The first stage of the 2008 Paris-Nice is in the books and oh! the carnage. With gale force winds and driving rain, race organizers shortened the 115-mile stage to just 58 miles, but Mother Nature still proved that she rules the roads. The 20-30mph crosswinds shattered the field and as every good Belgian knows, if you can't ride in an echelon, it's over, baby.
Echelon riding is probably the most difficult road riding technique to master and there is a whole host of reason why. Unlike riding in a straight, single paceline where you simply follow the wheel in front of you, echeloning takes both concentration and patience. Obviously, the major reason to draft is to shelter yourself from the wind. However, when there is a crosswind, the best place to be relative to the rider in front of you is off to the side. And that sometimes means overlapping the wheel of the rider in front of you, a definite no-no in a single-file pace line.
The key here is to find the best draft. If you are a group of riders intent on putting time into the cyclists behind you such as being in a breakaway, it is the duty of the rider at the front of the echelon to move as far to the right or left side of the road, depending on the direction of the crosswind, so as to allow all the riders in the group to get a draft. One huge mistake that novice riders in an echelon make is to move up behind the leader of the echelon and try using the whole echelon in an attempt to draft. Remember, just like in a single paceline, riders rotate the responsibility at the front and moving up directly behind the leader disrupts the flow.
A perfectly formed echelon looks like a diagonal line across the road, each rider slightly off to one side and slightly back of the rider in front of them. The problem with echelon riding comes when the road isn't wide enough to allow all the riders in the group to fan out and draft. When this happens you have two choices. First off, the riders at the end of the echelon who can't fit can chose to line up, single file, on the last rider in the echelon. This is appropriately called 'riding the gutter' as those last riders are continually jockeying for position on the side of the road sometimes off the pavement.
Unfortunately, this can cause a lot of disruption in the rotation of the echelon the end result being that the cyclists riding in the gutter waste a lot of energy and the smooth flow of the echelon is compromised. If you do find yourself riding in the gutter, one alternative is to convince your fellow gutter-mates to form a second echelon. This is easier said than done and even accomplished pro cyclists have a hard time giving up their hard-won position in the first group to start a second one especially if the majority of the horsepower is driving the first echelon.
That's exactly what happened on Monday in Paris-Nice as a number of the contenders for the overall including Australian Cadel Evans, who finished 2nd to Alberto Contador at last year's Tour de France, found themselves in the wrong echelon and ultimately lost over two minutes in a race where seconds matter. For pros like Evans, missing the front echelon has more to do with positioning in the pack than skill in riding an echelon. For novices, just learning to ride an echelon remember to concentrate and communicate. If you don't know exactly what to do, then ask.