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Echelons

I sometimes feel like Don Quiote when I talk to riders about echelons.  "Tilting at Windmills".  From WIkipedia:  "Tilting at windmills is an English idiom which means attacking imaginary enemies, or fighting unwinnable or futile battles."


I spent my formative riding and racing years in the Sacramento Valley.  The "River Ride" (yes, it is capitalized) to my mind is still the best group ride going.  They have changed things since I left, but the old standard Tuesday, Thursday River Ride on a windy spring day was a thing of beauty.  Think Belgium spring racing, but with civilized temperatures and dry.

One thing I found out is that Sacramento riders know how to ride in echelons.  They know how to read where the wind is coming from and position themselves accordingly.  They know to pay attention when the road changes direction because that will mean the apparent wind changes direction and therefore what was just a moment ago a perfectly protected position will now be grovelling in the gutter.

In my travels around the country racing and since moving to the Bay Area I've found that alas, not everybody knows how to ride in the wind.  Frankly, it seems that most people have no clue.  Even at national level stage races P/1/2 riders don't necessarily know how to ride in the wind.  (See my Bisbee story below.  And now, with an update from the 2015 Elite National RR at Lake Tahoe.)

If you live and race in Northern California there are a few races where your ability to ride in an echelon will directly affect your ability to do well if it's windy.  These races include, Snelling, Merco (RIP), Bariani, Dunnigan, Turlock and believe it or not Patterson Pass.  Five flat races and one hilly.  The flat races are obvious.  If it's windy at some point it's going to be a cross wind.  Patterson Pass is less obvious.  But those windmills are there for a reason.

Focusing on Patterson Pass for a minute since I just raced there yesterday.  This is the only race I know of where you need to be thinking about being in the echelon while climbing at 10 mph.  But here is what I think is important.

1.  First of all, a rider needs to understand that there is a cross wind and that there is a proper way to position themselves.  Sadly, lots of people don't get this part.  So, for starters.  Freaking pay attention to the wind direction!  On the front it is hard to tell which direction the wind is blowing from.  In second position and further behind it's really easy.  Move to the left behind a rider.  Is that easier?  Yes?  Then the wind is from the right?  If not, move to the right.  Is that easier?  Yes?  Then the wind is from the left.  Simple right?  Yes, it is, but you have to pay attention!

2.  Now that we know where the wind is blowing from, we want to orient the group to best take advantage of the echelon.  Wind from the right?  The lead rider should ride near the right gutter while everyone else fans out behind and to the left.  But we just mentioned that the lead rider can't necessarily tell the wind direction.  It is the job of the riders behind to let the lead rider know!  Tell them which direction the wind is from and which direction to pull off to.

3.  We've got the formation going now, but how to rotate?  You can do a single line where the leader pulls for a period and eventually swings off and goes to the back.  The problem with that is that only so many riders can fit into the echelon before you run out of road.  A double paceline will fit twice as many riders in the same width of road.  With that in mind, while riding a double paceline, ESPECIALLY in a cross wind, pull off as soon as you hit the front.  Taking a long pull strings out the echelon and leaves the poor sap who pulled just before you with no shelter as he moves back.  Then as a bonus, once he gets to the back there is no more room in the echelon and he's stuck in the gutter grovelling for shelter.  Pull through and off and no jerking the pace around

4.  SECOND echelons!  (and third, etc...)  I already mentioned that there is only so much room in the road.  Watch a race in Europe on TV.  Look at the picture above.  Do you ever see on echelon and then 50 morons (I mean racers) strung out single file in the gutter behind?  No, you only see that in pretty much any Nor Cal race where there is wind.  When there is no more room in the echelon, move into the wind and start another!  Tell the guys behind you to help form the second echelon.  Yeah, it's harder being the lead rider in the wind (briefly) than it is even grovelling in the gutter.  But after you pull off you will have real shelter and your second echelon can fairly easily ride at the same pace as the echelon in front of you.  Then when the road eventually turns into or away from the wind you can regroup.

Up to now, we've all be cooperating with a common goal.  But if you want to beat these riders there are a few ways to use the wind to your advantage.

1.  Stick them in the gutter!  If the wind is to the left and you feel strong you can move all the way to the right so that nobody has any shelter and then hit the gas and ride everybody off your wheel.  It's not as easy as it sounds, but under the right circumstances races can be won this way.  More commonly a team or group of allies will move to the right so that only this small group has shelter and can rotate and try to ride everybody off their wheels.  Stage 13 of the 2013 Tour de France was a master class in echelon riding and probably one of my favorite stages in recent years.  If it's windy and the Belgium and Dutch riders are moving to the front you best take heed...  This tactic is used fairly often in Paris-Nice and the Vuelta.  Classic stuff.

But here is what you SHOULDN'T do.  Ride in the gutter for no apparent reason.  It just annoys people and makes them want to exact revenge on you.  This is what I saw a lot of at Patterson Pass in 2014.  If you're just taking a spell on the front and there is a cross wind, pay attention to it and ride so that others can get some shelter.  You DO want them to pull after you're done, don't you?  Be nice to them and they will be nice to you.  If you take a long pull with everybody behind you stuck in the gutter don't be surprised to see a huge counter attack as soon as you're done.

In that vein, if the wind is from the right, riding on the center line IS riding in the gutter.  Though there may be road to your left, riding there risks a DQ so the riders behind are effectively on the edge of the road.

On the other hand, the gutter can be used as punishment.  If you're on the front and nobody will take a turn to share the load, I've been known to tell the riders with me to cooperate or get stuck in the gutter.  Hey, "Free rides from Kevin" is not one of the sponsor logos on my jersey!

Sometimes when the lead rider is unknowingly putting everybody in the gutter I will bark orders to see if I can convince them to do the right thing.  Sometimes when it's going to be a short section and I'm 2nd or 3rd wheel and still have pretty good protection I will let it pass thinking that he's doing my work by tiring people out.  It depends.
 
Things to NOT do in a cross wind.

The wind has split the field and finally somebody with a brain (probably a River Ride veteran) has separated himself from the seething mass of idiocy and started a second echelon.  (That's the good part.) 

1.  As the second echelon approaches the group ahead for the love of all things holy DO NOT jump out of the echelon to tag onto the back of the group ahead just so you can ride in the gutter!  Do you REALLY want to leave the shelter of this echelon that is making progress and moving up towards the leaders to jump into a position where you are basically getting no draft???  Are you really that stupid?  Sadly, many are.  And I'm talking about Cat 1 racers here.  DO NOT DO THIS!

2.  Hero pulls.  You're in an echelon (particularly in a second echelon for this example, but either works), the group is pulling fairly steadily at say 25 mph and you feel pretty strong.  Taking a pull at 29 mph is NOT helpful!  From experience, the person who takes a hero pull is the guy you haven't seen at all for the last 10 minutes that you've been slogging along in the wind.  Now he shows up and takes a hard pull and tears the group apart.  And not in a good way.  You end up trading his 30 seconds of 29 mph for about a minute 0f 23 mph while the group gets back together and recovers.  Not to mention a few guys who will say F that, I'm not going to pull again, I'll just get cracked if he takes another hero pull.  If you are that strong and you want to help, take more pulls.  Don't go all the way to the back, cut the line and get to the front sooner.  This is one line that nobody will mind if you cut in front of them!

3.  Gate Keeper/Ticket Collector.  Done on purpose this can be a valid tactic to cause a split in a cross wind.  A small group of riders goes to the front and moves to the edge of the road so that only they have shelter.  One person stays on the back to keep the others from joining the echelon and getting shelter.  If you don't have a ticket, you don't get on the train.  That's fine.  What isn't fine is to be in say a second echelon and just sit up near the front and block riders from behind who one, want and need shelter, and two, who want to get up front and take a pull.  I mean, you do want to catch up to the lead group up ahead right?  So why are you blocking people from working to help close that gap? 

 Bisbee story.

La Vuelta de Bisbee is a stage race in Bisbee, AZ and it is known for being very windy.  Like the Mt. Evans hill climb is known for being mountainous.  Anybody who goes to do the pro race in Bisbee should not be surprised by cross winds.  So, in 1987 I did this race.  On one of the road stages I found myself too far back in the pack as we turned into a cross wind.  A bunch of us were grovelling in the gutter.  Being a smart River Ride trained racer, I realized the futility and moved to the right to start a second echelon.  What I saw next was some of the stupidest riding I've ever seen.  Some guys joined in, but it was only after about 5 or 6 guys tried to bridge across to the front group alone and either didn't make it or made and immediately got popped out the back that they realized that the second echelon was their only option.  So we made the second echelon and were about 50-100 yards behind the front group.  After a couple of miles the road changed direction and we quickly reintegrated with the leaders.  Easy.  Oh yeah, and I immediately moved further forward  to correct my previous error.

2015 Elite Nationals Story

Having lived in Truckee, CA for a number of years and raced the District TT in Sattley about a million times I knew that crosswinds (especially with a 3pm start) could play a big part in this race, especially in the Sierraville Valley as we looped through Sierraville, Sattley, Portola and Loyalton.  Two local teams, Team Mikes Bikes and Herbalife had done recon rides where the wind was strong.  But race day in general was kind of calm.  Maybe the wind wasn't going to play the part that many of us thought it would???  Even still I moved to the front as we descended into Sierraville to be ready to fight the possible cross winds.  But there really wasn't any wind in Sierraville.  I waited until we made the turn in Sattley onto the A23 road, still no wind so I went back for bottles.  I got back just after we went around the bend just past the TT start and...  Holy crap it was windy and I was about 100 guys back.  STUPID, STUPID, STUPID.  The Mikes Bikes guys were on the ball though and ripped the field apart.  We split basically into two groups, each group with a LOT of guys riding in the gutter like idiots.  Best amateurs in the country... 

We got a second echelon going, but all of the things I described above NOT to do were being done right and left.  Hero pulls, gate keepers and guys jumping into the group ahead so that they could ride in the gutter like it was going out of style.  We averaged 49.4 kph from the TT start to Portola.  Fun, fun, fun.  I wasn't burning matches, I was burning whole books of matches at a time. 

Guess what happened. 

No, really, guess.

Okay, I'll tell you.

We got to Portola, turned right with a tail wind and reintegrated with the front group.  But we did it at such a cost that was SO unnecessary if guys would have had some echelon savvy. 

So what did I do?  I zoomed up to the front IMMEDIATELY to be ready for when we made the right turn towards Loyalton where we had another cross wind, this time from the right.  Though it was hard as hell I was able to make it through that section in the front group.  At that point we had gone about 60 miles that were basically all either downhill or flat.  How hard could that have been right?  With 40 of what should have been the hardest miles to go, we had already lost maybe 1/3 of the starting group.  Of those that were left a large number of them were basically dead men walking, completely worked, and still with a hard 40 miles with a lot of climbing left.

A complete bike racer has certain skills.  Not everybody is a great at each of the skills, but to be complete they need to at least be competent and know what to do.  One of those skills is riding in the wind.  How many skinny climber types went to nationals at Tahoe and got blown out before they even got to what they thought would be the hard part?

Corrections and additions, please email me!

Kevin Metcalfe


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