A technique developed to reduce the effect of a crosswind, a cycling echelon formation can make or break a team‘s tactics on a windy day.
Crosswinds can have remarkable effects on a road race, often producing large time gaps, and resulting in a thrilling watch for the spectators.
Riders often use a formation known as a cycling echelon to deal with the strong horizontal gusts. But what is an echelon, and how does it work?
To get you up to speed, in this article we’ll cover:
- What Is A Cycling Echelon?
- The Science Behind A Cycling Echelon
- 3 Iconic Tour De France Echelons
Ready to jump into our cycling echelon slipstream?
Let’s get started!
What is A Cycling echelon?
When crosswinds hit, a peloton can undergo dramatic splitting, often having an enormous effect on a race’s outcome. But even with the knowledge of the day’s winds and when potential crosswinds might hit, what tactics can a team employ to deal with this?
During a race, cyclists often draft behind each other to seek shelter from the drag imposed on them by a headwind or whilst going at high speeds.
But, in a crosswind, that all-important slipstream can be difficult to find. Instead of the wind resistance coming from directly ahead, it comes at an angle. As a result, the most sheltered position is to the side of the rider ahead, rather than behind.
To take advantage, riders will arrange themselves in an angled line across the width of the road. This is a cycling echelon formation.
The general idea is to place lead riders in downwind positions, to protect them from potential injury, and to reduce drag, while their teammates take the brutal horizontal forces of the crosswind.
Often the cyclists furthest up the echelon will rotate, just like in a regular peloton shape, so that they can exert as much effort as they can before slipping into easier positions in the echelon to recover.
Another tactical element to a cycling echelon is that a team can take advantage of the space limitations by occupying the entire width of the road. This forces those behind them to ride the gutter or form their own echelon further back, often causing gaps between echelons which can be widened over the course of the race.
If they fail to find the slipstream, they’re required to put in all the effort to remain in their position unassisted, which is extremely difficult in strong gusts. Failure to keep up with an echelon is often what causes huge fractures in the peloton.
Crosswinds can be incredibly exciting when you’re watching the Tour from your sofa. But for those involved, it can be very difficult to remain in position if they’re not part of the frontmost echelon, in addition to the increased danger of accidents. This is often the reason why crosswinds can wreak havoc with a team’s tactics and result in surprising time gaps.
The Science behind a cycling echelon
Winds can make an enormous difference in the outcome of a race – and to the formation of the riders. Depending on wind direction, cyclists often use different formations to reduce their drag and gain a tactical advantage over their opponents.
But how does this work?
Sparing the physics lecture, if you’re in a headwind, all of the molecules in the air are traveling in the same direction; straight into your face. With no wind, you’re moving towards the stationary air molecules at a constant speed, and so in this case, they also end up in your face.
Each of these air molecules bounces off your face, body, and bike, exerting a very very small force on you. However, when you add up this force for every single molecule hitting you, it becomes significant and creates resistance, known as drag.
Drag is a cyclist’s worst enemy, accounting for 90% of the total resistance to motion at 30 mph.
When a cyclist moves through laminar flow such as wind, the air behind them gets broken up and becomes turbulent. Here, the air molecules are flying around in different directions, so when another rider cycles in this area, the molecules don’t apply forces in just one direction as they bounce off the rider.
This results in a significantly reduced drag force.
This area behind another rider is called the slipstream, and cycling within the slipstream is known as drafting. Studies show that drafting on even a single rider reduces your drag force by 50%. Those who cycle at the back of a peloton group benefit from a reduction in drag of up to 94%!
In a crosswind, the horizontal wind can even make it difficult to remain on the bike. For this reason, it’s also beneficial for riders to take a formation to reduce this effect for the bulk of the group.
This is where an echelon comes in.
Once again, the laminar flow over the first cyclist is broken up by their body and bike, creating a pocket of turbulent air downstream from the rider. This is the side-on equivalent of a slipstream, and riders hiding in this pocket of broken air will experience significantly less horizontal force, making the riding safer and more efficient.
So in echelon form, the last rider will significantly reduced horizontal force, by hiding in the horizontal slipstream created by the cyclists ahead of them. Through CFD modeling and wind tunnel experiments, it has been found that an echelon of just four riders can reduce the horizontal forces on the last rider by up to 70%.
Clearly, an echelon really does make a huge difference to the resistance experienced by the riders downwind.
3 Iconic Tour De France Echelons
A strong crosswind is a near-guarantee of drama at the Tour de France.
Even the best-laid tactics may be thrown to the wind – so to speak – in the face of hefty horizontal gusts. Here are some especially memorable and iconic instances of crosswinds from the Tour!
#1. Tour de France 2016, Stage 11: Froome and Sagan’s breakaway
On a seemingly innocuous flat day in Montpelier, stage 11 of the 2016 Tour took a memorable turn.
With just under 15 km to go, legendary Classics specialist Fabian Cancellara hit the gas in some very heavy crosswinds after the peloton was split and strung out by a roundabout. The whole peloton was forced into the gutter because Cancellara attacked the right side of the road with the wind coming from the left.
Cancellara’s attack was short-lived, with Tinkoff’s time-trial specialist Maciej Bodnar breaking off the front, and teammate and green jersey-holder Peter Sagan capitalizing by jumping onto his wheel.
In an iconic moment of that year’s Tour, Chris Froome – riding in the yellow jersey – hunted down the breakaway with teammate Geraint Thomas, catching the Tinkoff attackers.
The four riders formed a devastatingly-effective echelon and quickly took 30 seconds out of the disorganized peloton, which had already split into seven chaotic echelons itself.
The breakaway managed to hold their lead to the finish, with Sagan taking the stage win and Froome asserting his dominance over that year’s race – which he would go on to win.
#2. Tour de France 2020, Stage 7: Van Aert’s victory in crosswind chaos
Stage 7 of the 2020 Tour de France was blown apart by crosswinds, resulting in significant time losses for GC favorites.
With 40km to go, Jumbo-Visma and rivals Ineos Grenadiers took advantage of the powerful crosswinds to spark a breakaway echelon, leaving a split that would result in favorites such as Tadej Pogacar losing well over a minute by the end of the day.
The split that was largely perpetrated by Wout Van Aert resulted in a dramatic final 500 m sprint, with NTT’s Boasson Hagen initially leading the sprint. Julian Alaphilippe briefly took the lead before clipping the wheel of Jasper Stuyven.
This left a clear path for Wout Van Aert on the other side, who stormed past the leaders to take the stage.
#3. Tour de France 2009, Stage 3: Civil War at Astana
Stage 3 of the 2009 Tour de France brought a brewing leadership battle between Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador to a head.
Seven-time winner Armstrong had come out of retirement to attempt to win his eighth yellow jersey. However, his teammate Alberto Contador was seen by many as the favorite to win, and there was confusion as to who was the team’s lead rider.
This was made apparent in Stage 3 when a heavy crosswind split the peloton with 35 km to go.
Columbia-HTC dropped the hammer and pushed off the front in a breakaway echelon. They forced the chasing riders into the gutter as they attempted to get on the Columbia riders’ wheels.
Lance Armstrong saw the potential of the attack and managed to get into the echelon, whilst Contador was left behind. Armstrong was pushing to distance himself from his own teammate, whom he was meant to support.
The split persisted until the end with the lead group holding a 40-second lead. This resulted in an overall GC time gap of 19 seconds between Armstrong and Contador, which Armstrong was sure proved his position as the lead rider of Astana.
However, Alberto Contador went on to win the 2009 Tour, and over a decade later spoke of the controversies surrounding him and Lance which led to a “tremendous tension” amongst the team.