Wednesday, August 8, 2007

City Drafting

This post by "Gwadzilla" reminded me of something that I let slip through the cracks during my previous bike commuting post -- people who draft in the city!

Alright, so let's think about this for a second. We've already established that riding around the city is dangerous. You need all the help you can get to control the risks you will inevitably encounter, so the last thing you should be doing is adding a new risk -- like, say, another object directly in front of you, that could stop or turn without warning you.

And yet, so many riders do this. Some of them are roadies who think that the proper location to ride is 4 inches off someone's wheel regardless of conditions -- after all, no one panic-stops on a group ride in the country, right? Some of them are overly competitive commuters, who think that sitting right on your ass in the draft is proving something about their biking abilities, and some of them are lazy commuters that want a free ride.

So, one question for everyone who thinks this is a good idea -- what is going to happen when something unexpected happens?

If you think the answer is anything other than "rear-ending the guy in front of you," then you must have better reflexes than me. Or anyone else on the planet.

This is the same reason you don't tailgate people on the highway. When you're driving down the highway with a car 10 feet off your rear bumper, you're annoyed as hell. "Why is that clown right behind me? He's driving like an idiot!" So why would this be acceptable on a bike? The risks are the same, except I have car insurance.

So don't ride right on people's wheel in the city. If you don't know them, it's an especially rude move. It's like standing with your shoulder touching someone in an otherwise empty elevator, it's an intrusion on their personal space. Plus, it's the only way to make an already dangerous activity more dangerous. "There's not enough stuff to worry about in the city, let's add a moving wall directly in front of me!"

It goes without saying that half-wheeling someone, especially on the right, is just as dumb. Dumber, if you don't know them, since they might just turn right without warning you. Or swerve right, or left, or whatever. You're not a bunch of TIE fighters magically staying in formation as you make an assault on the rebel forces. Don't try to be.

So where is it ok to ride? I'd say 3+ feet back. At this point you still get some draft, if you're really just doing it to be lazy, and you have enough cushion you have a chance of reacting. If you ride 3 feet behind me for two miles on an empty road, ok, that's a little weird, but I can deal with it.

What should you do if there's a random wheel sucker behind you on your commute? This is a difficult question. You can try just putting the hammer down to get rid of them, but this is risky. If they're sitting on you because they think it's a game, then you're only piquing their interest. Even if you drop them, they'll be right back on if you get stuck at a light. If they're on a decent bike (aka not a mountain bike with knobbies) they have a pretty good chance of staying with you unless you make a sudden jump in speed, and what the hell man, you just want to ride to work. I didn't come out here to race.

Personally, I just turn. There are enough alternate routes on my commute I can always go right in the next 60 seconds or so. The other choice is to sit up and not care, which is fine if you're out in the country, but what happens if you slow down and they stay right behind you? I dunno man, I think at that point you have to say something like "Can you not ride directly behind me? It's really creepy" to them. I think "creepy" is better than "dangerous" since it makes them sounds like a serial killer, instead of making you sound like a wuss.

"Oh yeah, I usually ride around with 20 tons of 18-wheeler drafting me, with spikes on the front...driven by a trucker on crack... but you, man, you're just creepy."

3 comments:

Reenie 8/08/2007 3:09 PM  

If I'm feeling mellow, I just slow down to make myself not worth drafting. If I'm feeling pissy, I slam on my brakes briefly and unpredictably. You don't have to be in a car to be a Boston driver ;)

gewilli 8/09/2007 10:00 AM  

Amen brotha... amen...

Ari 3/19/2009 5:13 PM  

I bike commuted in Boston for a few months a few summers ago--Newton to Davis, a pretty baller ride--and drafted once. The ride was 27-35 minutes, 8 miles with something like 30 traffic lights, a little in a bike lane, and a lot faster than driving or the T (at rush hour).

The one time I drafted I was waiting with a guy at the light at Main Street in Watertown Square next to him and we both took off together. Since Mount Auburn Street is two lanes wide, we hoseyed the right lane and just clipped along at about 27 m.p.h., give or take, depending on hills.

I think we each took a turn pulling; we somehow made all the lights until Aberdeen where we hit a red and I was going left. Never saw him again, but it was nice riding. Of course, being on a wide street without much traffic (those two miles were by far the easiest part of the ride) helped. A lot.

Out here in the Twin Cities I wind up drafting a lot, especially when a straight road (they all are) or bike path goes in to a head wind. Once we had a veritable peleton of eight or nine commuters all together. The Midtown Grenway in Minneapolis--five miles, flat, straight, grade separated and chock full of bikers (so much so that they built a bike shop on the trail)--is drafting city, especially going due west in to a head wind.

Then there was that time drafting a semi ...

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