Me and my shadow - the uninvited wheelsucker

Me and my shadow – the uninvited wheelsucker


So, I suppose it’s a good time to revisit this topic, however superficial and/or petty it is, for two reasons. First, I mentioned it in the last post as something I could resolve work on in an effort to be a better me, and second, the TDU, and about a million interstate fans, just rolled through town.

Just so that we’re all on the same page: the wheelsucker. In the simplest of terms, this is someone travelling inches from your rear wheel, positioned so as to gain the advantage of being in your slipstream. The slipstream is the pocket of air directly behind someone/something that is offering shelter from the wind resistance, the effect of which increases as the speed does. The aim is to save energy and/or access free speed (increased performance or decreased suffering). The relationship between the wheelsucker and wheelsuckee is mostly parasitic, and I will choose to ignore the 2-3% advantage gained by the wheelsuckee because that doesn’t help my argument…

Slipstreaming, or drafting, is a practice used in competition. Someone may point towards an example here and there where it happens outside of competition, but these examples are few and far between in reality. I will obviously also choose to ignore the entire class of animal some call “birds”, who are wheelsucking mofo’s on the regular, and do so entirely out of a spirit of cooperation (or survival).

So aside from birds (and fish) and outside of competition (ie, “racing”), it happens approximately nowhere other than in cycling, where it happens constantly without there being a prize or even a compelling reason in sight. The wheelsucker, like a bout of gastro, appears suddenly, causes some discomfort, and then disappears via a blaze of huffing and puffing.

I exaggerate, of course. There are sometimes valid reasons that some people have for playing the wheelsucker. First and foremost, you’re in a race. A real one, requiring a racing license and everything. If this is not the case, then you obviously must have entered into a contract that all parties have signed, where wheelsucking is either encouraged or at least tolerated (ie, group ride with friends, shop ride, etc). Finally, if you have encountered a stranger and wish to play the wheelsucker, you must appease the wheelsuckee with your pride tucked neatly in your saddlebag, by politely requesting the spoils of their labour. It goes something like this: “Do you mind if I sit on for a bit/work in with you?”. If the request is granted (“Sure/No worries”), thanks must be given before you detach yourself from the teet, and the request is denied (“No”, or “I don’t mind if you sit on, but I’m not really up for pulling turns”), you must respect their wish to remain unaffiliated.

What’s the big deal?

Really, who cares? You can still ride as you were before discovering that you have a tail, right? Everyone rides with mates at least some of the time, so what’s the problem with having someone you’ve never met before doing the same?

There are a few reasons that I think are valid.

One, you don’t want them there. Don’t think that’s a good reason? Try putting a wheelsucker in any other aspect of life and think about how you would feel about it: just walking around, going for a jog, at the grocery store, or someone just plonking themselves down at your table right next to you at a cafe as you sip a beverage and are trying to relax or read a book.

You might be cool with it, but I doubt most people would be terribly comfortable with the idea. It’s a personal space issue. Few people like others inside their bubble when they’re not invited.

For some reason a lot of people seem to think that if you ride a bike, and particularly a road bike in Lycra, you are automatically out for a road race or hard training ride and are, of course, totally down with company. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the weird one. The chances are actually quite good there…

Two, it’s potentially dangerous. Not terribly, but potentially. Attaching yourself to a wheel unannounced could result in the rider in front doing something, like standing up and shifting the bike back into your wheel, that could result in a crash.

If you are turning yourself inside-out to keep up, you have a better chance of doing something stupid and causing a crash.

If you attach yourself to a group of cyclists, they could easily be more advanced than you leaving you out of your depth, or, not as skilled, making things just as potentially dangerous.

I once had an older gentleman attach himself to my wheel unannounced and shortly after that my chain happened to slip down from the big to the small ring without my intending it to. This resulted in a sudden drop in speed, which surprised my wheelsucker and caused him to react quite badly as he was close enough to be overlapping wheels. When I sorted myself out and looked behind, he was nowhere to be seen, and I can only assume he had either backed off dramatically or was in the bushes.

Three, and closely related to the previous point, is that it’s a mental strain. Even if you know the person sitting on your wheel, you have to consider their presence in all of your actions. You can’t just do what you want to do when you want to do it. You can’t brake as hard or turn as you might want to. You have to pay attention to what’s going on behind you as well as what’s in front. That stranger huddled next to you at your small table in silence at the otherwise-empty cafe is weird enough, but imagine adding the stress of having to worry about the interloper getting up too quickly and spilling all the drinks on you or upending the entire table.

Consider a tailgating car. It’s dangerous for both parties, and makes the person being tailgated somewhat uneasy.

But really, is it a big deal?

Now, I know what you’re going to say. Boo-hoo. That’s life. We can’t always have what we want, and sometime we have to share. And you’d be right.

But equally, one could argue that assuming that everyone else is, or should be, fine with whatever you want, is just as invalid an argument. It goes both ways.

Still, in most cases, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m working on that. Yesterday I had a flat ride on my own and had a tail towards the end. If I’m on my own, I like to be on my own. Many people use solo rides to relax, to centre themselves, to work out problems, or for escape – cycling can be great for that, and having someone intervene with that can be annoying.

And let’s be realistic. Contact from a distracted or spent wheelsucker will almost always result in you being fine and the wheelsucker coming down, so the danger to you is minimal. Sometimes people are spent and just need a tow home. Sometimes, as I can relate to, flat rides can be boring and a bit of company to pace out the km’s can be just what the doctor ordered.

Even so, I’ve had small groups (say three riders), who have each others emotional support and have each others slipstream to tow them home, that still end up on my wheel. For no reason other than, “that guy is going a bit faster, let’s latch on and go a bit faster”.


Anyway, even in that last scenario, it still won’t make any impact on your life if you just relax and let them sit there. More than that, it is possible that you (I) can actually even welcome them and treat them the same as mates. Believe it.

I know I need to be more reasonable when this plays itself out on the road, so yesterday morning I used the opportunity to try to be less passive-aggressive about it (at least in my head).

Step 1. Relax. Just keep riding. Life will go on. It’s fine.

Step 2. Be a good person, or just not a bad one, and do the wheelsucker the courtesy of doing the things that you would were a mate on your wheel (signalling hazards, etc).

Step 3. If you really don’t want them there, slow down and let them go around.

Now I have been in a pretty negative head-space for a few days, so I wasn’t in the mood for company, but after happily accommodating my passenger for a while and feeling ready to lose my shadow, slowing down didn’t work. So…

Step 4*. Slowly wind up the pace (in the saddle so as not to appear to be making much of an effort!) until said wheelsucker can suck no more.

*bit of a dick move

Relax, and speak up

In the end, I’d have to suggest that while a wheelsucker can be annoying, it’s also not anything to get upset about, so relax. As for all you wheelsuckers out there, I’d only suggest that you consider other people’s personal space and do them the solid of acknowledging your presence, and to avoid being an aggressive wheelsucker. Small things that can make the difference.


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