For those of us in road and crit racing, echelon is one of the most important concepts to understand. (Actually, “free lap” and “sag wagon” are two of my personal favorites.)
We all know what a “paceline” is; multiple cyclists riding in a straight line, one behind the other. Well, an echelon is really nothing more than a diagonal paceline. (Technically, a paceline is a straight line echelon, but whatever…) The key to the echelon is that the diagonal be moved right or left depending on the existence and strength of a cross-wind. Let me draw it out for you.
Say 5 riders are in a breakaway. There is a cross-wind coming from their right. To maintain the most speed and maximize the draft for all the riders, the group should form an echelon so that the tip is to the right, while each rider is back and to the left of the rider in front of them. (see diagram)
Notice that the riders are overlapping wheels. I know rule #1 in group riding is not to overlap wheels, but to effectively form an echelon, this must happen. Just like a straight paceline, there are problems if the riders are not cooperating, have not experienced this formation, or are otherwise clueless as to what is going on. Consequently, if you are intending to use this tactic, there are some things to consider:
- With beginning bike racers, don’t use the term echelon. They will probably think you are speaking French and just stare at you blankly. (If they don’t know the term, for safety’s sake, you probably don’t want to ride one with them anyway.
- After the lead rider pulls off (actually rides straight backwards), the second rider needs to avoid increasing the pace of the group. For the lead rider to get back in line, he will have to go all the way to the back, move behind and to the left of the last rider, and then move up into position. If the group were to accelerate, this rider may well get dropped.
- When moving into the lead position, keep a constant rate and move a little to the right. This enables the entire field to shift towards the wind, effectively opening up a spot for the lead rider to assume the last spot.
- A larger group should use a constantly rotating echelon. This is where the lead rider pulls off as soon as he gets to the front. This forms two lines of riders, side-by-side, and working like a conveyor belt. Because the rider moving into the last position is protected from the wind from the riders in front of him, the pace can be higher than a single line echelon.
Following are two bonus tips. These are more advanced - not that they are hard to understand or implement, I just call them “advanced” because it makes you think that you are getting a really good deal by reading on. Besides, even some seasoned riders don’t seem to understand them.
- When in the lead position, stay as close to the wind direction as practical. In the example above, the lead rider needs to ride on the right side of the road. If the rider were to ride away from the wind (i.e. the left side of the road), then there would be no way for the other riders to line up on his left.
- Conversely, if you do not want to echelon, but instead rip the field apart, then absolutely ride towards the left. As people will not be able to protect themselves from the wind, you and your team can minimize any help the others get from the draft and, in stronger crosswinds, cause the field to split.