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How does an echelon work in a cycling race?

Echelon
James Witts
13 Jul 2016

When crosswinds start to rip up the peloton, an echelon often forms but how does it work?

A fluid, cohesive paceline weaving its way around the countryside takes riders with experience, discipline and concentration, but is magical to watch in full flow. But when nature becomes restless and crosswinds blow, it all changes. It’s time to form an echelon.

‘You often see this in pro racing where riders are fanned out in a diagonal formation, especially in windy races such as the Tour of Qatar,’ says former Madison Genesis rider Chris Snook. 

Practically, you move slightly to the side of the rider in front and just behind their wheel, depending on the wind angle (yaw). If it’s from the left, you move right, and vice versa. And instead of switching the lead by riding through and off, as in a paceline, you rotate in a circular motion across the road, always looking for that little bit of shelter.

Setting up an echelon in a crosswind is also an effective way to split up the bunch during a race. As the width of the road is limited, a fight ensues to be in that front echelon, fanned out across the road.

If you don’t make it, then you’ll find yourself riding in the gutter, in the wind and in single file. And unless a second or third echelon forms, you’re likely to disappear out of the back. 

‘Movistar and Garmin-Sharp both used this tactic to great effect at Challenge Mallorca [back in 2016],’ remembers Snook, ‘splitting the bunch before we even hit the first climb. People were worrying about that climb, sitting back to save energy, and got caught out long before they reached it.’

The nature of an echelon, where riders are often overlapping wheels, means that it needs only one rider to touch wheels to bring down the entire group like a set of dominoes.

This is where practice and attention to your surroundings become vital, although no amount of experience can guarantee a crash-free ride. 

‘In the Classics I had a couple of crashes from being in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ says Thomas. ‘In Flanders someone rode into me, then I bounced off them over to another guy and that was it – straight down.

'The other one was a crash in front of me with nowhere to go. That was Paris-Roubaix. It’s part of racing. Most of the time you’re ok.’

Still, it’s worth knowing a few dos and don’ts about riding in close proximity to others…

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