Reader Questions

Reader Question: Drafting in Cycling

jonesmartinez asks:

As a cyclist, I’m curious about drafting. How fast do I need to be going for there to be a measurable benefit? Additionally, often in a time trial a single rider is often followed by the team car and I’ve heard the rider can be pushed by the air around the team car. Any truth to this rumor? Thanks, I love the blog.

Drafting plays a major role in cycling and its tactics (check out our previous series on cycling). In general, drag increases with the square of velocity and data show this holds for cyclists. The rule of thumb I’ve heard given is that aerodynamic drag doesn’t play a large role below 15 mph, but I have not seen the numbers that inform that claim. Moreover, you have to consider the resultant airspeed around the cyclist. For example, a cyclist moving 13 mph into a 15 mph headwind (28 mph effective) will be experiencing more drag than a cyclist moving 20 mph with a 10 mph tailwind (10 mph effective). With drag being reduced 25-40% by drafting a leading rider, it is almost always beneficial to get behind someone.

That said, I have seen no measurable benefit for a leading rider with a paceline behind him, even though this should, in theory, reduce the drag on the lead rider by closing out his wake. With a large object like a car behind a solo rider, there might theoretically be some benefit. However, the car would have to be driving extremely close to the rider–far closer than they do in reality.

That said, with the prevalence of power meters in the amateur market these days, I think it would be a neat project to go out and try a few of these things firsthand and see whether such tactics actually result in a measurable difference in a cyclist’s performance–though I don’t recommend riding a foot off the front or back of a car!

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