cycling in wind

Cycling in Wind: How to Ride Smart, Fast, and Strong

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

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 just haven’t mastered the skills or understand the dynamics of cycling on a windy day. 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 I see 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 riding solo into the wind 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.

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Comments 10

  1. 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 😜

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 . . .

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