Sunday, January 3, 2010

Perspicacious Panacea or Paranoid Panic?

Perspicacious Panacea or Paranoid Panic?

Your legs feel as though they really cannot turn those cranks any more. You hate your bicycle and especially its saddle for it has now been well over two long hours since you set off on your first half-century and you still have ten miles to go. Most of all you hate the wind. An hour of a relentless 15 mph breeze that you swear wasn’t blowing when you left the ride start. You vow you will never ride this cursed machine again. Switch back to jogging in spite of the pain in your knees and your bruised vertebrae.

Then you hear a cry of "on your left" and seven riders approach from behind you in a neat, ever-changing formation. Their pedaling appears effortless, a steady 90 rpm cadence with no visible signs of anguish on the riders' faces. "How ya doing?" the first asks, probably knowing full well that you're doing lousy. He's safe in his superiority and the cocoon of his fellows. They're actually talking as they ride by. How can they possibly do it; you know they left well after you did. You feel angry now as well as frustrated. Don't they know the meaning of the word "wind"?

"Well why not join them?" you ask yourself. Even though the last rider has almost gone by, you put every last ounce of effort into accelerating to their speed and, miracle of miracles, the blessed relief of protection from the wind is yours also. A glance down at your Cateye confirms this wonderful truth. Twenty-two incredible miles an hour and only minutes ago the reading had cruelly dropped from fifteen to fourteen. "Change down and stop pushing that high gear," suggests the seventh rider, who realizes that not only are you being helped but also the efficiency of the entire group is being increased. Your legs spin as you move up the paceline ready for your turn at the front. Maybe you can even join in their easy conversation in a few minutes but in the meantime you marvel at the fluid coordination of this pack of eight. Though not as effortless as you had first thought, the difference is truly remarkable. It's even soporific, a mobile mechanical lullaby.

You also wonder at how close everyone rides together. Over 20 mph and yet wheels are only inches way from each other. You remember hearing about how critical it is in a pace line never to let your front wheel touch or overlap the rear wheel of the bicycle in front. It's always the fellow behind who comes down, they say, usually taking other riders down with him or her. Still that's no problem. This is easy. Can't imagine why you don't always ride with these guys.

You really can't remember what happened next. It was as though somebody had taken hold of your handlebars and was wrenching them out of your grasp. Your machine swerved and you were powerless to get it back on course. As you started to fall, you remember seeing the riders behind you trying to steer their bikes into the safety of the soft, grassy ditch by the side of the road. You hit the ground oh-so-hard, followed by the pandemonium of more people and bicycles on top of you. The sharp stab of pain as your ankle twists at a wholly unnatural angle, foot still firmly held by your retro toe-clip and strap. The realization that a brake lever was almost puncturing your stomach and that blood was trickling down your right arm.

A sorry sight as the group slowly untangled the mess. Twisted wheels, bent handlebars and ugly scratches on splendid, previously unmarked, Italian racing bikes. Their owners looked sorrowfully at their prized machines and shook their heads. Then the awful realization that it was your fault. You had caused this two-wheeled carnage. You stuttered apologies but, even though everybody was remarkably charitable about the whole disastrous affair, it didn't help that tight knot in your stomach nor did it stem the flow of adrenalin. Those that could, got back on their bikes and slowly rode off, no more chatting between them. Others proceeded more slowly, either the riders or the machines or both limping along as best they could. Even the knowledge that nobody was seriously hurt, failed to make you feel any better. A very sorry way to have your first lesson in riding in a pace line.

In the days and weeks that followed, you were gratified by the amount of advice you received though self-survival was undoubtedly the motive behind all the free coaching you were suddenly getting. Nevertheless, after a while you began to develop the awareness and fast reactions needed to ride safely in a pace line. You began to know and trust your fellow riders and, more importantly, they developed an understanding and trust of you. You realized now how foolish it had been to simply tag on that line without understanding how dangerous drafting can be. At the same time, you learned how much fun and camaraderie can be had by first learning safe riding techniques. Then, those 20+ mph brazen acts of defiance against that ever-present South Texas wind can become a matter of course.

Paceline riding (or drafting) can be a very satisfying experience, as it can easily cut the air resistance by 20-30% and, under some circumstances, by up to 50%. Three to five riders are adequate for a single paceline. Some benefit will be felt even if they are one or two bike-lengths apart but ideally, an experienced rider's front wheel should be 6-12 inches from the rear wheel of the machine in front. However, this requires great skill and concentration so it's best to start with distances of around two feet. Never let your front wheel touch the rear wheel in front of you; you will almost inevitably lose control and fall down.

The lead rider should warn of obstacles and dangers approaching cars, potholes and digs, etc. The word is then passed down the line. Similarly the last rider yells "car back" if an unexpected vehicle approaches from the rear. All riders should maintain a steady, even cadence. Never brake at all without advance warning unless not doing so would cause a serious accident. Do not coast without pedaling if you're going too fast but "soft pedal" until your speed is again that of the paceline. Sometimes if you are going too fast (usually down hill) it’s safest to pull out of the line and sit up, thereby slowing down. When going uphill, take great care in standing out of the saddle. Unless you precede your getting-up from the saddle by a deliberate pedal stroke, your bike will tend to slow down momentarily. This can cause the rider behind you to slam into your rear wheel thus ruining everyone’s day.

The lead rider should pedal at a steady pace for no more than one or two minutes only and then pull off into the wind. For example, if the wind is coming from the left front then he or she pulls off to the left (towards the middle of the road) and the following riders pull through on the right (the inside). If the wind is coming from the right front, the lead rider moves to the right and drops back on the inside of the paceline, next to the road’s edge. The next lead rider should not accelerate but continue at the same speed; otherwise the rider who has just finished at the front might be dropped.

If the wind is not directly from the front, the paceline should be in an echelon formation. Each rider is offset on the leeward side of the rider in front such that the paceline is strung out in the direction of the wind. Under these circumstances, it is sometimes acceptable to overlap front with rear wheels. As the lead riders must still pull off into the wind then accidents should be avoidable. However, every rider must be very aware of what’s going on, especially where the rider behind you is located. With eight or more riders, double pacelines are effective and more sociable for the gregarious ones amongst you. There are a couple of ways to do this but the simplest involves the two lead riders doing the pacing, or “pulling,” at any given time. When it's time to pull off, they do so in opposite directions and the paceline then pulls through between them.

Whichever type of pacing the group chooses, the stronger the wind or the higher the number of riders, the shorter the pulls should be. Forty revolutions or about half a minute is often quite adequate, even for a decent size single paceline. If you're macho-minded and go in for the five-minute stuff you will soon tire and be dropped. Besides, practically nothing in cycling looks or feels as good as a well-timed, smoothly rotating paceline. Watch the pros riding a team time trial in their constantly rotating double echelons. Swan Lake would struggle to match their poetic precision.

If riding with a tandem in the mix, be especially cautious and allow them plenty of maneuvering room when necessary. They sometimes need more reaction time and a greater turning circle on corners and thus should always have “right of way”. They do not also have to worry about single machines in their path. Tandems don't make the same "rhythm" as singles on hills; they go slower up and faster down and so tandems in a paceline in hilly terrain usually do not make a lot of sense.

For the more mathematically inclined, a simple formula for air resistance, “R”, is:

R = A x D x (Vr + Vw)2 x Q/2 where "A" is the frontal area of the rider and machine, "D" is an aerodynamic constant, "Q" is the air density, Vr is the speed of the rider and Vw the speed of any direct headwind. Several interesting (truly!) observations can be made from the formula.

If you are at the front, riding on the drops with your arms tucked in or on aero bars can reduce “A”, presenting as little area as possible for the wind to catch. Experiment sometime when you're descending on a steep hill. Ride on the drops and then notice the difference when you sit up. Note: never ride aero bars when within the paceline; only when you are on the front or bridging back from the rear if necessary. The aerodynamic factor, "D", is also of critical significance, as Moser found out when solid wheels helped him to smash Eddy Mercx's one-hour record. Teardrop helmets, Lycra body suits, oval tubes and spokes and a smooth riding style also contribute to aerodynamic efficiency, beautifully demonstrated by Greg Lemond when he snatched the 1989 Tour de France away from Laurent Fignon by an overall eight seconds.

As "V" is squared in our equation, you now know why you hate a 15 mph head wind so much more than a 5 mph one. The air density factor, "Q", explains in part why so many athletic records, including Moser's one-hour record, are broken at high altitudes (although an athlete's ability to use available oxygen also changes with altitude). Of more relevance to riders in South Texas is the fact that the exceptionally high humidity does provide a very real obstacle to overcome. But I don't have to tell you that.

So next time you're out on your wheels with a howling gale trying to return you to your ride start, team up with you buddies and defeat the elements by riding in a paceline. Its fun, can be thrilling and should be safe.

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