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In praise of wind

Trevor Ward
12 Mar 2019

Wind isn't the enemy, it's just another obstacle to overcome

With crosswinds dashing dreams at Paris-Nice and headwinds making our ride to work harder, we try to remember why wind is not the enemy.

In his autobiography, Chris Boardman recalls a discussion with two of his secret squirrel staff at British Cycling on ways to streamline a rider’s position on the bike.

He only narrowly manages to dissuade them from breaking Ed Clancy’s collarbones and re-setting his shoulders.

A rider’s battle against air resistance – or, to give it its everyday name on the roads of Britain, wind – is an ongoing struggle of Sisyphean proportions.

The peloton is an exercise in drafting on an industrial scale, with all but the leading riders able to enjoy the benefits of slipstreaming and a bit of banter with their mates in the shelter of the pack.

If the wind should be so insolent as to come from the side rather than the front, then it’s time for the echelons, those distinctive diagonal formations across the road that were once the preserve of Roman legionnaires and are now the wind-deflecting tactic of choice for today’s modern gladiators on the road.

On my training rides, though, neither of those wind-cheating measures is available to me. I don’t have a dozen mates available to form my own personal peloton, and club rides are a weekend-only option.

Gimme shelter

Instead, I resorted to planning a route that would offer as much shelter as possible from the UK’s prevailing south-westerly winds.

Using my knowledge of the local roads and an Ordnance Survey map, I spent months carefully piecing together a parcours that utilised the protection offered by walls, woods, embankments and buildings.

The end result was a 50-mile loop that spent the first 10 miles traversing hedgerow-lined lanes in a north-westerly direction before turning into the wind.

The struggle of the next 10 miles of exposed terrain was alleviated by them being slightly downhill, and by the time the road started climbing again, I was cossetted by a long section of forest, some tall hedges and even the extensive wall surrounding a local castle.

Then came another elevated and exposed section before I reached the turning point and could take a direct route home with a tailwind behind me.

Extra motivation

It was far from perfect but did at least provide me with a psychological – if not physical – incentive to get out on even the windiest days here on the east coast of Scotland (one of the top 10 windiest locations on the UK mainland, according to forecaster Paul Michaelwaite at South-west Wales is number one, by the way).

The wind, it is clear, is the enemy. But does it have to be?

Despite all my route-plotting and hedge-sourcing, eventually, I realised that the real solution was to start looking at the wind as a friend, not
a foe.

All that air resistance actually makes it the perfect training aid. After all, I don’t regard my local climbs as enemies – instead they are treated as challenges. So when it’s blowing a hooley outside now, I don’t see an excuse to stay in bed, I see invisible hills.

Less is more

Training in a 30kmh-plus headwind requires a shift in attitude. I don’t use a heart rate monitor or power meter – I’m of the Graeme Obree ‘less is more’ school of thought when it comes to data – and in windy conditions I don’t even pay attention to the speed showing on my Garmin. It’s all down to ‘feel’.

Riding along that flat section where I’d normally clock 36kmh feels like churning up a steep hill when the wind is blowing.

Someone, somewhere, has probably calculated a formula for equating the speed of a headwind with the gradient of a climb. In my own experience, grinding into a strong headwind on the flat feels the same as tackling one of my regular six or seven per cent-ish climbs.

Maintaining some semblance of decorum is essential. Wrestling your bike up a steep slope may be justified, but struggling to keep your front wheel in a straight line on the flat can appear vaguely comical.

Keeping low on the bars and pedalling a slightly harder gear usually does the trick of maintaining stability and dignity.

State of mind

But wind is also a state of mind. It’s nature at its most elemental, the force that has shaped and sculpted the very landscape we ride through.

Cyclists are more exposed to its raw energy than any other land-based sportsmen, with the probable exception of mountaineers. This is a rare privilege – to be able to get up so close and personal with a power that is untameable. It’s like petting a polar bear.

Encounters with primeval forces are increasingly hard to come by in this modern world where every risk, danger and thrill can be simulated with
a smartphone app.

So the sheer, visceral terror of being buffeted by a sudden gust as you round a corner or pass a gap in a wall should be revered rather than reviled (though you may prefer to leave the deep section rims at home).

Many other sports are sanitised beyond all recognition, but cycling – even away from the cauldron of the professional race circuit – can still expose us to moments of heart-stopping excitement and euphoria. The wind is one of the more challenging vagaries of our sport, but that doesn’t mean we should dread it.

On my training rides, it’s about bracing myself for the gust that will inevitably ambush me at that left-hander, or knowing there’s a big hedge coming up that will afford me a few minutes of recovery.

The option of surgically rearranging a rider’s anatomy might have appealed to the more extreme members of Chris Boardman’s research and development team at British Cycling, but I prefer the more philosophical approach.

As Tim Krabbé puts it in his cult novel, The Rider, ‘Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.’

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