By Christopher Cudworth
In the never-ending pursuit to produce faster rolling bikes, the bicycling industry has squeezed the frames, raised the seat posts, dropped the handlebars and turned the wheels into flying disks with flattened spokes.
Time trial, triathlon and aero bikes of an ever-diversified assortment now make up the top-end models of the cycling industry. Just say a name like Cervelo and you think right away of aggressive geometry, wide but lean frames and forks and strangely bending parts that were once inconceivable.
All that aerodynamic design is meant for one thing: to help you go faster.
But there’s a tradeoff of course. A cyclist on an aero bike is crouched so low in the tuck and with arms so far forward there’s not a lot of handling capability in the aero position. Which means that riders putting in miles together in aero positions must be careful to not cross wheels or take each other down in a swerve of wind.
Triathletes and time-trialists don’t need to worry about handling their bikes in groups or a peloton. There’s either no draft available or no drafting allowed.
But when it comes to training, there are occasions when groups of aero riders get together like birds of a feather. For those unprepared for the dynamics of group riding in aero, things can turn into a flap quite quickly.
The face-first, thigh-pumping riding style of aero cyclists can lead to a unique form of wobble. Pouring all that power into a responsive frame teetering on a tight line of tire frequently results in a bit of a rocking motion.
Add in a bit of wind to fight, especially a crosswind, and these tendencies become accentuated. The irony of a fast-forward tri-bike with a flattened frame and deep disk wheels is that a crosswind can create conditions that are a real drag. That’s one of the tarsnakes of the aero world. What helps you go fast in a straight line can turn into a havoc of sideways pull in the wrong conditions.
But like we’ve said, it’s all good when you’re on your own flying down a lonely road with no one around to worry about. But put a pack of 10-15 riders together on a weekend group ride and paying attention to one’s line is paramount.
It is additionally interesting to be the lone road bike rider in a group of aero missiles. Hugging the wheel of an aero rider simply isn’t that advisable. The difference between full force ahead and sliding sideways is very subtle. The tight margin you might keep with keep a group of roadies is just plain dumb in a pack of aero riders. Even with superb bike handling skills there are too many things that can contribute to touching wheels or getting pinched between two cyclists, one swerving from the right and one from the left.
So it’s rather like the one roadie in the bunch has to have the extra etiquette. That sounds crazy since road bikes handle better, but that’s no excuse for cramping the style of a group of aero riders accustomed to wider margins and the basic philosophy of hammer till you drop.
You usually won’t find aero riders rotating pulls in tight sequence. An echelon may or may not form in a crosswind. Aero riders are more accustomed to handling all conditions on their own. Roadies share the pace while aeros lend it, sometimes with interest.
I rode 35 miles with a triathlon group this past weekend and the riding was a blast. A bit less collaborative than a typical group ride, but snappy and fun nonetheless. Because it doesn’t really matter who you ride with when you test your cycling wings flying along on an open road with 10 or more other birds on bikes. Birds of a feather flock together. Even when one’s a roadie.