Cycle race tactics

I’m not sure which forum this belongs in, so please move as appropriate.

I don’t watch much sport, the sport I do watch, I watch because my friends watch it and I like to drink beer with my friends.

I was in a bar, waiting for a friend to come, and was idly watching some cycling race, live. Two things interested me.

The race leaders, about 6 of them, were well ahead of the pelaton, about 100m I’d guess. Three were from one team (black) and the rest were assorted colours. They rode in single file, very close to each other - but always single file.

However, occasionally the leader would swing out, and the 2nd would take the lead. The former leader would drift back until all were in line again. This happened many times, and regardless of the team - it it not like “team black” were dominating the lead.

So I have two questions:

  1. given the fairly poor aerodynamics of humans and bicycles, is the practice of riding single file (drafting, I believe is the term) significantly rewarding in that the lead rider experiences measurably more wind resistance than the person following?

I imagine that within the pelaton, the numbers of riders probably means that there is an advantage, albeit small. In fact, “team green” was following the same tactic but from within the pelaton. I can’t believe that there is much to be gained from tail-gating a single rider.

Assuming that I am wrong, and there is a decent amount to be gained by drafting,

  1. As the lead 6 were not on the same team, by taking turns to lead, and therefore presumably investing more effort by taking the lead, means that they were giving an advantage to the other teams. In the case where I was watching, because three leaders were from “team black” they took half of the lead time, which presumably helped their team

But the other team members up in front would be sacrificing their efforts and only really benefiting “team black” by taking the lead.

Why do this?
FWIW it seems to be a short race (50 to 60km) on hilly terrain if that makes a difference.

The advantage of drafting is huge. I don’t know the exact %, but I’ve done a lot of racing on bikes, and the people drafting are cruesing along pretty comfortably while the lead guy is doing “all” the work. And it works well with only 2 people, too. The disadvantage is that you’re pulling 1/2 the time.

As for the mixed drafting group, they don’t really have a choice. Ideally, the team might want to drop the others, but as long as they can keep up, they need to to be made to do their share of the work.

A group like this can almost always chase down a solo rider. And the bigger this break away group is, the better chances they have against the peloton.


I was considering the effects of drafting having seen,years ago, a picture of the world speed record for bicycles, where the rider was drafting behind a wedge-shaped car - see

I did not expect that the human body shape would tend to create a reasonable wind-break for the following rider.

Drafting is everything in bike racing. An organized group can always outrun an individual, and the more members of that group the better (up to a point).

When there’s a breakaway the riders have their own and their team’s best interests at heart. It can be to win sprint or climbing points at intermediate points along the race, it can be to control the tempo of the day’s stage, it can be to check another rider on a rival team and not let them get too far ahead.

You will sometimes see a rider or group of riders just hang on the back of a breakaway with no intent to do the extra work at the lead. They do so because they either don’t want the breakaway to succeed or they are saving themselves for the final sprint since they know if they pulled their fair share during the breakaway they’d get dropped.

The strategy and tactics of multi-stage bike racing is fascinating and involved.

Perfectly good thread for the Game Room. Moved from GQ.

samclem, moderator

So, what happens when someone, or a couple of people, do this and refuse to go to the front? Does everyone else in the group just drop back? Do they just let them sit in the back?

This also seems like the best place to ask. I don’t watch a lot of cycling either, but I’ve seen this a number of times, and saw it during the Olympics when those two chased down the Polish guy. Why do they like to ride from one side of the road to the other on straightaways? Seems they are wasting a lot of distance going back and forth so much.

Found a youtubevideo showing it, right around the minute mark. I know there are a couple of curves in there, but there seems to be a few straights they do it. Is there a benefit or is the guy in front trying to block the guys in the back from going around him?

It’s a cagey game - as mentioned the guy could be sitting in just to monitor things for his team leader back in the peleton, so it’s accepted that he won’t do a tap.

OTOH, if it was a small breakaway and someone was trying to blatantly wheelsuck their way to victory from 50 miles out that would in no way be tolerated. You wouldn’t really see this often - besides the total ignominy of it, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep the breakaway ahead of the group, and this is far less likely to happen if 1 guy in 3, say, is shirking his responsibilities.

What you do see a lot are guys attempting to subtly wheelsuck their way to victory. Larger breakaway, say 6 or 7 guys, and for sure the veteran riders will be doing the bare minimum that it takes to keep things rolling.

There’s all sorts of scenarios - like the others have said, that’s what makes it so fascinating. Sometimes a guy can’t take a turn as he’s breathing out his arse just to stay with the group - Sagan won Flanders this year by attacking on a famous climb, then beasting it to the finish on a prolonged flat road. The chasing pair of Cancellara and Vanmarcke were around 15 secs back but Vanmarcke just didn’t have the engine to work with Cancellara and pull Sagan back [and Vanmarcke is a monster himself].


In football there are different positions, the ‘rock stars’ (QB, WR) who make the big bucks, get all the interviews & endorsements, & then there are the guys in the trenches…the linemen. You probably don’t know their names, you can’t buy their jersey, they rarely, if ever score, & only then when they recover a fumble. But, by the offensive line doing their job the big play can happen around them.

Same thing in cycling, you’ve got your team leader, his lieutenants, & the worker bees (domestiques). Usually it’s the last group in the breakaway. If it’s a mountain stage, they may make the break(away) to be up the road to assist the team leader late in the race. It may also be to get the TV time & make the sponsor happy; think of all the TV time the sponsor’s logo is getting & how many times the announcer is stating the team name.
Cycling is sometimes described as a chess game on wheels. Early in the race all the guys in the break are working toward a common goal of staying away. Frequently the break is caught by the peloton but not always. What happens late in the race if the break looks like it’ll make it is they start thinking of their own ambitions. If I know you’re a better sprinter than me, why should I do equal work just to deliver you to the end where you can outsprint me? No, I won’t take all of my pulls (turns up front), or I won’t pull thru when you want me to, leaving you out there for some extra seconds each time, wearing you down which increases my changes of a win.
Sometimes they play this cat-&-mouse; you go; no you go; no, I insist you go game slowing themselves down enough that they get swallowed up by the peloton.

Quite the opposite. The guy in front is at a disadvantage. Not only is he doing more work, but the second guy gets a ‘whip’ effect from being in the slipstream. This happens in car racing, too. Being in second place is less effort because of the aerodynamics of drafting. When the guy in second cranks up his effort to match that of the guy in front of him he’s going faster. When #2 comes out from behind #1 he has the same air resistance but is going faster, resulting in the
whip & the ability for #2 to pass #1. Time it right & #2 nips #1 at the finish line. Also, #1 can’t see when the guy behind him jumps & starts to sprint until he is being passed & the second guy comes into peripheral view. By then it’s too late, the guy who’s passing you is going faster & pulling away. #1 needs time to react & speed up even faster than #2 just to catch up. By moving way to the side you’re forcing the guy behind you to the front while simultaneously making it easier to see the guy who was directly behind you.

Tandems are more efficient because the stoker is drafting the captain, but also directly contributing to the captain’s effort.

What I have wondered about is whether the leader is affected by a drafter. The term is “pulling”, but does the presence of a drafter put any kind of load on the leader?

It actually has a positive affect on the leader. The following rider smooths some of the turbulent air behind the leader meaning both the leader and the follower get an easier ride. That’s not to say it’s a free energy kind of thing, just that two cyclists riding in close line astern are more efficient as a whole, than than the same two cyclists riding separately. The positive effect on the leader is also small while the positive effect for the following rider is huge.

A group of riders can work together to drop individual riders who aren’t pulling their weight. They may do this. Often the situation sorts itself out because the wheel-sucking rider is wheel-sucking because they’re tired and will drop off eventually anyway.

It can become difficult when the wheel sucker has team mates. There was a stage of this year’s Tour de France where three team mates were in the breakaway. Two of them did work for the break while the third one just sat on at the back. The other riders in the break were from different teams and didn’t have the luxury of being able to work in this way. The team worked like this until the end and put their third member in a position to win the stage.

BTW: The above is a perfectly valid tactic and if was setup originally by the team being attentive enough to get three members into the break.