Sunday 23 November 2014

How to deal with windy conditions and still get around by bike

Summary: Windy conditions can be as big a deterrent to getting around by bike as heavy rain. However, experienced cyclists have ways to either avoid riding into the wind (at least the worst of it) or, when unavoidable, make cycling as efficient and safe as is feasible. This post explains some of the most common methods daily cyclists use to deal with the wind.

Flickr CCby2.0 - Martin Mutch

Related Posts:
> See the comfort category of this blog.
How to avoid getting wet when riding
How to maximise your cycling when faced with hills

1. Plan your trips (especially long ones) around the worst of the windy conditions
- Many trips (e.g. shopping) can be planned flexibly around the weather. Just as you wouldn't take a lengthy optional trip if there was heavy rain forecast you can plan trips around the worst of the windy conditions. You simply need to consult the most accurate weather forecasts for your area that advise when the windiest conditions will be. Most of the best sites can be accessed both online and via smartphone apps. Note that some sites/apps may present accurate wind forecasts more usefully and useably than others. Of the Melbourne ones I reviewed, I found Willy Weather: Melbourne - Wind to be the most useful presentation of forecast wind conditions over a single day and also across multiple days.

Willy Weather: Melbourne - Wind

Willy Weather: Melbourne - Wind
> Weatherzone: Melbourne - Detailed forecast
> AccuWeather: Melbourne - Hourly forecast
> BOM: Forecast Wind

2. Choose times that are calmer or provide more tailwinds than headwinds
- The catalyst for this post was a 34km round trip I took to go shoe shopping on a Saturday. I ended up riding 17km into a strong ~32km/hr headwind from 2-3pm which just happened to be the worst possible time to be riding north! If I'd left at 10am the headwind would have been only 20km/hr and I would have had the peak northerly winds as a tailwind on my way home. Or I could have made the trip on Sunday or another weekend when the winds were more favourable.

3. In a city with consistent high wind patterns choose where to live and common destinations with the wind in mind
- In some cities there are patterns to the regular winds in some seasons. As a random example, northerly winds being more common on summer mornings and southerly winds being more common in the evenings. If I was commuting a medium/long distance to work and, based on choosing to live on one side of work or the other, could be getting the best of the winds, that would definitely influence my location decisions. Transport advantages are a key consideration in choosing where to live, work/study and optional destinations, so if you want to maximise your cycling possibilities, getting the benefits of wind patterns is very worthwhile.

4. Ride with others and share the headwind or let the weaker riders draft more
- It's well established from very scientific analysis that drafting (aka wheel sucking, slipstreaming) saves a lot of energy and is much more efficient for the entire group if rotating the front position. Naturally cycling commuters don't need a whole team taking turns but it does help if riders struggling with high winds are able to sit behind stronger riders. Riders of similar strength can take turns in front. Most strangers won't mind if you draft them safely and, if undesired, they can always ride away or wave you past.

5. Use a bike that is light, efficient and enables more aerodynamic riding positions
- Sitting up straight with your arms spread wide into a strong headwind is unenjoyable and extremely inefficient, especially for longer trips. You don't need to get drop bars and tuck your body like a professional Tour de France racer. However, narrower handlebars are preferable to wide ones and handlebars that allow you to stretch out (thus take a more aerodynamic position) are even better. Personally, I recommend bullhorn handlebars. A bike that is the right size for your body and riding positions will also allow you to comfortably maintain an aerodynamic position - for example, keeping your knees closer to the tube and narrowing your profile.

- Minimising the drag (wind resistance) of your bike is also worthwhile - the more streamlined its profile the better. For example, some types of bike storage have much more drag than others (e.g. panniers compared to narrow racks). The efficiency of your bike can also be optimised (effort required to maintain a speed). For guidance on optimising the efficiency of your bike see: Designing a better utility bike in developing cycling cities

6. Use aerodynamic riding positions and develop skills handling strong headwinds and cross winds
- There are several riding techniques you will naturally develop or can learn which relate to best handling winds. The most important technique is be able to adopt as aerodynamic a position as is comfortable when faced with strong headwinds.
If you’re not convinced about going aero then consider the current world hour records: 49.7km on a ‘standard’ road bicycle, 56.375km on a time trial bike in the extreme ‘Superman position’ and – wait for it – 90.598km on a fully faired recumbent bicycle. That’s getting on for double the speed of a standard road bike, and it’s all down to aerodynamics, not extra power.
On the bike itself, the general rule is the flatter you make your torso, the better. Going lower - up to a point - will bring your head down so it shelters your upper torso, and reduce drag further by shrugging your shoulders and tucking your head in.
Bike Radar: Technique - Aerodynamics on a budget
- Other riding techniques and skills include:
(a) Not wasting energy battling the strong gusts of wind. It is inefficient to try and maintain the same speed. Instead, wait out the gusts and maximise your efforts when the headwind is lowest - this is a far more effective use of your energy.
(b) Change where you grip the handlebars to narrow your profile facing the wind.
(c) Drop down enough gears to maintain the same cadence rather than grind it out and hurt your knees and back.
(d) Wear clothing that isn't too loose and doesn't catch the wind.
See: Cycling Performance Tips: Riding into a Headwind

- I don't think urban cyclists need racing bikes, aero bars, lycra, aero helmets, shaved legs or extreme riding positions to ride regularly into headwinds (I have none of those things). However, advocates of "sit up" cycling on inefficient bikes who imply cycling efficiency and aerodynamics don't matter at all for urban cyclists are wrong. Such advocates simply don't ride much into strong headwinds. There is a large spectrum of inexpensive, practical possibilities between sitting up straight on a heavy "Dutch" bike and riding like a world time trial champion (see Tony Martin below).

Tony Martin in London 2012 Olympic men's time trial
Flickr CCby2.0 - Paul Wilkinson

7. Cycle only one way and take advantage of the tailwinds
- On longer trips, the barrier isn't windy conditions per se, it's facing an inevitable headwind for a lengthy period. However, it's often possible to combine cycling with public transport or choose not to ride if a very strong headwind pops up. For example, I've taken my bike on a train to a destination 40km away and then rode back home with a very strong tailwind - it was very enjoyable. Obviously the choice of which direction to ride was deliberate, not left to chance. If you commute to work by bike you could also treat strong headwinds like heavy rain and use public transport to opt out of certain trips. This isn't weak, it's smart. Cycling isn't an all or nothing affair; you should focus on reaping the benefits not struggling for no reason.
Getting the most out of using bikes and public transport together

Further Info:
RCUK: Six ways to beat a headwind

Cycling Performance Tips: Riding into a Headwind

Exploratorium: Cycling aerodynamics and wind resistance

Bike Radar: Technique - Aerodynamics on a budget