Windy Bike Rides: How to Cheat the Wind
A cyclist can have an ambivalent relationship with the wind. When you’re riding, it’s either your best friend or your worst enemy.
With the wind at your back, you can breeze through a tough stretch without breaking a sweat. But when it hits you from the side or head-on, even the easiest ride can turn into a slog. If you live in the plains or other areas affected by heavy winds, windy bike rides can be major factors influencing your motivation to keep cycling. And the lighter you are, the more the wind will toss you about or slow you down on the bike.
Riding far in a strong headwind will make for a much more tedious ride — it will take you longer to finish and you’ll feel more worn out afterward. Even if you spend half the ride with the wind behind you, the benefits won’t outweigh the exhaustion you feel from pedaling into the wind for the other half.
For the determined cyclist, though, there is always a way to keep going, no matter the obstacles. In his many years cycling and coaching, our friend Coach Darryl MacKenzie has learned a few ways to cheat the wind while cycling. These techniques have gotten him and his fellow riders through many a windy bike ride.
Tips for the Solo Cyclist in the Wind
Darryl breaks these tips for windy bike rides into two categories, depending on whether you are riding solo or in a group. Let’s look at the solo techniques first.
Lean Into the Wind
This is the No.1 way to cheat the wind on a bike, and probably the most obvious. It’s all about aerodynamics. Performance vehicles are designed to be sleek and cut the wind, and that’s exactly what the cyclist should strive for.
The more erect your torso is on the bike, the more body surface area you are exposing to headwinds. These winds have nowhere to go, so you’re going to absorb them and slow down.
Instead, lean forward into the wind and try to slice it with your body. Let the wind roll around your shoulders and back instead of pushing into you. In severe winds, get your hands in the drops and move your butt farther back on the saddle so you can really lean in.
Slow Your Pedaling
It can be tempting to spin fast in order to keep your normal pace in the wind. But this will only make for a bumpier ride.
“The faster you pedal, the jerkier it is, and the more the bike will go side to side,” says Coach Darryl. In other words, the wind is already creating a lot of turbulence, and you’re only exaggerating it if you pedal too hard.
A typical cadence for a cyclist is between 75 and 85 rpm. In a heavy wind, drop into a harder gear and bring that down 8–10 rpm to create a more constant, steady pressure on the pedals and reduce your side-to-side movement.
Bring in Your Knees
This comes back to aerodynamics. If you pedal with your legs in a more open position, you’re creating a sort of parachute for the wind. It can blow right in and get trapped in your lower torso, creating a lot of resistance.
A better posture is to bring your knees in as close to the top tube as you can. This makes a “V” shape to slice the wind and force it around your body rather than directly into it.
Tips for the Windy Group Ride
Although all the solo techniques above apply when you’re riding with a group, there are other factors to consider when you ride together in the wind.
“When you’re riding at 25 miles per hour, the person behind you is using, on average, 27% less energy than you are,” says Darryl. Why? The rider in front is absorbing all the wind turbulence and creating calmer air for the cyclist behind them.
This reality should guide how a cycling group tries to cheat the wind on a windy bike ride. You need to create a double pace line to reduce the effect of the wind — and this will help you even if the air is relatively calm. A double pace line allows the two cyclists in front to absorb the airflow and makes it easier for the rest of the group.
In less severe winds, you can rotate the pace line. To do this, find which side the wind is coming from (which you can do by turning your head until you feel the wind move from one side of your nose to the other). The group closer to the wind should go a little slower, allowing the outside line to gradually move ahead. As the front rider on the outside gets far enough out front, they can move to the other line while the back rider on the inside line moves to the outside line. This constant rotation will make sure every cyclist shares time absorbing the wind.
In more intense winds, though, this doesn’t work as well. In that case, Darryl recommends keeping the heaviest riders on the inside line, closest to the wind, since they will be less affected by it. This line should also lead the group closer to the wind so that there is more room on the opposite side of the road in case they get buffeted about.
A Note on Cycling in Sidewinds
All of these tips are great for headwinds, but sidewinds are a bit trickier. Again, the lighter you are, the more you’ll feel it, and sidewinds can make for a very unsteady, windy bike ride.
When it comes to cycling technique, “there’s not a lot you can do,” according to Darryl. But your equipment can make a difference. The larger your bike’s side profile, the more sidewinds will affect it. So, for example, although deeper arrow rims will make your bike faster at higher speeds, they will also absorb more sidewind and make for an unsteadier ride.
If you’re able to own more than one bike and you live in a windy area, you might consider two different rim styles so that one will work better to cheat the wind while cycling.
The wind can be an imposing force on your bike rides, but it doesn’t have to win out. Try these tips to cheat the wind on your next windy bike ride, and let us know how it goes in the comments below.
You can find more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.