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How to cycle in headwinds

3 Jan 2017

When wind gets in your face, rather than let it ruin a ride learn instead how to make it work for you

Riding into a hardcore headwind can be like trying haul your bike up a particularly tough climb. With your brakes on. Not only will they quickly drain all the fun out of a ride, but also all the energy from your legs. So how do you beat the blustery stuff when you have to ride into it? Our quick and easy guide is here to help…

How planning can help you 

As we’ve mentioned before, check the weather forecast before any ride to give yourself the best possible chance of understanding what you’re heading out into. Perhaps heading out into a headwind on the way out and enjoying a tailwind on the way back is a good idea? It’s also worth investing in a good smartphone app (the Met Office app for iOS or Android is good) which will be able to feed you up-to-date information while you’re on the move. 

How your bike can help you

Most modern road bikes are built to be as aero as possible but that doesn’t mean your machine will do all the work for you in a headwind. When you’re cycling, you should look to spend as much of it as possible turning the pedals in as smooth and steady a cadence as you can. Elegance is the order of the day – or souplesse, as the French call it – but it’s not just about looking good. It’s about efficiency of energy. Headwinds are similar to climbs in the respect that you’re required to put in greater effort. So it pays to drop down a gear to maintain a smooth, fluid, pedalling style. Yes, this could mean riding a little slower temporarily, but it’s worth remembering that just because you can’t see it that headwind still presents a significant and ongoing obstacle.  

How your head can help you

It sounds corny but staying positive is the key to overcoming any obstacle, whether that be on a bike or off of it, and headwinds are no exception. As we said at the top, if you know a headwind is unavoidable on your route somewhere, tackle it early when not only will you be physically more capable of coping with it, but you can also keep yourself going with the thought of a nice tailwind to see you back on the same stretch on the way home. As you cycle into that headwind, too, remember the words of Winston Churchill: if you’re going through hell –keep going! By which we mean don’t stop and let the enormity of the task overwhelm you, instead break it down into small, achievable victories, whether it’s reaching the next lamppost, that parked car, or the weeping cyclist at the roadside who’s found it all too much. Ultimately, though, embrace the challenge. Tests like this are part of what makes cycling worthwhile. It’s not supposed to be easy, remember, it’s supposed to push you beyond both your horizons
and your limits. So enjoy!

What to do when riding in a group

The easiest way to deal with headwinds is team work. Riding in a group will, as long you’re sitting on someone’s wheel rather than leading from the front, save you between 20 and 30% effort and therefore your energy. Of course, not taking your turn at the front when group riding is about as heinous a crime as it’s possible to commit as a cyclist, so make a point of doing your fair share of the work. That said, the bigger the group you’re riding, the less time you’ll have to spend out front exposed to the elements and the longer the break you’ll be able to enjoy while riding in the bunch. So do your bit on point, and then take shelter back in the pack, where you’ll need to stay approximately six inches behind the wheel of the rider in front of you to maximise their slipstream. Don’t get any closer than that and do ride slightly to one side of them – left or right – to avoid touching wheels and causing a pile up. And hey, never overlap wheels if you can avoid it, either. 

What to do when riding alone

Of course, many of us ride solo, but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t do something about headwinds. There are a few strategies you can employ when you haven’t got the protection of a group while out on the bike, and most of these revolve around changes you can make to you and your riding style. Bike manufacturers can play with aerodynamic marginal gains all they want, but ultimately, by far the biggest surface area presented to wind resistance comes from the rider not the bike – in fact, it’s a ratio of 80% to 20% on average. 

So just as you do when you’re getting down over the bars for a sprint, make sure that your upper body presents the smallest possible target for the headwind to play havoc with. That means not only getting low in the drops but tucking your elbows in, too, which will help both with aerodynamics and control of the bike. Of course, spending an excessive amount of time down low can leave you with a super-sore back and is another reason to invest in a bespoke bike fit to discover the best position for your seat and bars. 

Reduce the resistance your outfit creates, too, by opting to wear the most figure-hugging outfit you feel comfortable in. Jackets and gilets can be good for keeping the rain out but they can also billow out if too big, turning them into sails and your ride into a real drag. If you’re wearing more comfortable-fitting clobber, tuck in any flaps, and zip up any zips to ensure you’re as streamlined as possible.

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