By Chris Carmichael
Riding well in an echelon is one of the fine arts of cycling. It’s not something you necessarily learn right away as a novice; it’s an advanced skill, and sign to other riders that you’re experienced.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time teaching cyclists to form and ride in echelons, and once you know how to do it right, and once you experience the benefits of these diagonal pacelines, you’ll suddenly become that guy – or gal – on the ride who organizes the group into an echelon whenever you feel the wind blowing in from the side.
The principle of an echelon is based on the fact that when the wind is coming at you from the side, the best place to get a draft from the rider ahead of you is diagonally behind him on the leeward side (away from the wind). This means that if the wind is blowing from the left, you want to ride on the right side of the person in front of you. Exactly where you line up next to him – whether your handlebars are even with his shoulders, behind his hips, or anywhere in between – depends on the angle of the wind.
Best place to be in the crosswinds? The break isn’t a bad place to be – you don’t have to be worried about being guttered there.
To rotate in an echelon, the leading rider takes a pull while other riders line up diagonally behind him on his leeward side. Depending on the width of the road, that could mean 4 riders or 15 or more. When he’s done with his pull, he simply slows down and initially goes straight backward. The entire line of riders who were to his right (assuming the wind is from the left) shift left, leaving a space on the leeward side of the road for a rider in the recovery line to move forward and into the leading line. The rider who just pulled off starts moving diagonally across the road behind the leading line of riders until it’s his turn to move forward again.
The Challenges Of Riding In An Echelon
One of the challenging aspects of riding in an echelon is that the crosswind makes it difficult to hold a straight line as you head down the road. A gust of wind hits the group and someone in the line gets pushed a few inches to the side. This often leads to chain reaction because riders are lined up with their handlebars very close to the hip of the rider ahead of them. You’re overlapped in order to hide from the wind, but that also means that in order to protect your front wheel, you’re going wherever the guy ahead of you goes. For this reason, riding in an echelon can be nerve-wracking on top of being physically difficult.
Changes in the width of the road also present serious challenges for the riders in an echelon. In a normal paceline through a headwind or tailwind, the width of the road doesn’t affect the number of riders who can benefit from the draft. But in a diagonal paceline, the width of the road dictates the number of riders who can hide from the wind. If you’re in a perfect echelon on a wide road, where everyone is getting a good draft, and then the road suddenly narrows, the riders who were on the leeward side get stuck riding in a straight line behind the echelon.
That’s what’s referred to as “riding in the gutter”, because you’re literally as far over on the pavement as you can get, but whether there’s two of you or 10 of you in the gutter, no one is getting a draft. That’s why it’s important to keep looking as far ahead of you as possible, so that when you see that the road is going to get narrower, you can move yourself forward in the group so you’re still in the echelon when you get to that narrower section of road.
Using Echelons To Your Advantage
Echelons can be used for offensive and defensive purposes in a bike race. When you hit a crosswind, you can drive the pace and purposely limit the maximum width of the echelon to put the majority of the peloton into the gutter. That’s what Columbia-HTC did yesterday in Stage 4. Although the road was wide enough for 15-20 riders to line up diagonally, they put their leading rider only out far enough to allow about 7-10 riders to line up between him and the gutter.
If you’re in a small team in a local race, you might establish an echelon that only contains your four riders and half the width of a single lane. You put everyone else in a long straight line in the gutter, go as hard as you can, and watch the pack split into pieces.
Once the peloton starts breaking apart, you can continue using echelons to make sure the race doesn’t come back together. The first echelon on the road almost always contains the strongest riders in the race, and as a result, once gaps start appearing between groups, the superior horsepower of the leading group allows it to pull away from the riders behind. If you get organized quickly and drive the pace, you can open up a race-winning gap.
But just as echelons can be used to rip a race to pieces, they can also be used to bring it back together. Knowing that only a given number of riders can make it into the leading echelon, it’s imperative to recognize when you’re not going to be one of them. If you’re too far back in the pack to make the first echelon, the smartest thing you can do is move out to the windward side of the road and establish a second echelon as soon as you can.
This is where most amateur racers make big mistakes. They struggle in the gutter for far too long, searching for a non-existent draft on the very edge of the road. Eventually someone in that line loses contact with the wheel ahead of him and a gap quickly forms. But because everyone’s been fighting through the wind, no one in that long line is fresh enough to cover the gap or mount an effective chase, so the gap grows very rapidly.
Forming a second, third, and even fourth echelon as soon as possible is the best strategy for staying in contact with the front group. Even if you’re second echelon is just 50 feet behind the first one, you have to be patient and keep working together in separate echelons until the wind shifts or diminishes and the diagonal pacelines become unnecessary.
Thomas Voeckler was the happy benefactor of the disjointed chase from behind.
In Stage 5, 25mph crosswinds split the pack into several pieces, but echelons quickly formed that allowed the second, third, and fourth groups to stay close enough to the leaders that they could rejoin the main pack once the wind shifted to more of a tailwind. But up ahead, the six-man breakaway group that had been using an echelon and standard paceline to share the work of staying ahead of the peloton continued to press on.
Crosswinds that break the main peloton into echelons make it difficult to organize an effective chase, a problem complicated today by an apparent dispute between sprinters’ teams over whose responsibility it is to do the chasing. In the end, the breakaway stayed clear of the field, and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler finally captured the stage win that’s eluded him for the past six editions of the Tour de France.
Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). For more information on CTS’ Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour…Stay at Home™ training program, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter, visit www.trainright.com. You can also follow Chris on Twitter.