Strong winds can make cycling incredibly tough – a headwind creates extra resistance, much like riding up a hill. The difference is that you can usually see the end of a hill, but the headwind will just keep on going until you stop or change direction, resulting in an endurance affair that can at times feel a little soul destroying.
There’s nothing you can do to change the whims of mother nature – even if she happens to blow at you on a day you hoped to achieve a personal best. How you deal with the wind, however, can impact the effect it has on your ride.
Here are some tips to help you - physically and mentally - when you’re riding into a headwind…
Use other riders and draft
Assuming you’re not taking part in an organised time trial or triathlon race, and there are other riders around you, there’s no reason not to utilise the strongest cyclists to beat the wind.
Sitting behind another rider shelters you from the worst of the wind, and makes pedalling much easier. There are various different formations you can use, the most common varieties being a paceline, where one rider sits behind another, and a chain gang where two lines of pairs rotate so that the front rider is almost constantly changing.
A paceline is the simplest option to adopt. It’s best to agree with fellow riders that you’re going to work together – just sitting on someone’s wheel without communication first is generally not considered good practice!
The rider on the front will be using significantly more energy than those behind – and therefore if there is a difference of ability and you want to keep the pace as high as possible, the strongest riders should spend the most time on the front. For example, in a three-person group, Ms Mega Watts should spend 40 seconds on the front each time, whilst her friends should do 20 seconds each. On a more relaxed ride feel free to take longer turns, such as 5 and 3 minutes, but be aware that you'll start to feel the bite of fatigue towards the end of each turn.
Get low and small
The problem you are fighting when cycling into a headwind is an increased wind resistance. The key way to reduce this resistance it is to cut down on your own ‘drag’. In an average rider plus bike duo, the rider makes up about 80 per cent of the drag. Imagine your body like a flag in the wind – because that’s basically what you are.
Anything you can do to reduce your frontal area is a bonus – if you’re on a road bike, get onto the drops, and if you’re not, keep your body low and your elbows in. Just imagine you’re playing hide and seek with the wind, and you’re on ‘hide’.
Another way to reduce your frontal area is to reduce any excess material that will otherwise be flapping in the wind.
It sounds insignificant, but in a severe headwind you will really notice the difference if you allow a packable or gilet to blow around. If you know it's going to be windy, opt for closer fitting kit. If you find you get blasted whilst out, zip up the zips you have (right to the top!) remove anything you don’t need if it’s warm and plait long hair if you want it out the way.
Use your gears wisely
We all know that gear selection is important whilst climbing, but do you keep it in mind when it comes to dealing with blustery days?
The higher your gear, the more resistance the bike throws up. So, if you’re already struggling with the added kickback from the headwind, churning your normal gear is probably not a good idea. If you have a long slog into the wind ahead of you click into a gear that is easier to pedal.
However – a big gear does push you to put down the power. If you’ve got just a short section that you have to get through before the blessed relief of turning round, then go for it and crank it up for that little-added punch.
Plan your ride
Most cyclists check the weather forecast before leaving so they know what’s coming – but you can use that pre-ride check to help inform your route.
If you’re riding a loop, you’d probably rather start out riding into a headwind, and then enjoy the easy push back of a tailwind on the way home. Therefore, if you know there’s a severe northerly wind, start by going north. Yes, initially that will feel like an awful decision, but you’ll change your mind on the home straight when you barely have to pedal.
It’s also a good idea to plan to ride somewhere more sheltered on a windy day, for example where there are hedgerows to take out some of the buffering. However, beware of gates as any crosswind can quite literally blow you sideways as you pass them if you’re not aware. If you know a big surge is coming as you move into an exposed area, hold onto the handlebars firmly, brace your core muscles, and look exactly where you want to go. Refuse to be budged!
Work for small goals and adapt your expectations
Our final tip is around mental training. Half of the battle when you’re faced with a long stretch of headwind is in your head. It can be disheartening to be riding twice as hard as normal, yet going twice as slowly.
Remember that the problem is the wind, not you. If you were using a power meter you’d see that you’re actually working much harder than normal, and thus you’ll be getting a fitness boost even if you’re going slowly.
Don’t expect to ride as far or as fast as you would on a still day, and keep working towards small milestones – the next lamp post, the phone box or that strangely coloured parked car. Keep calm, and keep pedalling.
Want to know more about defeating the wind? Check out these tips from pro cyclist Chloe Hosking on how to endure a crosswind.