Slimpstreaming behind a random?
November 24, 2009 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Do you think it is rude for Alice (a commuter cyclist) to slipstream behind Bob (another commuter cyclist, who doesn't know Alice)?

By 'slipstreaming' I mean riding in the wind-free pocket behind the lead cyclist. Hope I've got the terminology right - think I've also seen it called 'drafting'.

Does it depend on headwind speed? Length of time? Other factors?

(I tried to frame this a neutral hypothetical. This happened on my morning commute today, but I'm deliberately not revealing whether I was Alice or Bob)
posted by Tapioca to Travel & Transportation (59 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think it's rude personally, as I wouldn't mind if someone rode behind me.
posted by wild like kudzu at 8:36 AM on November 24, 2009

Do you think it is rude for Alice (a commuter cyclist) to slipstream behind Bob (another commuter cyclist, who doesn't know Alice)?

Why, is he using it for something?
posted by hermitosis at 8:39 AM on November 24, 2009 [17 favorites]

It depends on the road conditions. If Bob is likely to brake suddenly, and Alice is so close behind that she is likely to hit him, then yes, it's rude and dangerous. On the open road, with no traffic, maybe not.
posted by beniamino at 8:40 AM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Nope, not unless Alice is stupidly close and putting Bob in jeopardy. Still, it's weird -- it's not like "drafting" on a bike does much for you at commuter speeds.
posted by ellF at 8:40 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I guess it’s kind of rude only because it’s a little disconcerting to have someone maintain their position directly behind you for an extended period of time – the bicycle version of tailgating I guess. As for the drafting, does it really make that much of a difference on your commute?
posted by Think_Long at 8:40 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's no skin off of the nose of the lead bicyclist, energy-wise.

"The rider being drafted also gains a slight advantage. This is explained by the fact that the low pressure behind the lead rider is increased in a pace line, giving the leader a slight "nudge" due to the pressure differential between the high pressure ahead and the low pressure behind. This is why a NASCAR racing car will go 1-2 mph faster when being drafted"

However, there is a safety issue. Alice is too close. If Bob brakes, he could get rear-ended.

I've been a long distance bicycle commuter, and I wouldn't do it to anyone, and it pissed me
off when other people did it to me.
posted by the Real Dan at 8:42 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't like others riding in close quarters with me. If I were the lead cyclist (not likely!), I'd feel you were compromising my safety by riding so close behind me. I might try to break it off or ask you to (with the obvious risk of initiating the collision I'm concerned about).
posted by TruncatedTiller at 8:45 AM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Only with permission - "Hey, I've had one of those days, you mind if I draft you for a mile or so?"
posted by notsnot at 8:47 AM on November 24, 2009

On preview: another vote for rude, but strictly for safety reasons. Commuting != racing (although 70% of the cyclists in Denver can't seem to tell the difference...)
posted by McBearclaw at 8:47 AM on November 24, 2009

As a road cyclist that can do a sub 3 hour 100km pace, I do not want random commuters on crappy bikes with an unknown skill level drafting behind me. The only people I want drafting me are people with a similar level of skill. Anyone that is at least decent enough to take out a UCI cat5 licence and train for 12,000 km a year is probably decently enough skilled to draft me. It is unsafe riding in a stop-and-go urban environment for commuters to draft people they do not know, and at speeds of under 30km/h the benefits are not significant.
posted by thewalrus at 8:48 AM on November 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think it's rude to do so without a) saying something ("Hey, I'm back here, is it ok with you?" or even just a friendly hello) and b) offering to take your turn as lead dog. Otherwise, to me it just seems kind of creepy, like tailgating when there is plenty of room to pass.

And we don't know what kind of commute this is. Commutes in my area can often involve long stretches through back-country roads, so drafting could actually be somewhat useful.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:50 AM on November 24, 2009

I vote for rude - give people their space.
posted by fermezporte at 8:52 AM on November 24, 2009

Yeah, I'd say no-go, without permission at least. I'm fine with drafting on a ride where everyone is of a similar skill, and we're out on open roads, but in city traffic I would be too worried about you B slamming into me if I were A. Likewise, as Bob, I wouldn't even consider doing this on my ride to work.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:52 AM on November 24, 2009

I've had someone pass me on a bike path and then not go faster than me and I drafted them. Was it rude? They put themselves in that position. If Bob sped up, would Alice have matched that? Was it on a path where, except for passing, you ride single file?
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:53 AM on November 24, 2009

What about if it was Bob tagging along right behind Alice? Forget aerodynamics: Bob is a stalking pervert right?

If Bob is being followed the "invasion of personal space" argument is not as strong - but I think it still weighs in a little on the "rude" side.
posted by rongorongo at 8:56 AM on November 24, 2009

It strikes me as kind of rude and maybe a little creepy, the same way trying to sneak under the protection of a stranger's umbrella would be.
posted by FishBike at 8:57 AM on November 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far. Sorry for egregious typo in title.

I was Alice this morning. Have been Bob before now. Now feeling a little guilty for being a free-loader.

My commute covers several miles of bike path, so not stop and go urban traffic by any means.

Maybe its not so much just for the aerodynamic benefits, but also being protected somewhat from the wind and rain? We've been having gale force winds recently with buckets of severe weather warnings.
posted by Tapioca at 8:57 AM on November 24, 2009

The only people I want drafting me are people with a similar level of skill.

Presumably they would not be able to keep up with you? What a strange way to approach your morning commute.
posted by Think_Long at 8:58 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, usually, particularly if Alice isn't reciprocating the action. Why should Bob do all that work just to get tailgated and used? Plus, it can be dangerous if Alice follows Bob too closely if Bob isn't a skilled draft..head(?) and the two could crash.

It would be different if Alice and Bob are both experienced cyclists and see each other daily.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:58 AM on November 24, 2009

A bit rude, I think.

I'm uncomfortable in either position, and will work to avoid it. If I'm in front of a fast rider, I'll let them overtake. Slow? I'll speed ahead. If I'm behind I'll try to pass the slow rider, and I'd rather slow down than tail someone who rides at my speed.

(For what it's worth, my commute is through city streets – although the combination of bridges and good timing means that I can sometimes ride for 3.5 miles without lights, etc.)
posted by mhz at 8:58 AM on November 24, 2009

If conditions are such that there is not going to be frequent/sudden stopping, I don't think it's rude at all.
posted by Durin's Bane at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2009

Drafting a stranger is always rude, unless you ask permission. Open road or busy street.

As for commute riding, drafting is probably really unsafe. Commuters have to watch out for traffic, potholes, bots dots, pedestrians, etc., and someone riding close enough to catch a draft won't be able to see those things. Plus, if you don't know your draftee, they may aim for potholes or cracks just to shake you off.

But if I were Bob, I'd drop Alice just on principle.
posted by Mountain Goatse at 9:00 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I only draft or let draft those who appear to have experience with drafting.

For everyone else, I don't want to intimidate them and I don't want to make myself vulnerable to their sloppy riding. It's just not worth the risk.
posted by randomstriker at 9:00 AM on November 24, 2009

I think we’ve all been Alice and Bob at some point in our lives. Beyond safety and drafting, I just think it’s kind of awkward – especially if your commute is on miles of open roadway. You know when you’re walking down a hallway and a stranger is following just a little too closely? It’s like that, but on wheels.
posted by Think_Long at 9:00 AM on November 24, 2009

Is it always actually drafting? In some cases, I can't reasonably pass the cyclist in front of me -- either no good time to pass or I think they'll maintain my speed or speed up sooner. But I also don't want to slow down much (and put more space between us) if I expect us to naturally separate.

(Also, *grumble* in SF too many cyclists run red lights for no good reason such that even if I do pass them, they will catch up at the light, pass me, run the light and we'll repeat so it's just not worth passing sometimes.)
posted by R343L at 9:03 AM on November 24, 2009

I had a guy draft me on a long bike path, eventually at a stop he said a friendly 'hello' and 'thanks for setting a pace, hope you didn't mind!' Now, that was a nice way to end that and a good look at his face and his demeanor showed me that he meant no harm but as a female cyclist, I really don't like it when a random guy drafts me. I was nervous for two miles. That's bad for my cardio!

Also, it really is unsafe. I only draft with riders that I am comfortable riding with and that I have experience riding with or I know them to be experienced riders comfortable and skilled in a paceline. You can't trust some random commuter to have the same skills as you or to behave in a way that preserves themselves and the random drafter in the event of an obstacle.

However! If you're on the same long stretch of commute and you regularly see the same bikers, make conversation! Ask if you can draft for awhile. Offer to be the puller if you've been drafting. I think there are ways to make this work. But, if you're a guy, it really is better to let women approach in this manner. Sorry, have had many more times the negative interactions with other riders than my husband has had on the same route.
posted by amanda at 9:06 AM on November 24, 2009

Incredibly rude.

My commute covers several miles of bike path

This makes it even worse, there is typically less visibility on a bike path and a random accident is being made potentially much more severe by the tailgater.
posted by rr at 9:07 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, just to clarify for all the people answering this question who seem to have little understanding of bike commuting or drafting: drafting is not really happening in a stop and go situation. That would be called "following" or "following way too closely, idiot." Drafting is most commonly done in a situation with a long stretch of road with few or any obstacles or stops -- say on a bike path or more rural road. You most definitely can maintain a faster speed with less effort when drafting. Typically, you keep your front wheel inches from the lead riders back wheel.
posted by amanda at 9:11 AM on November 24, 2009

rr, what are you even talking about? That is just not true. Perhaps your bike path has little to no visibility? I don't even understand this comment.
posted by amanda at 9:12 AM on November 24, 2009

>> "The only people I want drafting me are people with a similar level of skill."
>Presumably they would not be able to keep up with you? What a strange way to approach your morning commute.

Skill is a function of bike handling rather than speed. Knowing how to be aware of the environment and respond to conditions, knowing how to keep a line, and reacting and interacting with other cyclists require practice and skill. If you don't have the skill, you don't necessarily know it, and you can't tell if the other rider does.

In addition, drafting at commuter speeds requires the bikes be considerably closer together than drafting at racing speeds, which means even better handling and cooperation are required. And unlike in a race, the draftee might not know how to ride with somebody on their tail. Cyclists in a race are on a course closed to traffic and among riders who fully expect to draft or be drafted, whether for cooperative or competitive reasons. Cyclists on a commute are in a totally different situation.

But I think the best reason to not draft strangers is simply because you're intruding on their personal space. If you want to draft somebody, ask.
posted by ardgedee at 9:19 AM on November 24, 2009

there is typically less visibility on a bike path


rr, what are you even talking about? That is just not true. Perhaps your bike path has little to no visibility? I don't even understand this comment.

Some bike paths wind a lot (esp. in hilly areas), which makes obstacles up ahead harder to watch for.
posted by urbanlenny at 9:27 AM on November 24, 2009

If Alice is matched with Bob with similar skills, then it's not rude. But she should take her turn pulling.

I have a long stretch on a bike trail on my commute, and it's not uncommon for people to draft each other. You can usually tell who's okay with this by how much lycra they're wearing. I've had people speed up and drop me, and I've been behind riders who have thoughtfully signaled road obstacles, indicated that they're going to drift left to pass someone else, or pulled over to spit without splattering me.

Don't draft if the person in front seems oblivious to other riders or is too aggressive. Don't draft if the path or road is too crowded, or back off when there's a need to. Don't take your turn at the front on the downhills only. Don't ride a little off to the side with your front wheel overlapping the other rider's rear wheel--either be alongside or behind, but not both. If you start to overtake, slow down by drifting to the side to catch more headwind instead of using the brakes. Do watch the road ahead of the lead rider and be prepared to react to what they have to react to; use your peripheral vision to monitor the wheel you're following.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Daily bike commuter here. I do not think it's rude, but then again I don't draft super-close to people. I usually keep at least a meter between me and someone else which maybe isn't much drafting but it does feel easier. Typically I only do it when I can catch someone but am not really going fast enough to pass them quickly. I think that in biking nearly every work day this year I've only done it once or twice.

I also only do it on roads. I wouldn't draft on a path or trail - either pass them or stay a few meters back at a reasonable speed.

Some people obviously do group rides and do not mind being drafted. The people who are making hand signals even when there's no one around on nice road bikes wearing lycra don't seem to mind at all and quite possibly pity my mountain bike with fenders and a rack.
posted by GuyZero at 9:39 AM on November 24, 2009

Well if you're Bob, and you don't like it, it's a great time to get those loud farts out.
posted by Askr at 9:54 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

i would draft. if convenient, i'd ask permission, but i think if someone doesn't want you to draft off them, they have ways of letting you know.

in fact, just a week or so ago, i was passed by a woman clad in spandex. i quickly drafted off of her for about 1-2 miles, wondering if she was okay with it. when we got to a place where drafting wouldn't have been appropriate, she actually flashed me a hand signal (kind of a low down brushing) that told me to back off. i did, but i was planning to anyway. if she had flashed that earlier, i would have immediately dropped away.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2009

Rude without asking

Skill level doesn't only include keeping the pace, but reacting in time to stop or get out of the way.
The bike paths we have hear are clear and have pretty good visibility....until you have a deer bound in front of you or see the big snake sunning itself at the last minute. I wouldn't want someone so close to me on what should be as stress free of an trip as possible.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2009

I'll always try to shift or break to make some noise so that they're aware of my presence, and then I'll shout, "Hey there, mind if I draft for a bit?" Usually, it's not problem.

Also, let's all make sure to differentiate between drafting on open roads and paths for the sake of some extra speed or some less work, and following closely in traffic so as to be as safe as possible around motorists. If I'm approaching a busy intersection and I see that there's another cyclist, I'll always vary my speed accordingly so that we'll both be coordinated through traffic.
posted by TurkishGolds at 10:20 AM on November 24, 2009

I find this weird and off-putting. My reaction would be along the lines of "honey, this ain't the Tour, gimme some room to breathe."

Exceptions: Someone says "hey, I'm back here, is this okay?" or similarly, if with a group "hey, okay if I join?"
posted by desuetude at 10:44 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems rude to me to expect someone else to help you without asking them if that's OK or not, irrespective of what the situation is.
posted by Solomon at 10:58 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am not an avid biker but occasionally like to go on long bike rides in the park along the lakefront here in Chicago.

A couple years ago I was on a long ride and glanced behind me at one point to see some strange foreign looking guy about half a foot behind my rear wheel. I thought he was waiting to pass and when I looked back he was still there.

I was kind of weirded out but kept going for a bit and noticed after several more minutes that he was still there. I pulled over suddenly and he stopped as well and I asked what the hell he was doing. He explained he was drafting and asked if I was ok with it to which I responded "fuck no."

Assuming that the person you are drafting is not only familiar with it but ok with it is a big leap. And depending on the situation the person you are drafting could think you might be an attacker who might rape them (far-fetched I know, but within the realm of rationalization here). Not only can you cause an accident if they were to stop short, but you could cause one by making them uncomfortable and thus distracting them.

Don't ever do it again without asking permission first.
posted by Elminster24 at 11:04 AM on November 24, 2009

Man, you people are weird. I commute 10 miles a day on a bike trail and I never have a problem with someone drafting me, nor does anyone appear to have a problem when I draft them. I usually ask if I can draft someone but it isn't a big deal. Since we don't know each others' skill levels we always leave at least a yard for emergency maneuvering room. People are pretty good at giving hand signals when necessary. Getting upset because someone is benefiting from your backdraft is pretty silly, although I would feel uncomfortable if someone of unknown skill level was drafting within a foot of my rear wheel.
posted by ChrisHartley at 11:18 AM on November 24, 2009

"Especially if you're "some strange foreign looking guy"."

I can't tell if you were mocking me there, however lets just be real here for a second. I'm biking along on a fairly secluded part of the path in an unfamiliar area on the South Side (where I've never biked to before this incident) and there is hardly anybody around. This guy looked somewhat threatening and guess what, the reality is I probably wouldn't have been as freaked out if he were a middle-aged white woman.

I'm sure this makes me a horrible person but that's just how I perceived it and possibly how others would perceive it as well.
posted by Elminster24 at 11:19 AM on November 24, 2009

I'm a cyclist. Drafting in itself doesn't strike me as rude, although it is rude not to take point once in a while, and rude not to acknowledge the person who's riding point—but that's just general etiquette, and has nothing to do with cycling in particular.

The responses people have to this situation seem to break roughly based on whether the hypothetical point rider is a cyclist or not.
posted by adamrice at 11:20 AM on November 24, 2009

In general, I would view somebody drafting behind me as bad form, for safety reasons - I don't care at all about their having to work less. Granted, it's more dangerous to be the drafter, because if wheels touch, chances are the trailing cyclist will go down rather than the lead. Still, I'm commuting and sometimes I make a phone call (on a bike path), or vary my speed suddenly, or sit up, or do other unpredictable things, and I would not want to feel like I have to avoid that kind of maneuver knowing that I had someone behind me.

That said, it's probably not an absolute rule - depending on wind and road conditions, local habits and customs, and my personal assessment of the other cyclist (whether they generally look experienced, or whether I recognize them from previous commutes), I could see feeling okay with letting someone draft me. I can't see doing it myself, however, under any conditions - just too risky.
posted by chinston at 11:23 AM on November 24, 2009

Also, if you're biking below 20 mph or 30kph, don't bother drafting. I mean, that's not even that fast for "real" cyclists. If you're just toodling along it's not a real energy savings anyways.
posted by GuyZero at 11:25 AM on November 24, 2009

Also, if you're biking below 20 mph or 30kph, don't bother drafting. I mean, that's not even that fast for "real" cyclists. If you're just toodling along it's not a real energy savings anyways.

Is this true even when there's a strong headwind? Last week saw winds of 70-80mph here.
posted by Tapioca at 11:32 AM on November 24, 2009


Okay, in winds of 70-80 mph I would probably not be on my bike. In fact, I was going to say that bad weather at a certain point becomes more of a reason not to draft, say if you've got gusting winds that can blow a bike around or driving rain that makes for bad visibility.
posted by chinston at 11:38 AM on November 24, 2009

As a road cyclist that can do a sub 3 hour 100km pace, I do not want random commuters on crappy bikes with an unknown skill level drafting behind me.

If you're getting tailed at ~20mph by a commuter with a crappy bike, full saddlebags and business attire, I think you can make a few assumptions about their skill level.

As for me, I figure if you can keep up you can draft, and if you can't get away from me, I can draft.
posted by skintension at 12:06 PM on November 24, 2009

Drafting in itself isn't rude, esp in a commuter environment, where lights and traffic bunch you together, but it's kind of annoying to have someone right up your arse. However, I have real beef with men who draft me when I'm out training (I'm female). Nothing creepier than some guy you don't know sat behind you, saying nothing for miles.
posted by poissonrouge at 12:09 PM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

As long as you swap the lead every now and then... on my 19 km commute, there are a couple of other cyclists in my time slot. Even tho we never exchange more than "hi!" you kind of know the posse.
What's a way stronger factor than drafting is racing -- I'm going to get home first! Yes, this is a stupid bloke thing. Riding with two is faster because we race. Alone, no wind: 33 km/h, with another (fast enough) cyclist: 36 km/h. I enjoy that.

Drafting does not work as well anyway as I'm on a recumbent. Me != a good Bob.
posted by gijsvs at 1:23 PM on November 24, 2009

My husband's a regular commuting cyclist, logging about 125 miles a week, and he says it's fine as long as you ask first. Doing it without asking is kind of like reading the newspaper over someone's shoulder on the subway. If nothing else, the drafted cyclist needs to know that someone is back there.
posted by KathrynT at 1:32 PM on November 24, 2009

Its not true even if there isn't a strong headwind. My partner and I ride together a lot at a leisurely pace of 12 to 16 mph and I can feel a difference being in front and behind. In front I have to pedal constantly; in back I don't. Same speed both places. We don't ride that close, one to two bike lengths apart. According to this study, the drafting benefit declines quickly the farther you move away from the front bike, but is still significant at 2 bike lengths.

If you don't ride closer than a bikelength or so, and don't do it for more than a few minutes or so without offering to switch, I don't see the problem. I bike commute 12 miles roundtrip everyday.
posted by GregorWill at 1:39 PM on November 24, 2009

I'd feel crowded and as if I had to maintain a certain pace if someone were lurking directly behind me. And because I'm not actually a serious cyclist, that would freak me out.

But all these "the damn moocher!" responses seem stereotypically American to me. Trying to assert ownership of the backdraft that you've created and then parcel it off only to deserving parties? Really now...
posted by greekphilosophy at 5:38 PM on November 24, 2009

if someone's drafting you and you don't like it, just slow down. if there's room to pass, reasonable people will pass. Unreasonable people are unreasonable regardless.
posted by GuyZero at 5:39 PM on November 24, 2009

wow... a lot of responses..

the answer however, is "rude"... let the person have some peace... or establish a relationship and make it consensual...
posted by HuronBob at 5:43 PM on November 24, 2009

Rude AND unsafe. Bob doesn't have any idea of the riding experience of Alice. As most regular riders know, anything can happen to make you brake suddenly. Whether its a vehicle, an animal, mechanical failure on Bob's bike or whatever, Bob could put the brakes on a big, big hurry and that could put the safety of both cyclists in jeopardy. I know that I wouldn't want someone else's front wheel going over top of me just because they didn't know I was going to do that ( stop suddenly). Plus maybe, just maybe, Bob likes riding alone!
posted by Taurid at 11:42 PM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

We actually discussed this on the (fairly large) cycling forum at work recently. The general consensus was that - it depends, so you should ask and be prepared for a rejection. If you are Bob and you don't want them to draft, you should give Alice a chance to get ahead and NOT draft on her (unless you mentioned that when she asked). Many people object to being drafted, perhaps because they are not confident of their own skill level, of your skill level, or of your threat level (last one seems to mostly come up for a woman being drafted).
posted by jacalata at 1:44 AM on November 25, 2009

Not that I've come across anyone on my commute that wanted to draft me, but I'd be fine with it. Especially if I was on my hybrid I would be quite the windbreak.

But, since everyone is different and some people would mind why not just ask first? Plus, it is safer - Bob will know you are back there and ride/signal accordingly. You probably would have been quite surprised drafting me the first year I rode because while my speed was pretty good I had never ridden with a group and there were fair odds I would have surprised you with some sort of move that people with drafting experience know to avoid.
posted by mikepop at 6:26 AM on November 25, 2009

I used to get drafted all the time in London. So many cyclists on my route it was hard to avoid. In those days I was strong, so tended to be in front. I didn't mind - nice to be able to do a stranger a small favor, really - and if they could hold the line of my wheel and keep up they had enough skill, so not a worry. Never had a problem in many years, so maybe it's one of those things that seems more dangerous to some folks than it really is.
posted by normy at 10:48 PM on November 25, 2009

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