To understand an 'echelon', you must first learn the meaning of 'drafting'. This is where the rider on the front of a group pushes through the air and creates pockets of low pressure behind them as displaced air accelerates over and around their bodies - this in turn creates a sheltered effect for the rider behind, who as a result has to apply less effort to push through the same air without a decrease in speed. A little like hitching a lift. All very well on still day or riding into a headwind, but what about a cross-wind?
During a cross-wind the air travels across the path of a rider, changing the shape and position of the area in which a following rider can successfully 'draft'. Rather than sitting directly behind the lead rider, primary position is now shifted slightly to the side of the front man. As following riders shift to the sheltered side of the rider in front, with wheels slightly overlapped, this creates the 'echelon' - a fan shaped formation that spreads across the road as riders fight to maintain an effective drafting position. The cross-wind is such that dropping of the back of the bunch here makes it almost impossible to get back onto the wheel of the rider in front.
|An Echelon Formation|
No big deal though, the peloton can just form one big echelon and everybody is happy? Wrong. An echelon can only be as wide as the road. Once a fan has formed the width of the road, riders behind are left with two remaining options - form a new 'echelon' or hand on for dear life out of the back in one long line. Option one is clearly the smart choice - but it isn't all plain sailing - the stronger riders, or echelon specialists are almost certain to be in the front echelon, anybody caught out and finding themselves in the second or third echelon will also find themselves in a bunch of less powerful, less organised riders, leaving a deficit which can be lasting as they struggle to keep up the pace of the group in front.
This is where some riders see an advantage. If a single team can form an echelon just wide enough to cover the road then they have a chance to put the rest of the riders to the sword by setting an unmatchable pace. Some riders and indeed teams consider themselves 'specialists' at this, but the key to it's success is co-operation. It is essential that the front rider, who is taking the full force of the wind, doesn't spend too long there. Riders must rotate through from the sheltered side to the front and then back in the windward side for the echelon to run smoothly and effectively, like a well oiled machine. A well rehearsed echelon can destroy the field and blow the race apart - hence why it causes so much fear and panic within the bunch. If a favourite gets caught out and misses the leading echelon, it could just be the end of their race.
Today's stage 1 of the Eneco Tour was billed as having the potential for echelons to disrupt the race, with cross-winds expected. Omega-Pharma Quickstep (considered specialists in echelon racing) tried to form echelons with around 30km remaining, but they ran out of road before they could cause any real damage - too many twists and turns in the route keeps the riders sheltered from the changing wind direction. The peloton were safe, for now...