Three techniques for riding strong into the wind

By Mon Garcia

Let’s talk about resistance. There are three things stopping you from being as fast and frictionless as you possibly can: tire drag, bearing drag, and, not the least of all, aerodynamic drag. The first two, which account for around 15 percent of your overall resistance, come down to equipment choices and routine maintenance. The last is something you manage with riding technique and smarts.

They say that beyond 30 kilometers per hour, more than 50 percent of your energy is spent overcoming aerodynamic drag. And this worsens with the wind. Wind can increase drag up to twice or even thrice as much. And sidewinds can really throw off your handling.

wind riding
Nowadays, you can get in a wind tunnel and improve your CdA (coefficient of drag) with enough tweaking. But does faster always mean practical? Photo courtesy of newscientist.com

Although I advocate that one should “eat the wind to get stronger during training, there are times, such as on race day or on those semi-competitive rides, that you simply want to cheat it. Here’s how.

1. Choose the right equipment. I’ve written about what choices can give you the most aerodynamic gains, but let’s look at the obvious here. While a nice set of deep, aerodynamic wheels and a longtail helmet may give you free speed in a straight line, they become massive sails that help propel you sidewards (not forwards) when there’s a crosswind. Choose the right tools for the course and conditions. An aero but not so deep wheelset, and a helmet with a rounded rear section may be more appropriate for those windy days.

Aerodynamic gear is fast, nice, and slippery… until the wind hits you from the side. Then you’re a sail. Choose the appropriate gear for race day. Photo courtesy of mpstraining.com

Granted, new technology in wheels and frames claim they still are fast at certain yaw angles (the direction that the wind hits your bike), but there’s no getting around physics. Professional cyclist Geraint Thomas of Team Sky got blown off the road and into the ditch at Ghent-Whevelgem in 2015 due to strong winds. Imagine if that had not been a ditch but a ravine. The wind spares no one. When in doubt, choose the equipment with the lower profile. It may just save your life.

2. Manage your position. When the wind hits, and it can hit hard, the biggest area for it to slam into is your body. Thankfully, that’s also the one thing you can manage after you’ve chosen good wind-appropriate equipment. Getting low and aerodynamic for efficient forward propulsion also works for getting a low profile for sidewind gusts. If on drop bars, get in the drops, bend your elbows and lower your torso. Don’t grab your hoods and turn your body into a sail (unless you mean to, like using air resistance to slow down during a descent—but that’s for a later article). I don’t get to ride aerobars a lot these days, but I would say, when the wind gets strong enough, control and safety take precedence over speed. If you’re wobbling and not able to keep a straight line, get off your aero tuck and grab something wider to stabilize.

Graeme Obree found arguably the best position to cheat the wind: the praying mantis. Then the UCI banned it. Remember, the faster you go, the higher the wind resistance. Photo courtesy of blog.fairwheelbikes.com

3. Use other riders… I mean, share the wind. If possible, such as on a group ride and in mass-start cycling events and races, draft. Get behind or beside other riders to shield yourself from the wind. In a pack or training ride, don’t always be in front. Learn how to form echelons and proper pacelines so that everyone gets some rest and respite from riding in front and taking on all the wind.

 

Learn to draft. Let’s battle the wind together. Photo courtesy of wikihow.com

Also, learn how to draft properly. A distance of six to 12 inches in between your front wheel and the rear wheel of the rider in front of you is possible and regularly maintained in pelotons all over the world. Sadly, most groups I’ve ridden with have riders too twitchy and undisciplined to maintain a good paceline. It’s an invaluable skill for cyclists.

We can all learn and win the battle against the wind. It just takes a little discipline. See you out on the corsa!