Cross winds make for, I was going to say arguably at this point, but let’s face it – they make for the best racing!
They are also one of most nuanced parts of bike racing and one I see riders struggling with.
A bit of background here, I rode as a professional for 5 seasons based in Belgium. I have spent my fair share of time riding in echelons, mainly suffering. I was also incredibly lucky that early on in my career I rode alongside Leon van Bon (google his palmres) and he took me under his wing and taught me more in a season than I could have imagined... hopefully I can share some of those insights…
Time to take a bit of a deep dive into cross winds, and the dark art of echelons…
First of all, lets look at the dynamics of riding in a cross wind. Whenever there is a cross wind the ‘effective’ wind angle is a produced by a combination of riding speed and the direction of the wind.
What this means in practice is that instead of there being an area of lower air pressure (which creates the drag effective as you are effective ‘sucked’ into this low pressure) directly behind a rider it moves diagonally the side. This means that any rider who happens to not have a rider to their left in picture 1 is going to be working just as hard as the person on the front of the group!
This is why when there is a cross wind an 'echelon' forms – an echelon is a diagonal formation of riders. After the echelon everyone else is in a single line in the gutter. Because everyone in the gutter is working just as hard as the rider in the front, as you go down the line you will eventually come across a rider that cannot hold the wheel in front. This causes a split.
At this point riders will ether desperately try and bridge up to the group in front – this is very difficult and involves a huge effort. Additionally, even if they manage to bridge the gap they will still find themselves in an unsheltered position once they reach the group in front. Or (and this is generally a better option) they will move across the road to form a second echelon - creating shelter for other riders.
Once a split happens, and various groups have formed then all riders in each group will share the pacing. They do this by riding in an echelon. An echelon is essentially a pace line through and off system which is offset to give shelter to all riders accept the one on the front. The numbers of riders in ay echelon is dictated by the width of the road OR the position of the front rider.
When riding in an echelon it is in every rider’s interest to keep on riding. The reason for this is that, if a rider stops working, then the rider at the front can simply move across the road slightly, this creates less space on the road for the echelon, and this will squeeze the rider that isn’t working into the gutter. At that point their time is limited as the power requirement rises and is very difficult to sustain.
In an echelon all movements should be smooth, this is because a strict formation needs to be maintained to give shelter to the whole group. Therefore, rather than kicking through as a rider comes to do their turn (front left in our example) they actually will ease off in order to slip back into the rear line. This means riders aren’t really making a big effort at the only point in the system that they are not sheltered. This is why riding effectively in an echelon is so efficient and effective.
Now we know what happens once the race is in a section of cross winds let's look at the run in to a section of cross winds. Most teams will be pretty well briefed and will know exactly when a section of cross winds is likely to come. This means that ultimately it becomes a fight to get into the right position to be in that front echelon. This is where things get interesting....
Counter – intuitively, arguably the best place to be in the run in to cross winds is on the windy side of the bunch! The reason for this is that on the windy side of the bunch you can guarantee that there will be space. Having space in front means that, if you have the legs, you can simply go ‘over the top’ of the other riders and straight into the first echelon! Here the purple team are going past everyone and will likely end up the the first echelon. Everyone else is forced over into the right hand gutter as the race exists the shelter of the tress. With only limited space, some teams are going to be shuffled backwards. The further back you are, the more riders in front of you and the more chance someone will let the wheel go and you end up in the second, or third group.
There are however a few downsides of this approach, the main one is that often it is not clear beforehand exactly where echelons will form. Sometimes because of tress or buildings along the road the exact point that which you need to make your move is tricky to judge. This means that an entire team might be sat out in the wind for a prolonged period working hard, or even worse might make their move too early, and then subsequently get swamped and end up out of position. Therefore, some teams – a great example being Team Ineos, adopt a different approach. Instead of riding on the windy side of the bunch they instead hug the gutter on the sheltered side of the bunch. This means that the entire team is riding in a sheltered position using a little energy as possible. They then reply on one rider, typically Luke Rowe, to match any acceleration on the windy side of the bunch and drag the entire team forward and into the first echelon (shown with the arrow). This has a one key advantage - It minimises the power requirement for the rest of the team – this is especially important if in the end the race doesn’t split into echelons. However, it is high risk. If that one rider can’t match that acceleration then the entire team is hampered. In the picture below the orange team are adopting this approach
What typically happens is that the teams with the most power end up at the front in a cross wind. More and more nowadays teams will line up in team order and essentially try and out drag each other into the front echelon. In the picture below the purple and the orange teams have 'out dragged' the other teams and will likely form the front group. All the other teams have been pushed out and if it splits will end up in the second group or worse.
Teams are adopting this approach because even if they are out dragged and end up in the second group they are at least all together. By staying together, getting organised quickly and forming a second or third echelon, teams can minimise the gap to the group in front. In the picture below the orange team have 'out dragged' everyone else and have formed the first echelon. However, the purple team have put themselves in a good position and got organised quickly. They have therefore minimised the gap to the group in front. Doing this will mean that when the race enters a head wind or tail wind the two groups will come back together.
So there you have it, the dark art of echelons made simple! The beauty of an echelon is that is rewards both power, skill, tactics and organisation. And yes, they still make the best racing!