Drafting and Group Riding

I thought I would post a thread on the subject of drafting and riding in groups which I think is still fairly new to unicyclists. It’s been discussed a few times but I don’t think there is a specific thread for it.

With the upcoming Ride The Lobster Race, as well as organised tours like The Uninam Unitour, I think we need to learn how to ride more efficiently. It’s not just about going fast, it’s more fun if you don’t have to work so hard :stuck_out_tongue: .

Anyway, as a bicyclist, you gain advantage from riding in the slipstream of the bicyclist in front. It’s more noticeable at high speeds, but even at the lower speeds that unicyclists ride at (eg 20-25km/hr) you can still gain quite an large effect.

I think we tend underestimate the effect because we’re not used to drafting. Some of the reasons that the drafting effect is actually bigger than you realise are:

  1. if you have a headwind, then it effectively magnifies the speed that you travel at. You don’t need to ride at 50kmhr to get the slipsteam effect if there is a stiff headwind.
  2. unicyclists generally are less aerodynamic than bikes- your frontal profile is much larger. Therefore the effect of the lead rider of a unicycle is much higher than it would be if you were drafting a bicycle.
  3. unicycles have a shorter wheelbase compared to bikes. So the effect is that you are riding closer together compared to bikes if you kept your wheels the same distance apart.

The commonly held reasons people are put off riding in groups are:

  1. Risk of UPD’s taking down the group. Well, this holds for bikes also and bikes generally tend to go at much higher speeds so a crash get’s a lot more messy. And there are more things to get tangled up in. As long as you are not riding over you limit and you look past the cyclist in front, I think with practice most people can ride safely in close formation.
  2. It’s not worth the effort. As I mentioned before, I think the effect is much greater than most people realise (see reasons above). From my experience it’s almost as noticeable as riding in a bike peleton.

Any thoughts?

The only time I’ve ever tried slipstreaming on a unicycle was on a muni weekend last year when a group of us were riding fast into a strong headwind. We used the normal bike technique of taking turns at the front then dropping to the back. We really only did it for fun, but it did seem to make a difference even at that speed.

To do it at coker speed on the road you’d REALLY have to trust the other riders - but having said that, I don’t like riding in groups on a bike either, that’s why I was always a time-triallist :slight_smile:


I think you can also get a draft off a bike too, which can be useful. At Manchester to Blackpool, where there were tons of bikes around, when Sam and I were off the front riding flat out, I used bikes a couple of times just to give me a tow back to where Sam was. I was on the Schlumpf, riding low, which makes me not much higher than a biker, which might help too.

I’m not sure about the shorter wheelbase making a difference, drafting on bikes is usually described in terms of multiples of the length of the vehicle in front, ie. you need to stay within 20% of the bike in front’s length to get a decent draft. I dunno if there’s a physics reason for that, or if it’s just a handy calculation that happens to work for bikes with 700c tyres?

As far as crashing goes, I think there are a lot of unicyclists who ride way beyond their limits. I know I’m happy riding right behind some riders like Sam, Roger, John H, who I know aren’t going to fall off whilst riding on the road at my sort of speeds, but tons of riders push it too hard, and do have crashes. I think toeclips help a lot with this predictability, both because they keep your feet secure when you’re riding really fast, and also as a signifier of someone’s skill level because they require a certain level of confidence before you can ride with them without breaking yourself.

The only downside of drafting in small groups, is that you tend to do it in single file, so don’t have so much time to chat with people. If we could get decent sized groups of fast riders, and rotate in two lines, that’s much more sociable, but I know it isn’t that common to have that big a group of similar speed riders.

I think the effect isn’t quite as large generally as biking, the only times I’ve felt drafting to be really advantageous is when riding with people of similar speed, whereas on a bike, I can ride with people much fitter than me as long as I hang on in the middle of the bunch somewhere and don’t take too many turns on the front.


me and my friend and my little brother were messing around with it and it works semi good to us but then again we werent exactly stream line perfect either…

I believe it could have a big effect, although it makes me nervous to think about it. Especially the pressure I’d feel as the lead rider not to fall (see sig line). On the flip side, the only riders I’d trust to not wipe out in front of me are folks like Nathan and Irene and JC that I can’t generally keep up with anyway.

That said, I’ve had bikes draft of of me before. In last year’s MS Bike Tour ride, there was a particularly nasty stretch of flats with a side-head wind coming in from about 30 degrees off center. At one point one of the women riders pulled up in my wind shadow and hung there for a couple of miles. I told her I wouldn’t be going very fast, but she was grateful to have what amounted to a one-wheeled wall blocking the headwind for a while.

The drafting benefit for unicyclists would probably be similar to the drafting benefit for marathon runners. The speed is about the same and the body position and exposure to the wind is about the same for each.

I’m not a runner. How much of a benefit do marathon runners get in drafting off of other runners? You’d also have to run very close to the person in front of you to get in any draft, almost stepping on the heels of the person in front. If someone has experience with drafting while running that would be useful info for this discussion.

In my experience in road bicycling it wasn’t worth it to try to draft at speeds less than 17ish mph. At the slower speeds the draft effect isn’t very strong. You also have to factor in the mental effort (attention) and risk of drafting behind another cyclist very closely. Add in a headwind, however, and drafting at slower speeds can become much more beneficial.

At slower speeds the advantage to riding in a group or a small pack is pacing. The person in front sets the pace and everyone else just follows and keeps the same pace. It is easier to follow than to constantly think about the pace. The person in front has to stay alert to keeping a steady pace. They have to worry about what the people behind them are doing strategy-wise. It is not easy to keep a steady pace. It is easy to gradually slow down a bit and not realize it. So the person in front has to keep more aware to set the proper pace. The people behind just get to follow and bide their time. The advantage of being paced by other riders is more psychological and not so much physical.

In bicycling the drafting effect gets stronger the longer the paceline is. The person 5 riders back gets more of a draft effect than the person right behind the lead rider. The person 5 riders back can still get a good draft effect farther back from the rider in front of them because the size and strength of the air pocket is bigger. You don’t have to worry about following as closely. If you fall back a foot or two you are still in the draft and can easily catch up with the wheel in front of you. That’s my experience with bicycling. I’m going to assume you get a similar advantage with longer or larger pacelines while unicycling.

I’ve never drafted while unicycling. For one, it’s not my style of Coker riding (speed isn’t my thing). But I’m also not confident in my riding sills at the higher Coker speeds (and the riding skills of others) to ride closely enough to draft.

At Coker speeds for most Coker riders I think the biggest advantage to “drafting” would be the pacesetting aspect. You get the benefit of someone else concentrating on pace. You just get to follow as long as you have the endurance to do so. To be paced you don’t have to follow as closely as you need to in drafting. Less danger. Less risk. Minimal actual drafting benefit.

in running you only really notice it in a head wind. but you are right about it being mental. if someone is setting the pace you can allow your mind to go blank and just run. or um i mean unicycle

ok, to answer (VERY GENERALLY) the physics of it question, think of the person in front of you as a boat, you are the skier, where are you in their wake? i don’t know the specifics, so correct me if im wrong, but the optimum point can be found with physics. i think it would be about 1 ft behind the rider…lol, or you could be something like 5 feet i don’t know that much about aerodynamics, but i do know that it leaves cyclones,if you could get in the right part of one of those it would make a big difference

I have drafted my coker behind a bike recently and I definately notice that in a headwind it helps a lot when i unicycled the San Juan Islands this last week (well I unicycled everyone else biked) I would draft with a few of them on flats but noticed such a difference that I really didn’t want to attempt it on a downhill, the only time I took the lead position was when the other guys wanted to go a bit slower…

I’m keen to enter the Ride The Lobster Race. I have a Nimbus 36" now, and I have a sponsor to help me get to Canada. I don’t have much Coker fitness yet but I will work on it. In the context of the Ride the Lobster race, would we really want to let people draft us? We want to WIN!!! Haha. And since the race is in teams of three, with one rider riding at a time, you would be drafting your competitors. We plan to be in the front, so we will have to try and get as far out ahead as possible to prevent the slow laggers trying to get a free ride drafting behind us.

I’ve had very little experience drafting, not enough to have noticed anything. But when riding into a strong headwind it is always nice to be passed closely by a big truck going fast cos you feel a pull forwards before slogging into the wind again. We might be able to get our support vehicles to provide some wind breaks if it is not against the rules.

The problem with attitudes like that, is that by not drafting, and riding off in front of the group, you are using far more energy than all the other riders. You might be able to pull off the group temporarily, but the riders who are in the group can just ride at a decent pace together, taking turns on the front, and using much less energy, until you get tired, at which point the whole group will overtake you. I hear that’s why a couple of the very fast riders at the last unicon, who have previously come top 5 multiple times in the longer races didn’t come anywhere in the top 5 in the marathon, because the riders who came in the first 6 were willing to cooperate during much of the race, meaning that they got much better positions than the lone riders who weren’t willing to cooperate.

The important thing here is cooperation, it isn’t just one person on the front all the time, you change over the front rider as they get tired. This enables the bunch to average a much higher pace than a single rider could ever do, because if you’re in a bunch of 5, you’re only riding flat out 1/5 of the time, the rest of the time you’re chilling out, sipping a beer, putting your legs up (at least relative to the amount of effort you’re putting in when on the front). So even though the bunch is stacked full of your ‘enemies’, you all know you have to help each other because not helping means that you’ll end up dropped off the bunch and getting a much worse time.

The other important thing about drafting, is that you aren’t just giving the person behind a free ride. Thanks to bizarro aerodynamics, the rider in front actually gets a benefit from having the riders close behind. It’s weird, but it’s true. You can even feel it if you start to pull off the front of a peleton on a bike, it becomes harder to keep ahead, and you really have to go for it to get away.

For anyone who hasn’t done any, it’d be worth reading up a bit about road racing (or having a go if you happen to have a two wheeled bike), as the whole cooperating whilst competing thing is basically what road riding is about. I think for Ride the Lobster, the pace will be pretty high up the front, probably something around 17-18mph or so typically, which personally I think is well into the speeds where drafting makes sense, especially high up on a coker, and/or into a headwind.


I think it’s more significant than that. I’d say a top unicylist would average about 5km/hr faster than a top marathon runner over the same (marathon) distance. ie 25km/hr vs 20km/hr. There is also the extra mass of the unicycle wheel whipping up the air underneath you.

Rowan, it’s good to hear you’ll be coming to RTL next year! We’d have a pretty fast team with you onboard. But I’d take note of what Joe says- it’s easier in a group. Who’s your (rather generous) sponsor?

just a (may be stupid) side note: I was wondering if it were possible
that with two unicyclists riding (one in front of the other) it could be possible that both grab a stick that links them together :o
the idea being: drafting + gain in balance … may be this is an impossible stunt

Personally, I don’t think drafting should be permitted in RTL. It’s not that I don’t think there are benifits, because there certainly are, but I think it’s a huge liability.

Since it’s a race, people will already be pushing there limits. There WILL be high-speed UPDs, and I’d hate to see the pile ups caused by this. The risk of injury would be dramatically higher.

Maybe in non-competitive group riding with highly competent riders, but even then I think there’s a danger.

Being as close behind them as possibe would be best, the quesiton is if you can get close enough for the affect to be worthwhile, and the trade-off of better drafting versus more concentration required and bigger chance of stacking, not how far behind is aerodynaically optimal.

I think banning drafting would be silly, like some triathlons, where there’s no drafting allowed, and they have all manner of complex rules to detect when someone is drafting and what you have to do to be passed, which just confuse things.

In biking, it also removes much of the tactical element of road riding, and turns it into just one big long time trial, which is all well and good, but doesn’t have the same depth of interest and complexity that proper racing has.

About people pushing their limits and crashing, that’s always a possibility. However, it is in your interests not to be pushing your limits too far, as a crash loses you way way more time than just riding a little bit slower would.

People crash in racing, it’s just a fact, when I’ve seen it it’s been when overtaking, trying to get that little bit of extra speed. I’ve been right behind someone when they fell off, and you just have to try and avoid it as well as you can. It’s all part of tactics, seeing if the person in front is safe to ride behind. I don’t think drafting is much more dangerous than simply overtaking, or chasing people down generally, and it’d be stupid to ban those.

One other thing is, in anything other than a straight head/tail wind, you’ll likely want to be slightly to one side of them, which means that you can often pass someone in the event of a fall.


I really hope I can make it. I’ve got to get myself a passport and stuff and they might think I am a terrorist with my criminal drug convictions, but if I can pass those obstacles there is a good chance I could enter. I was joking a bit about the not letting people draft- just playing. My generous sponsor is Jake Sole, my long standing best friend. He helped me when my unicycle got stolen and gave me $500 to get myself a 29er to keep me on the road. I took so long to pay him back that when I did the Round Lake Taupo race he decided to release me of the debt for my effort and achievement. Jake is living in Australia and his ability to attain money is currently greater than mine, but with unicycling taking off in New Plymouth I am working teaching unicycling and eventually I should be able to sponsor myself for expensive things.

Drafting, whether on a bicycle or a unicycle requires skill and trust. Two variables that I don’t think many at RTL will have. I’m not saying the riders aren’t skilled at riding, most are, but since most of us don’t get the opportunity to ride in groups on a regular basis where drafting becomes “second nature” we will not have that skill developed to the point where the riders can fully trust each other. Before you choose to draft off someone you need the absolute confidence that the rider in front of you can ride reasonably straight and at a constant speed. The following distance necessary to obtain a good draft is such that the proximity is so close that when the lead rider slows down all the following riders will bump and likely crash. Since unicyclist don’t have brakes that they can apply quickly when such an emergency occurs this will make safe drafting even more difficult. I think, for safety reasons a two rider draft is do-able for a long distance but more riders than that will intoduce problems.

I hope to be at RTL but since I don’t know the skill level of each rider I doubt I’d put myself in the position of being in a draft of more than two or three unicyclists. If I were riding each segment with my team who I’ve had the opportunity to practice drafting and am confident in each riders ability, I’d draft with them all day long.

Are the Hoovers drafters?

On the 160 km Lake Tahoe ride in June I noticed that Nathan stayed really close behind his son Beau. Was he drafting, or was Beau pulling his dad around the lake? :slight_smile:

Yes I’ve noticed that those two often ride right on each others wheel. I’m sure the Hoovering effect is greatest with this duo (bad pun intended).