Wheel sucking
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  Posted May 30th, 2017 by Zdenko  in Cycling, TOOLBOX | No comments yet.

Coaches corner

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Let me introduce you to ‘wheel sucking’ from a cycling perspective.
It was a Friday, and after a long and difficult week at work I donned some Lycra cycling clothing, drove my car east of Edmonton to the Sherwood Park, mounted my Jota-Moreno bike and headed into the rural area of Strathcona County. The goal was to clear the tension from my legs and the metaphysical residue of the week in the office from my head.

Drafting in cycling

It was a typical crisp, but sunny spring afternoon, and as I rode on well known roads around Ardrossan I was gradually overtaken by a feeling of peace and well-being. A few kilometers into my ride I noticed that my shadow had an extra head. I turned to look behind me, and my brief glance confirmed that this was not my imagination but I had indeed acquired a wheel sucking guy. 

Drafting in its pure form: the British team pursuit squad on their way to Olympic gold in 2008. Photograph: Tom Jenkins

So what is a Wheel Sucking?
‘Wheel sucking’ is a term used to describe the practice of cycling behind another rider with wheels a few centimeters apart, for an extended period of time without changing position (moving forward) to gain a physiological and aerodynamic advantage by reducing the amount of work he has to do. Some have claimed that this practice allows the “wheel sucking” rider to perform 30% less work. The advantage of ‘wheel sucking’ is magnified when the size of the front rider is large, when there is a considerable headwind and when the front rider is moving at a significant speed > 30 km/h.

Wheel sucking on the track. During the race, it’s called ‘tactical drafting’!

The practice of riding in the slipstream close behind someone’s rear wheel, thus greatly reducing the effort you need to expend keeping at their speed is called drafting. If you’re riding in the middle of a big group this can, supposedly, save you up to 40% in energy. It’s all pretty standard and uncontroversial if you’re participating in an organized road race or sportive, assuming of course you take your turn at the front.

That’s me doing ‘tactical drafting’ during the race in south Edmonton

The story continues…
So, I should point that it would be O.K. with me, since it was only a training (read: pleasure) ride, but the guy never bothered to say even hello, never mind asking me if it’s O.K. to ride behind me. So, suddenly I hit the breaks and since he was too close to me and couldn’t avoid it, he crushed into me falling onto the road heavily…

No, no, I didn’t do that, but for sure was thinking about doing it.

He sat on me for bloody long time and didn’t say ‘thanks’ when he finally peeled off! Sitting on the wheels of strangers–especially when they don’t know you’re there, and especially when it’s me at the front–is a very bad thing to do.

Drafting in the group, during the training ride

First of all, it’s dangerous for the same reason automotive tailgating is dangerous. The last thing I want in the event I’m forced to brake suddenly is for some wheel sucker, I didn’t even know was there, to wind up humping my back. Second of all, it’s just rude–it’s like sidling up behind someone at a urinal and putting your hand on his shoulder, or even joining in uninvited and “crossing the streams.”

Nevertheless, there are some people who think that, no matter what the circumstances, Lycra clothing and a racing bike mean ‘it’s on’. It’s the ‘he was asking for it’ mentality of the cycling world. But it wasn’t ‘on’; in fact, it was very much ‘off’.

So I swung off and waved the mysterious rider through. I said something along the lines of, ‘You shouldn’t sit on my wheel like that’ (in the same way you might say to the guy at the urinal, ‘Hey, you mind backing up a little bit?’), and then moved to the left side of the road to further underscore my ‘it’s so very not on’ point and allow him to continue on his way.

Apparently, though, I hadn’t done enough. ‘Whatever’, replied the guy, and after I moved back to the right side of the road he latched on to me again. At this point I felt very much like a guy being followed into the man’s room of a bar by a ‘frat boy’, so I reiterated my request and by way of explanation offered a more succinct version of the above.

By now you’d think that he’d either respect my wishes, or else dismiss me as an old ‘roadie’ fusspot, but in either case leave me alone. Instead, he said this:

‘C’mon, don’t we (all) do this for the danger? Where’s the flint in your veins? Don’t be such a pussy’.

He said this just sarcastically enough for it to be ironic, in the well-practiced manner of someone accustomed to getting his way and with a lifetime’s experience in telling his parents off while remaining utterly confident that they will continue to praise him for his mediocrity and keep writing those tuition checks to Bard. Now I really wanted to push my brakes and make him fall.

The advantage of ‘wheel sucking’ is magnified when the size of the front rider is large – like on this picture.

It made me extremely angry–not so much because he had called me a ‘pussy’, but more because he had found one of the few people in Alberta, who would not push him off his bike and break his teeth for doing so. Instead, his childhood had once again received a stay of execution and the bubble in which he lived would remain intact for yet another day. One day he will run into someone else who will do exactly that: brake his teeth! I hope he finds and reads this blog and recognize himself in my story…

Wheel suckers are bottom feeders and slackers
Wheel suckers are often considered bottom feeders and slackers as they do not work toward the greater good of the rider or riders in front of them. But there are many instances where wheel sucking is perfectly acceptable. Putting individual race tactics aside, an annoying but perfectly acceptable implementation of the technique, wheel suckers have many valid reasons for not ‘pulling through’. I have listed a few below.

It’s O.K. to suck when…
• The sucker is the sprinter being set up for a stage/ race win. (this is generally not considered true wheel sucking as it does not last long enough to qualify, however there are times that sprinters are dragged for miles in preparation of the final sprint, mountainous terrain would be an example)
• The sucker is a team mate who has had problem and needs help returning to the peleton (again this is up for debate if it is a short duration, but the technique is the same).
• The sucker is your spouse or significant other (happens to the best of us, if your the stronger rider, you’ll be pulling them, get used to it).
• The sucker is an athlete you are coaching (They are paying you too pull).
• The sucker is totally blown (Most commonly seen on group rides, never leave a man behind).
• The sucker is you, as long as I’m not pulling!
• The sucker is me, as long as your pulling!

 It’s O.K. when the sucker is your significant other

The tactical ‘wheel sucking’ is O.K.

The tactical wheel sucker:
In racing, there are occasions, when wheel sucking becomes a useful tactic. One example may be a rider who is in a lead break and their team leader or overall race contender is not. The rider may choose not to ‘work’ with the group and wheel suck to decrease the chance of having a successful breakaway. Other times the wheel sucker is simply not strong enough to be in the break and is doing everything they can to hang on. These riders are of not much concern for long, but are annoying because, they can’t help in the groups success and take energy away while they are engaged.

The group ride wheel sucking or drafting is O.K.

The group ride wheel sucker:
This is the most common place to meet a wheel sucker or become one yourself. Group ride dynamics seem to breed them. Newer riders are often scorned by the more experienced group because they spend the entire ride sucking the wheels of the stronger riders, but it’s not their fault. It is the natural order of things. For them too ride with the group and learn how not to be a wheel sucker they must first be a wheel sucker and suffer the humiliation of not being able to ‘pull’. A good wheel sucker can deflect much criticism by being gracious, such as bestowing the honor of allowing a rider who is dropping back the opportunity to drop in front of them and in so doing allow that rider the great honor of pulling again sooner.

It’s not O.K. to suck…
• Your teammate who is winning
• Your spouse or significant other
• Anyone you want to ride with again and again and again.
• Anyone who can make you suffer.
• Me!!!

Riding in the group is not ‘wheel sucking’ unless you don’t take turns at the front.

Detractors of the ‘wheel sucking’

The moral of my story
If you find yourself in a situation to become ‘wheel sucker’, first of all be nice. Say hello to the guy you want ‘wheel suck’. Talk to him first about something… anything, before you ask him if it’s O.K. to follow his rear wheel. Most people are going to be nice and say ‘yes’ after this type of introduction.

My position’s pretty clear: I’m happy to either draft or be drafted. With the former I don’t go ludicrously close to another bike’s rear wheel and I’m vigilant in case my temporary helper has to brake or swerve to avoid something. And if we reach a red light I’ll often try to set off quickly so as to offer a reciprocal helping hand. When in front I indicate well in advance, and point a helpful finger towards upcoming potholes and the like. But the most important thing is communication between the two of you on the road. One should never assume that its O.K. to draft some stranger without asking first!

There is a spin-off minefield of protocol connected to drafting: as a male rider is it a bit ungentlemanly to do so to a female commuter given that the basic technique involves staying as close to their buttocks as possible? A friend of mine was once drafting a Lycra-clad road cyclist from Edmonton to Sherwood Park, when she turned round to accuse him of ‘having a gawp’. He backed off.

Drafting is common in all group ridings.

Zen and the art of  ‘wheel sucking’.
Detractors of this practice and there are many, often look down and despise the humble “wheel sucker”. These detractors can easily be generalized as people who are testosterone filled and excessively aggressive. Furthermore these people do not possess the characteristics and are unable to be enlightened by the Zen that accompanies a “wheel sucking” journey.

Close drafting during the races is very important

Humility is an essential component to attaining the Zen of “wheel sucking”. Start the bike ride with statements like: ‘I’m feeling lousy’, ‘I had a hard day at the office’ or ‘My bike is heavier than yours’. Statements like these allow the rider seeking ‘wheel sucking’ Zen to disappear amidst the pre-ride bravado. It also volunteers others to offer their wheels for you to latch onto, when the ride starts.

Drafting behind a friend is O.K.

During the ride get into the ‘zone’. You’ll know you’re there when you suddenly start hearing nothing but the melodic humming of the bicycle chain and other moving bike parts. Often peace and tranquility in the ‘zone’ can be disrupted by calls to pull or ‘do some work up front’. For any true blue ‘wheel sucker’ this disrupts the essence of disappearing into ‘oneness’ of a pack ride. To avoid such situations you can always feint weakness leaving a gap between you and the rider in front, often resulting in a charge from the ‘macho men’ to close the gaps. Alternatively you could be gracious and allow the rider returning from his pull in the front of the pack, the wheel of the rider in front of you. These acts often work as the aggression of a fast ride often results in riders wanting to get ahead of each other. To attain Zen stay calm and be at peace especially on a fast pack ride.

So what happens if there’s a break? A true practitioner of wheel sucking never gets caught out in a break. A genuine ‘wheel sucker’ sees all that happens around him. A break is not perceived as such but rather it is a huge suck, dragging and pulling the wheel sucker from one zone to another. In the immortal words of a wise Jedi ‘feel the force’, use the pulls of these breaks to move with the breaks. When one does so, it’s like the shifting of the sands, effortless.

Do wheel suckers ever win? Always! Never forget humility, especially if you want to keep riding with the pack. What good is a wheel sucker without a wheel to suck?

Peace all and ride heaps!

Source of ‘Zen and the art of wheel sucking’:


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