as much energy to maintain a competitive place in the group.

The drafting principle is simple. Runners must stay a few inches behind another runner to stay locked in a slipstream. The runners in front bear the weight of the resistance of the wind and the air which hits the group, saving those who are behind them.

Usually runners spin to share the load throughout a race. Those vying for victory burst with every effort. If they get caught, they drop back into the main platoon to save energy again.

How Breakaways Work

Generally, more runners working together means increased overall speed and the ability to keep up for longer as more runners can stay fresh and share the workload.

In many cases, larger stage races, including the Tour de France and other World Tour competitions, follow formulas in their development, all of which involve some form of drafting.

greg lemon
Greg LeMond leading Laurent Fignon over the Col de la Croix Fer in the 1989 Tour de France. He won the race in the final day time trial, winning the 3-week event by 8 seconds. His aero bike and gear set a standard never seen before in cycling; (photo/Steve Selwood via Wiki Commons)

In one of these formulas, a small group of riders will set off at the start of the race or just before or after a big climb to put themselves at a distance from the peloton.

These splinter groups always show a good insight into how the newsroom works. A runner will hit the front of the group and stay there for several seconds before pulling to the side and dropping back to the back of the line. The next leader will do the same, and so on.

If they work together cohesively, groups of even a handful of runners can establish and maintain a lead that forces the remaining runners, who have held back, to keep up a fast pace to stay in the fight for victory.

If the breakaway riders aren’t reasonably cooperating, however, the main peloton, which has a significant aero advantage and is dotted with fresh riders, can easily catch them.

How Rhythm Lines Work

During the draft, riders enter a few different formations depending on conditions and numbers.

The simplest is the one-pace line. As in the examples above, single-speed lines involve riders in single-file turns at the front.

Tour de France United Arab Emirates Domestic Team
Tadej Pogacar, the leader of the United Arab Emirates team, is protected from the wind (coming from the riders’ right) by the team; (photo/Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Then there are double-paced lines. These work the same way as single pace lines, but with two lines side by side. The leaders of each line peel off on opposite sides, changing position.

Rotating or circular rhythm lines are a bit more complicated. Runners in a rotating cadence line spin around each other like a wheel, constantly moving back and forth and in between.

Rotating cadence lines are a little trickier. Runners navigate forwards and backwards while maintaining a tight formation rather than simply ducking the lead and joining at the rear.

Steps are another rhythm line that adds a bit more complexity. Riders use them in crosswinds. Rather than riding in a straight line, riders stack up diagonally on a racing course against the blowing wind.

How effective is the writing?

There is no doubt that drawing is essential in bicycle racing. An example of how even two riders can work together to gain a single race advantage was shown during Stage 11 of the 2022 Tour de France.

Defending champion Tadej Pogačar was left without a teammate while Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingagaard and Primoz Roglic traded a series of attacks. Because they could get away from each other, they forced Pogačar to continuously pursue at maximum effort while they could catch their breath before attacking again.

The tactic led to Pogačar cracking and losing the yellow jersey to Vingagaard, who went on to win the tour.

Drag of each runner in the gaits of 2 to 9 runners as a percentage of the drag of a
The drag experienced by each runner in the 2-9 runner pace lines as a percentage of the drag of a single runner. Wheel to wheel distance (d) of ¼ 0.05 m. The right column gives the average drag percentage for the entire pace line. The green percentage is the lowest of the group, signifying the best position in that rhythm line; (photo/Blocken, Bert & Toparlar, Yasin & Druenen, Thijs & Andrianne, Thomas (2018). Aerodynamic drag in cycling team time trials. Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics. 182. 128-145. 10.1016/ j.jweia.2018.09.015)

Beyond this example, there is plenty of research that points to the effectiveness of copywriting. In the article of 2018 “Aerodynamic drag in cycling team time trialspublished in the Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics, Bert Blocken and fellow authors described the percentage of dragsters in a team time trial pace line.

According to Blocken, riders at the back of pace lines of four or more riders can experience less than half the drag compared to the rider at the front.

Now professional cyclists can compete with power meters on their bikes that show how much power they are saving while drafting in real time.

Why is it important?

Understanding the ins and outs of drafting and tactics makes watching races that much more fun. It also makes racing much more competitive. The draft and associated team tactics can provide a runner with less fitness with enough advantage to win over a runner with higher fitness.

For non-runners or casual runners, knowing the drafting mechanics might not seem necessary. This is not the case. Cyclists use these strategies on group rides.

So even in more informal settings, learning the etiquette of how to stack up and move in a rhythm line, especially when sharing the road with cars, goes a long way.

Moreover, you will be faster even if you are not looking for a new KOM.

Thomas Pidock leading the ascent of Alpe d'Huez during the Tour de France 2022.
5 emblematic climbs of the Tour de France
Nothing blasts the peloton like a mountain stage – here are the five most iconic Tour de France climbs. Read more…
Back To Top