Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Almighty Echelon

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.  echelon.jpg

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.

Cold weather blows

Trying to be a good eco-citizen (and increase my training miles at the same time) I have been commuting to work on my bike these last 6 months.  Yet, for some reason Mother Nature doesn’t seem to appreciate it at all.  It has been getting colder and colder every passing day.  Here I am doing my best to reduce emissions and she is trying to freeze my ass off!    What’s up with that?!? 

The other day I reached my breaking point.  After a particularly cold day, I figured it was time to take action.  Did I buy an extra layer of clothes?  Hell no, that would only help me stay warm.  What about the rest of society?  Instead, I did what any reasonable person would have done in my situation.  I ran to the bathroom and collected as much aerosol hair spray canisters as I could.  I sprayed them all up into the sky.  After emitting as much CFCs as I had available, I felt much better that I had done my part in creating a bigger hole in the ozone, and hopefully contributing to global warming.

OK, OK.  Before you get your tree-hugging panties in a bunch, I did no such thing.  (Though I did consider it,) I figured I alone couldn’t do enough damage to our environment to significantly affect the weather.  Oh well.  Maybe all us outdoors types can agree to combine efforts to help rip the ozone a new one?  If we time it right, maybe we can make it a little warmer in the winter, and then lay off for a while to give things time to normalize before summer comes around.  Just a thought…

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Why do big guys suck at climbing?

OK, so maybe they don’t suck, but they certainly aren’t particularly good.  We’re talking generalities here people...  If you look at cross-section of cyclists, it seems that smaller riders can climb, larger riders can time trial, and sprinters are sort of a mixed-bag.  Why does this seem to be the case?  I had a monumental thought this morning - actually, a number of thoughts - and actually liked some of them.
Let’s address big rider climbing performance.  We can all agree that climbing performance is enhanced with more power and less weight.  Of course there are other factors, but we’re dealing in generalities here, so let’s keep the problem bound to the major factors.   Let’s start with two identical riders with identical body-mass indexes and power outputs.  As one is magically shrunken to a more diminutive size (no, were not talking about going on a diet here), conventional wisdom would indicate he can climb better, as he weighs less.  You see, the less a rider has to carry uphill, the faster he can go.  However, this does not answer the question of why little guys can climb.  You see, as our hypothetical rider gets smaller, he loses weight, but also loses power.  

We are dealing with two factors, weight and power, which are related to each other.  Since we’re dealing with a ratio here, the logical conclusion one has to ask himself is not, “Why do big guys suck at climbing, but why to big guys have a lower power to weight ratio?”   
Here is where the facts tend to complicate things.  The major factors which work against the small rider are bike weight, and wind resistance.    Bike weight is the same between the small and big riders, so the small rider actually has to devote a higher percentage of his power to carrying the bike uphill.  Also, as a rider gets smaller, he also gives some aerodynamic advantage to the larger rider.  True, as his size decreases his area (hence drag) will decrease, but it does so at a slower rate (remember my last blog: area is squared, while volume is cubed).   And, yes, aerodynamics does matter on climbs, I can personally attest to that.  So where does the smaller rider get an advantage?  I am thinking that they have a mechanical advantage.  Not from the bike, but from the body.

Ever notice that in the sport of powerlifting that the larger guys have a higher absolute power, but the smaller guys can lift a higher percentage of their weight?    Well, it’s true.  Of the elite lifters, smaller guys can bench a little over 3 times their body weight, while the larger ones can do “only” 2.7-2.8 times their weight.   (Back when I was lifting, I weighed 125lbs, but was bench pressing 245lbs; just under double my weight.  This was something that none of my peers could do.)  I have heard that this is due to the fact that individuals with shorter limbs have a slight leverage advantage.  It seems that as a percentage of their total bone length, their tendons tend to connect slightly farther from the pivot point of the joint.  I don’t know if that is true, but if so, would translate into less work for the muscle to accomplish the same amount of movement.  This would provide some compensation for the previously mentioned issues.  

I have a supplemental theory.  I think smaller riders tend to be better climbers because of natural selection.  It’s as simple as this:  We already know that smaller riders have a slightly tougher time in the wind. Hence, in order to compete in this venue, a smaller rider must be slightly stronger (relatively speaking) than a larger rider.  Since those small riders tend to stay in the sport, and the ones off the back don’t, once we go riding in the hills, the only small riders that are left tend to exceed the others in a power/weight ratio.  We then generalize that small guys can climb.

Truthfully, I have no idea why big guys suck at climbing.  Obviously, as a rider gets larger, their weight tends to increase faster than their sustainable power increases.  Why that is the case is still up for dispute.