cycling in wind

Cycling in Wind: Skills for Solo Riding and Drafting

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I grew up in south Florida, lived in Belgium, and raced in the Netherlands. I learned a thing or two about cycling in wind, so it pains me to see cyclists make mistakes because they don’t understand the dynamics of cycling on a windy day. Sometimes it’s just because they haven’t mastered cycling skills or how to draft. Whether you’ve been riding for 20 years or you just got started, save yourself some anguish with these tips.

Tailwind ≠ Easy

When you are riding by yourself, a tailwind is a blessing. When you’re in a pace line or a peloton it can be anything but easy. The benefit of drafting is that you have less air resistance to fight through compared to the front riders. The problem with a tailwind is that it reduces the net air resistance for the riders at the front of the pack. When they can go faster, the benefit of drafting decreases and everyone has to work hard. You get less recovery sitting on the wheel.

Tailwinds are hot

Air flowing over your body is crucial for evaporative cooling. Riding into a headwind increases the speed of air flowing over your body, which is why you can get cold in a headwind. In contrast, you can overheat in a tailwind because the net airflow over your body decreases as the difference between your speed and the wind speed decreases.

During the summer it is important to focus on hydration during prolonged tailwinds because you’re going to be sweating a lot. In cool weather it’s important to open up your layers in a tailwind so you can keep your clothing drier. When you turn into a headwind with sweat-soaked layers you will get cold very quickly. If you have a jacket or vest, reserve it for the headwind.

You can’t overpower a headwind

Picking a fight with a headwind is one of the biggest mistakes riders make. You can’t win that fight; the harder you go the faster you wear yourself out. Think about it this way: if your maximum sustainable climbing power is 265 watts, you don’t magically get more powerful with the wind in your face. Nevertheless, riders push 300 watts into the wind in an effort to maintain the speed that feels normal for that terrain. That only lasts a few minutes, and then the wind wins.

If you’re going to be cycling in wind by yourself for a long time, let go of your expectations of maintaining a specific pace. Don’t let the relentless noise or push of the wind in your face provoke you into pushing harder than you can sustain. Focus on your power output and/or perceived exertion and stay steady.

Be smart in a crosswind

Getting into a good position in a headwind is checkers; positioning in a crosswind is chess. An echelon is a thinking person’s pace line, because you have to constantly adjust your position relative to the rider on your windward side and the lane or road is always narrower than the number of riders you have in the group.

Anticipation is the key to success in crosswinds. In particular, you have to anticipate that the crosswind is coming and get into position before you reach it. If you’re out of position when you turn into the crosswind, it may be too late to get into the first echelon. And even if you can fight your way into the first echelon, it’s going to require a lot more work to get there.

When you take a pull in a crosswind, pull off into the wind and then drop back across the group quickly. Don’t dawdle out there in the wind. Similarly, if you don’t make the first echelon, start a second one immediately. Don’t fight in the gutter for a nonexistent draft. Set up the second echelon before a gap opens to the first group.

Watch out for wind gusts

A strong and steady wind can be a pain, but cycling in gusty winds can be downright scary – especially on descents. Getting in the drops and low on the bike can help you maintain stability and steering control by pressing more weight onto the front wheel and allowing you to use more upper body strength to keep your wheel straight. It’s also important to keep pedaling in gusty winds to maintain forward momentum and counter the force from the side. If you’re coasting when the gust hits you from the side, it will be harder to stay on your line.

In Florida, the Netherlands, and any flat place known for strong crosswinds, pay attention to gaps between buildings or areas that transition from protected to open. If the wind gusts are coming from the left and you’re riding on the right side of the road, don’t hug the side of the road. Give yourself some room on your right in case the wind moves you over a few feet.

Stop avoiding cycling in wind

Getting comfortable riding in the wind is like anything else; it takes practice. When you look out the window and the flags are flapping, don’t get on the trainer. Get out there in the wind. Ride into the headwind on the way out, and ride longer on the way out knowing that the return trip with a tailwind will be take less time.

How to Draft in Cycling

Financial advisors will tell you that the way to get (or stay) rich is to not just make more money, but also avoid wasting it. The same is true with how athletes get faster. It’s not just about how much power you can produce or how high you can push your lactate threshold pace. It also pays to be frugal with your energy and economical with your efforts. And just like a great financial plan, it’s best to establish good habits and learn the fundamentals early on so you’re an expert by the time the stakes are much higher.

In cycling the stakes get higher as the speeds increase. Air resistance increases exponentially as your speed increases. That’s why I think it’s crucial for athletes – competitors and non-competitors alike – to focus on drafting skills right from the beginning. The time to learn the fundamentals is when the group is going relatively steady at a moderate pace.

If you can position yourself perfectly when the going is easy, then you’ll be able to do it when the group is going flat out in a 30mph crosswind. But if you’re not an expert at finding a draft on a calm day how can you expect to be any good at it when it really matters? Remember, it’s not just about the power you can produce. It’s also about not wasting energy. Poor positioning and inefficient drafting wastes power with every pedal stroke you make, every gasping breath you take.

Drafting 101: Stay in the Pocket

When working on becoming an expert at drafting I tell athletes to envision a drafting pocket. When you’re in the pocket you’re getting a great draft and saving as much energy as you can. But the pocket rarely stays directly behind the wheel in front of you. It moves right and left based on where the wind is coming from. It gets bigger and smaller based on the speed you’re going, the speed of the wind, and the size of the rider ahead of you. The benefits of being perfectly in the pocket are smaller at lower speeds. However, the consequences of being outside the pocket are dire when the going gets tough.

Here are a few tips for finding and staying in the pocket:

Get Comfortable Drafting Close Behind the Rider in Front of You

The benefit of drafting drops off very rapidly as the distance between you and the rider ahead of you increases. Whether it’s behind or beside the rider ahead of you, being closer is better than being farther away. The only way to get comfortable with close quarters riding is to do it over and over again.

Use the Drafting Pocket to Adjust Your Speed

By moving out of the pocket a bit to catch more wind you can slow down without touching your brakes. This keeps you from running up on the wheel ahead of you and gives you the opportunity to get a better view of what’s up the road.

Look for External Clues for Wind Direction

To stay in the pocket you need to know where the wind is coming from. However, as your route twists and turns and your position in the group changes, wind direction can be difficult to determine. Look at long grasses, bushes, trees, flags etc. at the side of the road for information. High flagpoles are sometimes the best because they often have unobstructed exposure to the wind.

Learn to Look “Through” the Rider Ahead of You

The closer you get to the rider ahead of you the more that person blocks your view of the world ahead of you. You end up zeroed in on their butt, and even if it’s a nice butt it’s not a good idea to stare at it. You need to use glances to the sides and down to the road ahead to build a composite view of what’s ahead. As you move in and out of the pocket to the side you get short glimpses of the terrain and pack ahead, and looking diagonally to the sides you can pick up cues from riders nearby. Basically, your focal point should be in front of the rider ahead of you – and much farther ahead if possible – so that you’re not focused on the stitching on the seams of his or her chamois.

Looking “through” the rider ahead of you also helps with stability. When you’re walking a balance beam it’s best to look farther out ahead of you rather than at the beam at your feet. The same is true on the bike. If you look at the wheel or butt a foot away your handling will be squirrely. If your focus is further ahead of you, “through” the rider directly blocking your view, you’ll ride a straighter line.

Bonus Tip: Reduce your frontal area

Get in the drops or drop your elbows so your forearms are nearly horizontal if you’re riding on the hoods. The point is to make yourself smaller in the wind. This will be especially important if the rider you’re drafting on is either small or has a low, aerodynamic riding position. If the only place you’re comfortable and powerful on your bike is upright with your hands on the hoods or tops, there’s a problem with your bike fit. If you want to survive in the wind, you have to be able to ride powerfully with your shoulders relatively low (whether that’s in the drops or with horizontal forearms, which in some cases is an even more aero position than in the drops).

Relatively calm days with little to no wind can be the best opportunities to master your drafting techniques. Remember, there’s never any benefit to catching more wind than you have to and the mark of a truly expert cyclist is riding close and comfortable, in the draft, even when the going is easy. When it’s time to ride in the wind at the front, give a good effort. When it’s time to draft, be awesome at it.

By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS


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Comments 17

  1. Pingback: Ride Faster Everywhere: Cycling Tips for Uphill, Downhill, Flat and Rolling Terrain - Chris Carmichael

  2. Ah yes…the wind.

    On the big PACTour ride across the USA in 2000, we came to Kansas…and the wind, the corn, the wind, the wheat, the wind, the road, the wind, the relatively flat terrain and, oh yes, did I mention the wind? Over 400 miles worth of it.

    Somewhere between Ulysses and Pratt, we turned into an absolutely H-O-N-K-I-N’ headwind. It was so strong, it actually lifted me upright off my saddle. On this, the third day in the howling wind, I snapped. I stood up on the pedals and started screaming for it to “…BLOW HARDER!!! IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!? I DARE YA!!! BLOW ME OFF THE BIKE!!! I’LL GET BACK ON AND RIDE FOR ANOTHER 50 MILES!!!”

    Needless to say, I hadn’t learned how to ride in the wind at that point. It would have been nice to have this article in my bag of tricks back then.

    Oh well…live and learn…and no matter how hard or from which direction the wind is blowing…

    ROCK/RIDE ON!!!

    Jeff Sipos
    Strongsville, Ohio
    John16:33

    1. Thanks John, Wind is our friend who pushes us a little harder, then “pulls” us back home.
      Unless it is a morning ride up canyon with down canyon cold air headwind, then if you’re too late turning around, getting a furious up canyon wind as valley floor heats up. Haha, our windy coach always makes us pay…gotta love it!

  3. I live in eastern South Dakota. The wind is always 15mph plus. I ride solo not by choice but because no other riders where I live. The wind is definitely a decider. Folks who live in Colorado with the big climbs have little wind. So, even though a flatlander, the wind as a trainer prepares you for the climbs😊

  4. The Tailwind whispered white lies in my ears
    telling me things I wanted to hear.
    The Headwind scoffed and laughed in my face
    poignantly putting me in my place.

  5. I lived in Wilmington,NC the windy city, for most part I always checked the wind direction before my rides. At times I rode away from the wind with some resistance..NE or NW but not full head on direction and used my route to me back home with mostly tail wind. It become a meteorological daily science 😜

  6. As our coach would always say.
    The wind is your friend. In a way he’s right. Face it coming back and you’ll always have to work hard to get back home on time for supper.

  7. Great advice. I rode in a combination headwind, crosswind pattern last week. As a novice rider, I learned my first year cycling fighting the wind is like wearing yourself out on a long gradual burn uphill. I will take heed to your advice when encountering such patterns during group rides.

  8. I’ve always found it useful to gear down and spin at a higher cadence than in no-wind conditions. You may not move with much alacrity into a headwind, but you can still move your feet quickly, and with a higher cadence you are better prepared for gusts that might otherwise force your cadence to an extremely low one. The benefits of a higher cadence are both psychological and physical under these circumstances, and I find I can actually enjoy that headwind resistance workout if I concentrate on keeping my feet spinning, and care not how quickly I’m making forward progress.

  9. For years, in the world of GPS, people have laughed at me because I have a compass on my handlebars. I don’t use it to find my way; I use it to take a bearing on the wind. For example, if the wind is out of the northwest (as it usually is where I live), I’m going to be on the southeast side of the rider in front of me. With a compass I always know where that is, no matter how much the road turns and twists.

  10. Headwind out, tailwind home, a cyclist’s mantra, just never seems to happen, That tailwind alwasy seems to turn into a headwind home is my experience 🙂

    Excellent advice as always.

    1. So true Detlef, and the real kicker is – if you had gone the other way, it would have been tailwind out and tailwind back . . .

    2. Detlef- I don’t know how many times I have thought riding into a wind on the way out, “at least I will have a tail wind on the way back”. And then I do my loop and ride back along the lakefront (Chicagoland) and get the head or crosswind coming off the lake for the ride home.

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