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On my commute to work, if there a cyclist in front of me, is it rude to catch up and draft? To effectively draft I would usually need to be within a foot of their back wheel.

There are two situations:

Trainers There is one part of the commute that is often used by individuals and groups of riders who seem to be training rather than commuting. Generally I would draft these guys if I can sprint to catch them. As they are going quicker than I can sustain, I never take a turn at the front.

Commuters I think any fellow commuter is probably ok to draft and if they slow down enough I'll take a turn at the front.

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I ultimately think it depends on where you're drafting. Around here there are established bike paths that are just for cyclist. So when I drafting - I tend to only do it there. Safer since there aren't cars to contend with. Safety first. – Marco Ceppi Sep 8 '11 at 12:52
Whatever answer, that is one reason why bicycling, even being an individual vehicle, is indeed a collective mode of transportation, since such level of iterpersonal interaction and cooperation is impossible while driving. I think that, when done respecfully, drafting can even be a way to find new friends. – heltonbiker Sep 8 '11 at 14:30
I would find this rude (and it's happened to me), but I think the real question here isn't whether it's rude to draft without permission, but whether it's safe to do so. – Neil Fein Sep 8 '11 at 18:09
Based on the responses, your question appears to be chatty and open-ended. What's the real core question you're trying to answer? "Should I draft while commuting", "Can I draft while commuting", "How can I draft while commuting"? – freiheit Sep 8 '11 at 18:19

11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

There was a post on this subject on The Guardian Bike Blog.

I think there are a couple of issues with drafting random cyclists:

  • it could be unsafe, particularly if they don't realise you're doing it.
  • some people will object to being drafted - it can be considered an invasion of your personal space.

I think your best bet is to ask before drafting, then there's no problem.

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The problem with asking is that there's generally no good way to do this. You can't generally pull up alongside and carry on a conversation, and something like a simple "On your wheel!" is unlikely to be understood by those most likely to object. – Daniel R Hicks Sep 8 '11 at 12:29
And a 'discussion' of the Guardian article on Bike Snob NYC.. conclusion: Don't do it! – pelms Sep 8 '11 at 12:57
Completely agree with this. If someone came up behind my wife and started "drafting" her they'd probably get pepper-sprayed. – kekekela Sep 8 '11 at 18:03
You can't pull up alongside and have a conversation with other cyclists? As someone who does this frequently, this is news to me. – Stephen Touset Sep 8 '11 at 21:54

This is a potential minefield. If someone's on my wheel, to be honest I don't care. I prefer not to draft when commuting - I know the state of most of the roads I regularly use and I want decent visibility of the surface and other road users; it's a commute, not a heads-down speed session, so a few extra seconds at a lower speed is of little consequence.

Taking over at the front needs careful thought to, especially to make sure that it doesn't look like you're cutting in or, in my case, suddenly blocking me from taking the line I want - not everyone wants you to 'take a turn'.

There are enough dangers on the commute in busy traffic that drafting is probably dangerous, if not rude, if they are random others.

There are some further thoughts and interesting comments in this recent article.

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Yeah, it's a touchy situation. Some won't mind it at all, some won't notice (and will therefore make hazardous moves), some will silently seethe, and some will get downright nasty.

When I was a regular commuter I would draft occasionally when the cyclist ahead of me was obviously a skilled one (ie, all the right clothes, fancy bike, etc) -- though, to be honest, in most of those cases I couldn't keep up anyway. I wouldn't usually draft someone in street clothes on their Huffy (even though I could keep up with those).

On organized rides I'm a little more likely to take advantage of drafting, though one must be careful there since often riders in a group behave dumbly as they chit-chat.

(And I'll admit that I lower my standards a fair amount in a strong headwind.)

[I'll add that I'm talking here about drafting on straight bike trails and lightly-traveled rural roads. Drafting in heavy traffic or in a "downtown" road layout is ill-advised at best.]

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I'd be more concerned about safety that etiquette.

When in a bike group and drafting behind someone who knows you are there, they are much more likely to keep a good lookout for road debris and other obstacles and smoothly adjust their line/path in order to not screw the drafting person over.

If I'm by myself (or am unaware of anyone drafting behind me) a lot of the time I dodge stuff with my tires at the last second. Most of the time I cut it close enough that if someone was behind me they wouldn't have time to react and would end up running over a lot of road debris.

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Drafting/pace-lining is great but you really have to ask FIRST. After that it is a question of trust and knowing your own skill as well as the other rider(s).

I think we can all agree, however, that starting to draft somebody without notifying them is a definite breach of etiquette and safety.

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I end up having to evaluate this on a rider-by-rider basis.

Typically if I've caught up to someone, then I'm going faster anyway, so I'll just pass them and keep my own pace. If someone passes me, then I try to keep up...

Sometimes you see a guy on a high-end bike, who is obviously skilled, and is constantly pedaling and varying his effort for slopes (as opposed to pedal, coast, pedal, coast)... These people are usually OK with it.

If they start drafting you after you pass, and they eventually re-pass you, then its game-on. I don't mind leap-frogging back and forth taking turns drafting, and the person in front basically trying to loose the tail. It makes otherwise boring rides more fun.

Some people really want nothing to do with it, and you can usually tell because they will suddenly increase their pedaling effort to loose you, instead of maintaining pace.

Typically though, I'll come up to someone, or as someone is passing me, say 'hi' and try to make conversation if the speed difference isn't too great, or we get stopped at the same intersection. If they aren't willing to say 'hi' back or just nod and ride on... they probably don't care for you drafting off them.

The one time I really don't care is when I'm out on my hardtail mtn bike, and a road biker passes me. I'll draft and keep up with them for a couple hundred yards purely to annoy them that a mountain bike is pacing with them ;)

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Drafting behind a group that's already in a paceline is one thing, but drafting behind some random commuter is a great way to get into a wreck.

A random commuter isn't going to necessarily know to (or want to be compelled to) inform you when he/she is slowing or needing to make a sudden movement. And are you really getting any benefit whatsoever from drafting behind someone going 15mph? What's the point?

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Commuting 35 miles each day from St Albans to Wood Green for 2 years I never had anyone complain about drafting. It was generally seen as normal.

Near everyone I came across on the commute would want to race and drafting was just part of that, trying to keep up with the guy in front. I never found it to be dangerous as you can only really do it on the open road. In heavy traffic you're filtering and just getting through is challenge enough.

Of course, all of these riders are skilled, experienced cyclists. I've even had a few guys say thanks for the challenge or make "better luck next time" comments.

All in all, it's part of the sport in my opinion.

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That is a good commute - do you go straight down the A5 or something? – ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Sep 8 '11 at 12:03
St Albans, Colney Heath, South Mimms, Barnet (through the park), Colney Hatch Lane, Ally Pally, Wood Green. It's just over 18 miles each way. – badbod99 Sep 8 '11 at 13:10
Sounds interesting, just wondered if you were able to take the dead straight Roman road door to door.. – ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Sep 8 '11 at 15:10

I would call this behavior rude and dangerous outside of an organized ride or a small group that rides together often and expects it.

Cyclists should be taught how to handle drafting, similarly to how auto drivers are taught to handle tailgaters. (It'd be nice if cyclists were taught how to ride at all.) However, this is not the case: Cyclists are taught how to stay upright and, if we're lucky, that they should obey traffic laws. The reality of the situation at present is that cyclists don't expect this and don't know how to handle it.

When you draft someone, it's so they can take some of the wind. Would you walk up to a random pedestrian and hand them your shopping bags? Of course not. Drafting someone without their permission is similar behavior. Drafting is normal and expected in, say, a pace line, or when riding with a friend, but not on the roads with a random cyclist. But I think there needs to be at least an expectation that it will happen.

Also: In general, when drafting, it's assumed that you'll take a turn at the front. If you can't sustain somebody's pace for long, don't ask to draft them, and certainly don't do it without asking.

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Does drafting a rider slow that rider down? – WW01 Sep 9 '11 at 0:06
auto drivers are taught how to handle tailgaters? Never seen this. – Rory Alsop Sep 15 '11 at 8:41
Sure, we learned in drivers' ed. We were told to tap the brakes very gently if we feel it's safe, or to wave them around. At the very least, any driving school or program should teach students that tailgating is dangerous and should be avoided. – Neil Fein Sep 15 '11 at 14:24
Your shopping bag comparison is unfair: drafting someone does not cost that person any energy. Other issues are more relevant, like safety and personal space. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 21 '12 at 21:06
@Torben - Considering that riders in a group take turns pulling, there's either an energy cost to the person pulling, or people think there is; either way, it's rude. Would be willing to listen to data showing this hit in energy is negligible, however. – Neil Fein Aug 22 '12 at 1:19

Really this question is 'chatty' and therefore doomed to be closed, however...

No it is not rude!

Drafting should be taught at school as part of a Cycling Proficiency Test so that some conventions are established. This would encourage people to cycle together, taking turns up front and doing so more efficiently. Elbow twitches to get the guy behind to take a turn need to be an accepted convention and ladies not wanting a 'crafty drafter' behind them should be able to use this if they are not happy with whomever is following them.

Every time you draft someone that thinks it is rude you are helping to break down their 'hostile' attitude. The truth is that one should be flattered to be drafted, particularly if you are old, with a rubbish bike or carrying loads of stuff. Drafting goes on, whether you like it or not, and the reality has to be lived with. If you really do not want to be drafted you could always put a big sticker on the back of your seat saying 'DO NOT DRAFT!' - 'L' plates for the bike as it were.

Clearly there is the problem of stopping suddenly for some drafter to go into the back of you. However, there are ways to deal with this potential threat. First of all, think of who is the most scared of a crash - you or the guy behind? The guy behind is not going to be right on your wheel if they are not experienced enough to draft close up. If they know what they are doing and know every pothole in the road then they might be up tight.

By convention, in a crash, it is the guy that goes into you that is at fault. You could have a car door or other instant stop requirement, however, if some cyclist goes into the back of you during such an incident, you do have to ask yourself a few questions about your own riding and not just blame the other guy. Even though the roads are full of hazards it is for you to anticipate and ride accordingly.

As for 'providing a wheel' there should also be some convention to signify that this is being offered. Cut too close in front of someone and you can have some wheel entanglement, go past too fast and they ain't going to make it. When riding with a weaker rider and wanting to put in a good collective time successful drafting makes all the difference and it really should be taught at an early age.

Incidentally, my 20" wheel 'shopping bike' is excellent for drafting. It is about a foot shorter at either end and that extra bit of proximity really helps whether up front or behind.

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Actually, a loaded touring bike makes for a great front wheel bike. (I do this all the time on tours - but it's a situation where it's understood by both parties.) A loaded bike up front and a bike with a trailer in the rear works very well. A bike loaded with ill-attached stuff... that'd be another matter. – Neil Fein Sep 8 '11 at 18:27
I think I'll get a "DRAFTERS WELCOME" sticker for the back of my bike/bum. – James Bradbury Mar 19 '13 at 13:07

Just to add 2 cents.

It's probably not rude. But it is most likely a bit dumb to draft random cyclists in front of you.

When drafting, I want the leader to take charge and be in control of the roadway. So, that means I need to trust the leader. In a random situation, how do I trust the leader?

That's why I don't draft behind random folks in front of me.

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