Confessions of a Wheelsucker

It’s one of the harshest labels that can be bestowed upon a cyclist by his or her peers. One that casts all manner of aspersions on their on-road character, or lack thereof. But as Sydney-based club rider Peter Maniaty has been asking himself and others lately, is it really so bad to be a wheelsucker?

When Simon Gerrans won the 2012 Milan-San Remo a chorus of moans could be heard all the way back in Australia. Despite being one of the more likeable riders in the pro peloton, plenty of observers weren’t impressed. Not so much with his win. But more in the manner he achieved it through unapologetically shadowing the locomotive wheel of Spartacus, Fabian Cancellara, from the slopes of the famed Poggio di Sanremo to just metres before the finish line when he swept past to carve one of the biggest notches on his palmares.

At the time I remember feeling aggrieved with much of the criticism being aimed at Gerrans, particularly in my role as biased Australian cycling fan. Even thinking about it now still rankles. What was the guy supposed to do? On that glorious Saturday in March 2012 everyone in the pro cycling universe knew neither he nor Vincenzo Nibali could out time-trial Cancellara to the finish. So, instead, Gerrans summed up the situation flawlessly with his directeur sportif, Matt White, and formed what proved to be the race-winning move. Or, more precisely, the race-winning lack of move. Yes, the 32-year-old from Mansfield, Victoria wheelsucked like there was no tomorrow. And won his first Monument, not to mention the small matter of around 50,000 Euros.

As someone who’s been racing at a slightly less prestigious level than Gerrans for several years now – namely lower grade club criteriums – I can vouch that similar tactics are employed every weekend right across our shores. In fact, by way of conducting a first-hand and highly unscientific experiment, I even tried it myself just last Saturday; and very nearly won my first race in C-Grade. Ever.

Sydney’s Landsdowne Park was the venue. After riding quietly for the entire 50-minute race, always near the front but never on it, I sprinted to the lead for the first time with just 20 metres left and felt something I almost never feel at the end of my races: strong. Smashing through the cogs in my big chainring I easily eclipsed my fastest-ever Strava time for that final sprint and was already counting the prize money in my head when, with truly superb irony, I was pegged right on the line by an equally-efficient rider who, as it turned out, had been wheelsucking my Colnago for the last few laps. Beaten at my own game. Touché!

My cunning plan had almost worked. The spoils were almost mine. But boy was I on the receiving end for my choice of tactics throughout the race. “Do some work you %$#^. Take a *&@# turn. Stop hiding you big #@$%^”. These were just some of the colourful, if not especially eloquent, statements hurled my way as it became clear to all and sundry that my mission on that cool Saturday morning was not to lead, nor chase, nor sweat one bead more than was absolutely necessary. It was to get on the podium, pure and simple. And, quite satisfyingly, I did.

The fact of the matter is wheelsucking, or drafting, works a treat. As Dutch writer Tim Krabbe explains so wonderfully in his 1978 cult cycling classic, The Rider: “Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.” Thirty-five years on it’s still cycling gospel. For whether you’re buried in the bunch or away in a break, you certainly don’t need a sport scientist or wind tunnel to know you you’ll conserve a serious amount of precious energy – depending on who you ask, anywhere between 15 and 40 per cent compared to the poor souls ahead of you – by staying off the front as much as possible, thus licking every skerrick of food off your rivals’ plates, and increasing your chances of gorging on the buffet of success at the pointy end of races.

Whilst outlawed in time trials and multi-sport events like triathlons, where an imaginary box or ‘draft zone’ is used to determine culpability, there is no rule against drafting in road racing. Yet the stigma attached to its practise for extended, unreciprocated periods can be sharper than the tip of an EPO-laden syringe. Or a scorned journalist’s pen.

But why? So far as I can gather it’s based on little more than the romantic idealism and, frankly, pointless solidarity of shared suffering amongst carbon jockeys. Whilst I completely understand the importance of such etiquette when commuting or on social rides where it would be very poor form indeed to let your mates implode on your behalf, I’m beginning to take a very different view when it comes to racing. Why should I help you win, or anyone else for that matter? Most days I have more than enough trouble helping me win, thank you very much.

Lest we forget, of course, virtually all of the world’s most feted cyclists are professional wheelsuckers. Mark Cavendish. Andre Greipel. Peter Sagan. Sir Bradley Wiggins. The list goes on and on. They’re all successful. They all earn pannier-loads of money. And they all spend 99 per cent of their races tucked in behind domestiqués who subsist largely off the scraps of their success, in return for doing the donkeywork with their noses in the breeze, stage after stage, race after race. Sure, it isn’t especially fair. But since when was life fair?

Road cycling can be a cold hard sport. And the cold hard fact is very few pros, let alone part-timers, are remotely strong enough to simply ride off the front and into the sunset on their own. Nor can we face the wind all day, chase down breakaways and still triumph in a bunch kick. It just doesn’t happen. Perhaps the only exception to this rule that won’t invoke ASADA sanctions, occurs if you’ve managed to scam the handicapper to enter you into the wrong grade. But don’t be too pleased with yourself in such situations. For you will almost certainly still be castigated by your rivals, as the gloss of your victory is soon tarnished by the smear of another far-from-flattering cycling label: burglar.

A British ex-pat pal of mine who enjoys the odd criterium himself, Chris Higgins, is a man of considerable on-road honour and common sense. He suggests a rider’s

willingness to work in races all comes down to his or her individual motivations for racing in the first place. “To me, just sitting in the pack doing nothing is a bit boring,” says Higgins. “Pulling back a break or attacking yourself is reward in itself.”

He has a point. And more often than not I agree. Sometimes you simply can’t beat the feeling of working your lycra-clad backside off, anaerobically martyring yourself to claw back an 18-second breakaway that was never likely to stick anyway.

But every now and then, like last Saturday morning, I crave more than the noble honour of ‘animating’ the race, chasing down the breaks or setting things up perfectly for pretty much everyone but myself. No, sometimes I want to be more than just a prize money donor. I want to win something.

So when you next see me avoiding the front in a race, shamelessly shirking my turns, please understand I’m no slacker. I’m just having one of those days. For when it comes to winning at road racing, you’re either a wheelsucker, or just a sucker.

The choice is yours.

Perhaps the greatest demonstration of wheelsucking in modern professional road cycling occurred at the 1999 Amstel Gold Race. It involved two now disgraced riders, Lance Armstrong and Dutchman Michael Boogerd. After a freak collision with a photographer brought down two of their four-man breakaway with around 16km to go, Armstrong and Boogerd were left to fight out the remaining kilometres of the famous Spring Classic mano-a-mano. However despite Armstrong’s constant elbow waving and verbal urgings, Boogerd settled in for the ride on the Texan’s rear wheel. After a herculean effort on the front, drugs or no drugs it was still mighty impressive. Armstrong eventually opened the final sprint in the town of Maastricht with Boogerd still nestled firmly in his slipstream. The Dutchman emerged with little more than 50 metres and won the tightest of decisions right on the white stripe. Given the slim margin, reportedly less than the width of tyre, it’s a safe bet Armstrong would have prevailed easily had Boogerd pulled even close to his share of turns over the closing kilometres. Who was the sucker?

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Peter Maniaty is media and marketing manager for 2013 NRS newcomers Cellarbrations Racing Team, writes the cycling blog and races C-Grade criteriums most weekends in Sydney.


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