Knowing When to Fold: The Art of Catching Up

Most folks who race invariably find themselves behind a group or another glider that they would like to catch up to. This is a rather frustrating position, that often encourages risk-taking behavior. Specifically, when in relatively close proximity, the normal reaction is to try to “catch up from below” while staying in arm’s reach of the leader. The hope is to connect with a stronger thermal underneath and then mitigate the separation, or at least out-climb the competition.

However, most of the time this is an inefficient and risky way of trying to catch up. The pilot following is taking more risk than the leader, while the gains in energy are likely to be low. Most of the time, the emotional reaction to trying to stay connected ultimately is in conflict with the goal of gaining relative energy.

My observation is that it is often best to instead “let go” of the leader. By accepting that he is ahead and that you are behind, you are now finally are in control of your situation. Now, the goal is to gain energy relative to the leader or group, while keeping tabs on what he is doing.

After letting go of the leader, now the objective is to get to the same relative altitude in the height band. This will diminish your risk exposure, develop a little horizontal separation and get you back in a controlling position. Furthermore, you now have the benefit of information ahead of you. With Flarm, you can know the average climb rate of the leader and maintain a higher probability of hitting a thermal *his* thermal. Since you know the location of lift and climbrate, as a follower your risk exposure is much lower than the leader’s. He must bear the cognitive load of making a full risk/reward assessment for each glide. All you have to do is optimize energy, while keeping tabs on what he is doing and why and if he is making a misstep that you can take advantage of.

Once at the same altitude, now the goal is to spot the leader while maintaining optionality. Keep an eye ahead on what he is doing. As you hit a thermal, compare it with whatever is going on ahead. If you’re close enough to actually climb with the leader, take advantage of the centered thermal. Make the entry efficient! Once he leaves, don’t leave immediately! If the climbrate is still good, stay with it! There is nothing better than having a leader get “frisky”, leave early and then stay in a good climb to then just let them mark the next thermal. However, if you are approaching the top of the thermal, leave earlier while the climbrate did not diminish yet. Fly slower, let the leader burn off the altitude and center the next thermal and then join him there.

If you are close enough in cruise, stagger behind the leader to get a relative reading of the air. This is especially helpful if you have a pair ahead. Keep an eye on how they rise and fall and then move accordingly to the better side.

Overall, the point is that there is a point when following to take a deep breath, realize that you have less energy and decide that now is the time to gain energy on the competition rather than simply trying to lead with them.

As a sidenote, there are instances when it makes sense to chase low, though they are always risky. If you are chasing a fast group and there are no other markers (gliders or clouds), maintaining contact with the group may be your only shot at staying in touch with lift. However, there is a major risk of getting bumped off the bottom of the gaggle as you approach the bottom of the height band. You have to manage this risk effectively, not get too low in the band and bank on that the gaggle’s climbrate is a bit lower than what you can achieve. In this case, you can chip away at the altitude difference in each thermal until you merge with them. However, it is much better to avoid taking more risk as an individual than what the group is exposing itself to, or at least to tread very carefully when doing so.