If it’s windy you need to know what an echelon is
If you’re a fan of pro-cycling and watch it on the television then you’ll be familiar with an echelon. The commentators will refer to it and you’ll see it on the screen. So let’s look at what an echelon is in cycling and why you would form an echelon.
As anyone who’s been road cycling for a while knows one of the hardest tasks on the bike is pushing into the wind. Estimates are that somewhere around half of the effort you expend on the bike is just spent overcoming air resistance, and if you’re riding into a wind, particularly a strong wind, the chances are it’s way higher than that.
That’s why cyclists ride in a bunch. Or at least it is one of the reasons, along with bunch riding being a great way to chat with friends, and a few other good reasons. But the major advantage of cycling in a bunch is that most of the cyclists are sheltering from the wind, or are getting some advantage, or reduction in effort, from the fact that someone in front of them is pushing through the wind for them.
That’s because when one cyclist is in front of you they create a pocket of air behind them where, if you’re riding there, you will need to expend less effort to keep up the pace than the person in front of you.
You’ll notice it immediately, as soon as you pull in behind someone, particularly if you’re going faster. Pull in behind someone else and you’ll probably be able to click up a gear, and you’ll immediately be able to lighten off on the effort. Pull onto the front and you may well have to click down a gear, and you’ll be expending more energy just to maintain the pace.
That’s why a good bunch will rotate the riders at the front. Anyone who stays there for too long is probably going to expend too much energy and may well even get dropped when they come off the front.
So, what is an echelon?
Where you are riding directly into a headwind then the bunch will form immediately behind the front rider/s. However where you have a crosswind, particularly a strong crosswind, then behind the front rider might not necessarily be the right place. In fact you may well find that if you’re behind the rider in front of you in a strong crosswind you’re not getting much help at all.
That’s because, where there is a crosswind, the point of maximum benefit from the rider in front is directly downwind of that rider. And in a crosswind downwind is not immediately behind.
If the wind is from the right then being downwind of the rider in front means being on their left. If you position yourself where you can look over the riders shoulder directly into the wind then you’re directly downwind.
That’s why an echelon forms. One cyclist positions themselves slightly to the left and slightly behind the front rider. The next cyclist does the same, and so on and so on, until you have an angled line of cyclists.
In pro-cycling, where they are riding on a controlled road, the front cyclists will position themselves as close to the edge of the road as possible, on the side the wind is coming from, so there is as much room as possible for other riders to shelter in an echelon.
On an uncontrolled road you should of course echelon across your lane only.
In those circumstances you can generally get four, five or six cyclists in one echelon before the last cyclist is on the edge of the road, or next to the white line, and there is no room for anybody else to shelter behind. In those circumstances another cyclist can start another echelon behind the first.
The “sweet spot” is the spot where you get the most benefit from sheltering. This will move around all the time. As the group moves faster the sweet spot will move, and as the direction of cycling changes in relation to the wind it will also move.
With some practice you’ll be able to find that “sweet spot”. If you’re not sure then watch the most experienced riders in the bunch, see where they position themselves in relation to the cyclist in front and then choose the same spot behind the cyclist in front of you.
Move around a little, change your position a little and “feel” for the right spot. That’s where you can back off a fraction because you’re getting the maximum benefit of the draft, and you should be able to feel that spot with practice.
That’s an echelon. You, and everybody else, in an angled line across the road taking maximum advantage of the draft in a crosswind.
But remember, very important. Although it’s tempting don’t echelon out of your lane. That’s asking for trouble.