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David's Tips on Drafting Outside Your Comfort Zone

Beppe Salerno
Posted by Beppe Salerno on Nov 17, 2015 2:30:00 PM

I would like to introduce a contributor to the blog who has been a friend and mentor to me.  We've enjoyed talking bikes (I mean as far back as Coppi), as well as Italian customs and politics.

David is a 80+ rider from the Bay area who rode in Europe on his own, back when bike frames were made of steel tubes, gears were brutal and cassettes carried no more than 8 speeds (more like 6).  Helmets were cotton cycling caps and in very warm conditions a cabbage leaf was hidden under them (he swears it works). He got hooked on cycling in the pre-Lemond, pre-Lance cycling days and he has never looked back. Nowadays, David still enjoys European cycling but he does so with organized bike tours.

David has a lot of experience and is very acute and gives me great advice all the time that costs no more than a thank you. He knows and understands Italy really well (the good and the bad) and he speaks Italian fluently. In this post, David describes an experience he had on a group cycling tour in France describing some key points about "drafting." 

Below, David on Col du Vars, France, on his first European cycling trip.

David Nasatir Blog

Not only had I promised my wife I would not ride alone, I had assured our ride leader that I would stick pretty close to my “buddy” so she would not have to worry about any riders stranded along the route. Nevertheless, when my buddy decided on a brief nap after lunch, I took off by myself.

Our group was nearing the end of a delightful tour in France; I was confident that there were no navigational complexities lying in wait and reveling in the smooth pavement on a flat road with very little traffic. When I started down this stretch I saw neither cars nor cyclists... perfect for a little solo pedaling and contemplation.  I had come on this trip with several of my friends and certainly enjoy their company but I also enjoy riding alone.

Lost in thought, I was surprised to discover that, in fact, I was not alone.  There was a rider by my side. He was wearing a professional kit and riding an excellent bike in a very smooth manner. We exchanged only the most cursory  Bon jour and he proceeded to pass me. Once he had pulled ahead he then made a maneuver that I interpreted as an unambiguous invitation to “sit in”or ride closely behind him and take advantage of the wind shield he provided.

I thought about this offer very carefully before accepting.  I often ride in close proximity to other riders but they are cyclists that I know well and I know they will ride in a very predictable manner, no matter what the speed.  This is crucial and it is difficult to gain this knowledge in a short time when riding with people you do not know in a totally new situation.  Unanticipated behavior on the part of another rider or riders can lead to tragic accidents.  Riding closely behind someone who slows without warning or who swerves for unanticipated reasons often leads to a crash. Riding closely beside someone who makes a sudden turn can quickly put you both on the ground and many, if not all of those behind you as well.

In this case I was about to “judge a book by its cover”...not recommended...but I did it.  He was wearing what appeared to me to be clothing associated with a local professional team.  Anyone can buy similar clothing, of course, but his appeared authentic.  His bike was not that of a casual cyclist.  I noticed the closely spaced gearing and the generally high gear ratios as well the quality of tires and the general nature of the pedals, cranks and drive train and came to the (perhaps false, potentially risky) conclusion that he was not just a recreational cyclist.  What finally convinced me was the “smoothness” of his pedaling.  Nothing “square” about anything as I observed his toe and heel position at the top and bottom of each stroke. I moved closer.

When I was clearly in position he began to pick up the pace.  Very slowly, very smoothly, nothing sudden.  Pretty soon we had reached the limit of my capacity.  I was “spun out” in the highest gear on my rental bicycle which was considerably lower than the highest gear on the bike I ride at home.  I was wearing ordinary street shoes without toe clips or cleats, the fenders on my rental hybrid were rattling, and the arms on the sweatshirt I had tied on the luggage rack were flapping in the wind.

I was not surprised when he began to pull away.  I was surprised, however, that when he noticed, he slowed down.  At this point he asked my destination and I told him.  He said, “fine...just hang on and I will take you there”.  About six kilometers later we arrived at the hotel where our group was to stay that night.

I thanked him of course and he replied that, indeed, he was a pro who lived in that town and that it pleased him to see foreign cyclists enjoying the beauty of pleasures of France and of his local region.

Both riding alone and drafting an unknown rider were risky decisions. In this case they provided me with a wonderful footnote to my trip but it is vitally important to know, not just assume how your fellow riders will behave before you join them, especially if you will be riding in close proximity. 

To this end, it is probably a good idea to do some group riding before you go on your trip and to seek out experienced riders at home willing to risk their safety by riding with you, and willing to share with you both the formal and the unspoken rules of group riding.

Group riding is an integral part of cycling. We selected the following resources that can be useful when used along with your good judgement:

The topic of the blog was decided before last weekend's attacks in Paris. We are closer than ever to beautiful France. 

Topics: Cycling, Guest Posts/In the News

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