March 28, 2011

On The Wheel

Like a river’s current carrying a stick, I float in the middle of the peloton. We speed through towns, over hills and across the plains. As we near the finish, our momentum becomes a torrent.  I pedal almost effortlessly, as the slipstream drags me along. The eight riders on the front of the peloton of 200 riders share the workload in the wind, dragging us along like a locomotive. But even the select group at the front look for the slipstream of the cars and motorbikes ahead. The wind is the racer’s nemesis.

Photo by: Camille McMillan

Winning a Classic means minimizing the amount of time spent in the wind. In the first hours of the race, a winner will rely on his team’s protection to save every watt for the key attacks during the finale. In a race where over 6,000 calories will be burned, every rider is on the limit and every watt counts.  Cyclists save.

Largely invisible to the television audience, there is a motorcade of cars and motorcycles at the head of the race. They capture us on video, ensure the road is closed to traffic and referee our movements. Although the vehicles aren’t directly in front of the group, they nevertheless create a slipstream for peloton, which increases our speed, reduces our workload and, from time to time, changes the outcome of the race.

During the finale of a race, the protagonists will attack into a crowd of motorcycles. On the key pavé sectors of a Classic, or in the high mountains where the roads are narrow, the motorcyclists fight for position so their photographer-passengers can capture the pivotal moment.  As they jostle for position and split the crowds of spectators, they are only meters in front of the lead riders. An attacker, a breakaway and a team who is chasing will all race for the motos’ slipstream to increase their speed. It is a part of the race we all accept. But, when drafting is prolonged rivals cry foul.

It isn’t only the motorbikes and cars, which disturb the air. The television and police helicopters, which circle above the peloton create turbulent air when then hover low altitude. Sometimes, the strength of their choppy downwash virtually brings us to a standstill and causes crashes. After the 1984 Giro d’Italia, the Frenchman Laurent Fignon protested that he had been robbed of the overall victory. Fignon felt that the organizers had manipulated the result of the dramatic and decisive final time-trial, so that his Italian rival Francesco Moser would win the overall classification. He protested that the television helicopter, which hovered directly behind Moser for the entire length of the stage, had created a down-force that literally pushed him to the finish.

Behind the peloton there is another caravan of team cars, motorcycles, medical cars, press cars and commissaries. They not only service the riders but also end up keeping the peloton together.  Using their draft, we can return to the group with relative ease after retrieving food and drinks, puncturing or stopping for pee. Jumping from car to car, slipstream to slipstream, we leapfrog our way back to the tail-end of the peloton. The commissaries only control the cars so that we cannot follow their slipstream to stay in contact if we are truly dropped from fatigue. At the back of the peloton, a commissaire vigilantly orchestrates the caravan like an air traffic controller. The drivers are penalized and fined if they don’t follow his commands.

But, even under his guidance the caravan is still a chaotic mess of riders, cars and motorcycles. Cars shuffle position to get to the riders who require service, motorcycles scoot up the left side of the road, riders with punctures stop on the right side, domestiques fill their jerseys with food and water to fuel their teammates, mechanics hang out windows to work on rider’s bikes and injured riders hold onto the medical car while their wounds are cleaned. Each individual is aware of the whole, which allows it all to flow somewhat harmoniously.

Photo by: Camille McMillan

On race day we fly. The tight fitting clothing, handmade cotton tubulars, race-ready bikes and aerodynamic wheels all increase speed and give us a mental boost. Everything is designed to cheat the wind, improve handling and decrease weight.  In contrast, while training the priority is the workload and improving fitness.

Before a race we often reconnoiter the courses to get a sense of the terrain and the technical aspects. During training, the hills on the course seem harder and the open stretches of road longer. In the race, small climbs become bumps as the peloton, with all its momentum, rolls over the undulations in the road like a thundering river through a rocky canyon during spring run off. We fight to hold the wheel in front and when the moment is right we use the momentum of the team, or the peloton, to launch an attack.

The only way to simulate the race while training is to motorpace. In the slipstream of the motorbike we can float along, spin our legs, surge over climbs and sprint at race speed.  Like in the race, the hard efforts seem more violent and ferocious.

In a time trial, over the race radio, the directeur often encourages his rider to chase the police motorbike, which opens the road ahead. Not only can the rider capture a bit of the slipstream but the motorcycle also gives him a gauge of how fast to take a corner. Like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, the moto can also provide a psychological boost as the rider has something to focus on and pursue.

Every cyclist eventually learns to look for shelter from the wind by finding the right wheel to draft and crouching low on his bike. Out of the wind we not only save energy, but also increase our speed.

After drafting off of the cars and motorcycles in the finale Nico Mattan came storming past Juan Antonio Flecha to win the 2005 edition of Gent Wevelgem. The commissaire should have pulled the cars and motorbikes out of the action before Mattan had the chance to sit in their slipstream. Here is a clip from that race-