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.

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