It’s not generally practical to ride your bike in a group every time you go out. That means there will be days when you’re going solo or with just one buddy on the road. That can be tough for everyone on days with high winds.
Often you’ll hear cyclists complain, “No matter which way I turned, the wind was in my face.”
It certainly feels like that. But in fact it’s always true. The wind IS always in your face. That’s how cycling works. If there were no resistance from air we could all sail along at 40mph or more unhindered.
Of course that’s not the case. So the solo cyclist must consider all the facts that make it tough to ride in the wind before they even get on the bike. The fit of your bike is the most important part of this formula. And here’s where theories of bike fit get tricky.
The aero factor
We all know that aero and tri-bikes allow riders to go faster because they help a cyclist cut down on wind resistance. The deeper and flatter your position on the bike, the less wind catches you in the chest and creates a negative pressure against which you must ride.
Any duathlete riding a road bike can testify to the frustration of competing against other du’s riding aero bikes. Unless the course is exceedingly hilly, the aero bike guys and gals will likely dust you. It’s simple physics. Unless you can get really low in the drops on your road bike and stay there, it isn’t much fun trying to keep up with bikes and cyclists engineered for speed.
Racing duathlons and triathlons is a good testament to the virtues of good bike position and wind resistance. There is no drafting allowed, so you must literally pull your own weight.
That’s why it’s good to get out on the roads and practice on your own how to deal with wind resistance and more specifically, wind as a condition in which you must perpetually ride.
Here in Illinois there are plenty of open roads and the countryside even looks a little like Belgium or Holland where cyclists regularly participate in spring sufferfests battered by wind and sometimes cobbles. The last few miles of this year’s Paris-Roubaix race saw long strings of riders trying to stay in the draft while bouncing on and off the cobble stretches.
With the flags sticking straight out from the poles, there was little doubt about wind direction and its effects. We all know crosswinds can be as deadly tiring as headwinds. In many ways they are more exhausting because they catch an even greater stretch of body surface. Plus there is the constant pressure from one side that can throw off your rhythm and cadence.
So there are a few practice tips that can help you prepare for such conditions as a solo rider when no one is there to help you.
1. When planning a route on a windy day, plan a course that zigs and zags.
Riding solo on a windy day is like engaging in an interval workout. Riding in a headwind or crosswind can quickly put you in an anaerobic state. That means it is vital to set up your workout the best you can to create breaks where you’re changing direction as you go along. Nothing wears down a solo cyclist like a 10-mile stretch straight into the wind or through a crosswind. Heck, the mere roar of the wind in one ear can drive you crazy. And using the same muscles repetitively results in imbalanced fatigue. So do the best you can to zig every two miles and zag another.
2. Plan a route that is a big circle with the hardest parts built for the beginning, and remember to zig and zag if needed.
Listen, great cyclists like Eddie Merckx used the wind like a training device. He actually wanted to ride the hardest part of the road at the end, not the beginning of the ride. That way he could build endurance when he was tired. And if you’re already a strong cyclist, that’s a great way to proceed. Same with running into the wind. But if you’re not yet fit or not yet a great cyclist, it can really pay to look up the wind direction on your phone and plan a route that will finish with the wind at your back. That doesn’t mean you slack it in. It just means you’ve ridden in a sane way.
3. Never count on a tailwind. There are no guarantees.
Despite your best planning, there are no guarantees that your route will result in the pleasures of a tailwind. Even a wind blowing at a 45 degree angle from behind your shoulder can read like a headwind in many cases. It’s all about cutting through the air, and there’s no law of nature that says riding into a strong headwind for miles will produce an easier ride when you head back. Winds can shift. That often happens here in Illinois near twilight. A west wind at 5:00 in the afternoon can shift east to northeast by 6:30 p.m. because of lake effect winds off Lake Michigan. In spring these winds are often chilly and steady too. There are no guarantees of an easy ride home.
The wind will defeat you now and then. There will be times when you are reduced to an 8 mph crawl. I recall clearly a day where the southwest winds here in Illinois topped 30 mph. On the far western stretch of my ride, a 10 mile patch of road in very open country, the winds were so buffeting I finally pulled over and just stood there gathering my wits.
Going it alone is tough sometimes on a bike. But when you get home from a windy ride you know you’ve done something at least. It hurts. You’re exhausted. Your eyes are full of grit and dry as shells on a sandy beach. But damnit, you made it.
And that sets the tone for making it another day. When you’re that much fitter. That much stronger. That much able to wrestle with the wind and come out ahead.