I was walking along the beach the other day and noticed a flock of ducks flying in a “V” pattern. I remembered an old joke that we used to tell each other when we were kids:
Q. Why is one side longer than the other when birds fly in a “V”?
A. Because there’s more birds on that side dumb-ass!
That’s true, but the reason migratory birds fly in a V pattern is because they’ve instinctively learned the art of echeloning – the same thing that we try to do on our bikes when fighting those crosswinds in a group.
The golden rule when rotating through an echelon is PULL OFF INTO THE WIND.
The riders in the echelon will rotate through from the sheltered side to the front and then pull off to the windward side. The reason behind this is because the riders who were most recently at the front will need to be moving slower than the other line of riders who are coming through. The riders coming through need to be sheltered so that they can overtake as well as rest. When riding in an echelon you want to keep things smooth and together. You should NEVER take a big long pull on the front. You will always rotate through to the font taking short pulls (i.e. by the time you’re on the front the next rider should be coming through). When you get to the front of the echelon you will move steadily in front of the lead rider, gently pull in front of him and maintain his speed. DO NOT pull through hard and continue going faster than him. If you do this then the poor guy will have to punch it to get onto your wheel after just doing his pull.
The whole point of riding in an echelon is to be as efficient with your group as possible. The intent is not to drop anyone at this point. Crosswinds are a great way to shell other riders if that’s the goal, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Some common mistakes that even A Grade riders continue to make when riding in an echelon are:
1. When the road changes direction riders often continue to keep echeloning in the same fashion, even though the wind is now coming from a different direction. The group needs to adjust to this and change echelon direction. Take a look at the grass, leaves or flags and see which way the wind is coming from. Sometimes the whole group knows that they’re echeloning in the wrong direction and all they need is a leader to organize everyone to change.
2. When starting an echelon or reversing directions of it, you may hear other riders shout “move up the road!”. What this means is that you are not using enough of the road and is needlessly putting many of the riders in the gutter behind you (i.e. there is not enough room on the road to be behind and aside the other riders – they can only be directly behind). Depending on the direction of the wind, you need to go closer to the edge of the road or the center line so that everyone can get into the echelon.
3. To add to point #2, when it is a large group it will be impossible to get everyone into the echelon and there will be many riders riding single file in the “gutter”. The echelon can only be as wide as the road so in a large pack there will be a number of riders in single file behind the echelon. This is the absolute WORST place to be. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that by being in the “gutter”, you’re not doing any work by avoiding rotating through. Trust me, it’s much easier being in the echelon doing a hard pull once every minute than being in the gutter hanging on for dear life. Note: This wouldn’t be the case in a headwind but a crosswind is completely different. Once one person in the gutter drops the wheel in front, its very difficult to get back on and close that gap. And if you’re the one to drop that wheel, you’ll have a lot of pissed off riders behind you! More on using the gutter for evil purposes here and here.
4. Pulling through too hard with your turn. What this does is creates havoc for the guy who just completed his turn at the front. Now he needs to close a gap that you’ve created and messes up the cohesiveness of the echelon. If you do this when riding with experienced riders, you’ll find that they will hang you out there by yourself. The rider you just overtook won’t bother trying to get on your wheel and the echelon will continue without you while you ride alone ahead with the gap you created. Don’t let this happen. Instead, make sure when you pull through to the front, start moving over in front of the lead rider gently and slow down once you get onto the front.
5. Missing your turn from the back. When it is your turn to change lanes from the rear of the echelon (moving from the slow lane to the faster moving lane) try to anticipate when you need to switch lanes buy remembering the formation of the last couple riders. If you leave a gap and consistently need to jump to close it, it creates difficulty for both you and the riders behind you. If it were me behind you, I would be skipping a turn or two in order to get behind someone smoother so I’m not wasting my energy.
6. Another bad place to be in an echelon is in front or behind a strong rider who does not slow down when he pulls his turn at the front. He will either be difficult to overtake when you come over him (if he’s in front of you in the fast lane) or he will create a gap as in #4 if you’re behind him. Either position is bad. Skip a turn at the back of the echelon and choose a bigger rider to be behind.
7. Again, another bad place to be in an echelon is behind a rider who is smaller than you. You will not be getting much of a draft from him and you’ll be using heaps more energy than you need to. Skip a turn at the back of the echelon and choose a better wheel.