05 November 2009


I recently had a conversation here with a friend who noted that the French seem to have no real affinity for the concept of “team.” The context of the discussion was business, and he noted that he sees so many incidents of willful sabotage and back-stabbing in the workplace here that it significantly affects how, and whether, business gets done. Watching the way people treat each other in Paris, whether it's driving, standing in line (or more accurately, cutting line), or marital fidelity (there's a joke that women in France stay thin by worrying about who their husbands are cheating with), it's not so difficult to believe this could be true. And if so, if France had a national motto, it would almost certainly be “Except me,” (as in: the rules apply to everybody except me) or more simply, “Me First.”

Except on the bike. Where it's definitely, “You First.”

I've already commented that pro cycling in Paris is regarded as rather low-brow and even staged entertainment, but even if France hasn't produced a Grand Tour contender in nearly 2 decades, the local recreational riders emulate one aspect of the pro peleton with vigor and passion: wheelsucking.

For those unfamiliar, “wheelsucking” is a pejorative synonym for drafting. As speed increases, more and more of a rider's energy goes into overcoming air resistance, such that at professional race speeds, something like 80% of the energy a rider expends is simply pushing air out of the way. Riding closely behind another rider, or “drafting,” saves as much as 30% of the following-rider's energy. This drafting is a huge part of racing-- the goal is to stay out of the wind as much as possible and apply one's efforts against air resistance when they matter most strategically. Much of the job of so-called domestiques is specifically to be sacrificial lambs, breaking the air on the front of the peloton so that their team captains can rest in the bunch until it's go-time. Drafting is also useful in non-racing situations. In a recent 145-mile ride to the Normandy coast, Karen spent nearly the entire ride drafting behind me-- since the stronger rider expends more energy to go the same speed, it allows riders of different strengths to ride together at a pace that is suitable for both.

There are times when drafting becomes wheelsucking, however. These include races in which riders in a small group refuse to share in the workload on the front and save energy at the expense of the other riders. And, I'd argue, when riders one doesn't know attach themselves without asking.

Recreational riders in Paris spend so much time wheelsucking one wonders whether they are actually capable of movement under their own power. At Longchamp, our local 2.2-mile oval cycling circuit, most riders coast around the oval slowly, waiting for somebody to come by, then latch on like remoras. Not that it only happens at Longchamp. It's nearly impossible to ride in the Chevreuse Valley on the weekend without acquiring an entire school of wheelsuckers.

At first I found it amusing, and then bewildering, since the wheelsucking is no less prevalent when the pace is slow enough that there's no energetic advantage to riding behind another rider. I can understand taking wheels when on a fast training ride, learning to ride in the pack (and then taking pulls on the front) is all part of learning to race. But the mindset that leads one to so doggedly insist on riding behind somebody else in all circumstances, never riding one's own pace or by one's own will, escapes me. Are the French riders really such sheep? Are they protective of the skin on their faces, keeping it out of the wind? Maybe they get easily lost or, like the little dogs they're so fond of here, just have an obsession with others' rear ends.

The remoras never say anything-- hello, mind if I join you, thanks for the tow-- they just attach and then lurk silently. If you're lucky. As often as not, their bottom brackets click or their chains squeak incessantly and annoyingly, intruding on the silence that I prefer when I ride alone. Furthermore, drafting takes some skills, and despite their abundant practice, some remoras draft clumsily and intrusively. The most distasteful aspect of acquiring wheelsuckers in a ride is feeling responsible for other riders' safety or worrying about my own with inattentive knuckleheads on my wheel.

Here are some examples of wheelsucking in Paris, all observed in just 1 week of riding:

I did two days of intervals at Longchamp. On the first day, 20-min threshold intervals, I accumulated 12 - 15 riders in one 20-min effort. When I slowed to recover between efforts, the entire group slowed behind me, even though we were riding less than 15 mph. On the 2nd day when I was doing sprints, where the “on” period is only 15 seconds and the “off period” is extremely slow and several minutes long, a group of 3 crawled along behind, waiting for the next effort. The mindlessness of it is mystifying.

While heading out for a weekend group ride, I rolled lazily from the apartment just 3 blocks to Trocadero, where I was meeting my riding partners. As I made the turn to our meeting place, I was surprised to see 2 riders pull out of my draft, then having the nerve to kvetch at me for turning without signaling. Fellas, your front wheels are your responsibility.

While cooling down after my workout at the oval, a rider, probably 25 years old and fit-looking, was a little way ahead of me, pushing up the one little incline at a good clip. When he got near the top, though, he caught a group of guys in their 60s going maybe half his speed, and he sat up and latched onto the back of the group. I kept my gap to the group for an extra cool-down lap, just to see how long he'd ride there. Answer: longer than I was willing to stay out there.

My favorite regular at the oval is an older fellow who always rides alone that I call the Gentleman Rider. He must be 80 years old, and he rides a 3-speed 1960s bike while sporting tweed knickers and jacket, knee socks, a British style driving cap, and aviator sunglasses. He's a bit unsteady on the bike, in part because he's moving so slowly, but he's absolutely the bomb-- pure style and class. One morning I was out riding and found him riding on the back straight at his usual speed, about 10 mph, with a much younger guy in full pro team kit, aero helmet, and carbon racing bike riding his wheel.

And much earlier than that week, in the first 50 meters of my very first ride at the oval in March or April, my first outdoor ride after breaking my ribs in Feb, a train of maybe 25 racer-looking riders, strung out single file and really flying, came by me. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have been so surprised that the guy on the front driving the train was in a Gotham Cycles (from NY) kit. The group came by me only once that day, so I can only assume that the Gotham guy pulled off and rode home, and the rest just followed him all the way there.

Probably to New York.

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