QUESTION: How much wind is too much for cycling? It’s very windy where I live, and I am a little bit afraid of the gusts. Any tips? —Debbie F.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: One of the first things that new riders learn from experience is that cycling into the wind or dealing with a strong crosswind requires much more effort than having the wind behind you or riding on a calm day. More experienced riders will tell you that given the choice between pedaling up hills or into a strong wind, they’d rather have the hills — because with hills, you eventually reach the top and get some relief, whereas wind usually keeps blowing, offering no relief.
This chart from the National Weather Service is helpful in judging the risk from winds.
Winds with sustained speeds of 40-57 mph bring a high-wind warning from forecasters. (At sea, sustained wind of that speed is called a gale.) Although some pro-cyclists may continue to ride if they are already on the road when high-wind conditions arise, most of us who are mere mortals wisely choose to stay off the roads in winds that powerful. And that’s not just because of the intensive labor required to make any progress pedaling; it’s also because of the significant risk from airborne objects and of getting blown out of your lane or even off your bike. The weather service says the risk to life and property at these wind speeds is “high.”
Winds with sustained speeds of 26 to 39 mph, or frequent gusts of 35 to 57 mph, merit a high-wind advisory from forecasters and an assertion that risk to life and property is “moderate.” Most cyclists will still find riding quite difficult in these conditions.
Sustained wind speeds of 21 to 25 mph, or frequent wind gusts of 30 to 35 mph still makes for tough riding, but the weather service says the threat to life and property is “low” in these conditions.
Most healthy riders can pedal in wind blowing up to 20 mph, even with frequent gusts of 25 to 30 mph, which the weather service brands as “breezy” and with a “very low” threat to life and property. But if your route puts you into the wind, either directly or quartering, the ride may not be much fun.
However, if you can somehow work it out to have most of the ride with the wind at your back, the ride can be thrilling. I was visiting a friend in Florida one time, and he lived near the sound end of the Suncoast Trail, a 42-mile paved path that parallels the Suncoast Parkway, a four-lane, high-speed superslab. A chain-link fence separates the trail from the road, but that offers little shelter from the wind.
When riding together we often started at the south end and rode north. But one day, when the breeze was gusting strongly from the north and was forecast to continue that direction all day, my friend’s wife offered to drive us to the north end. We gladly accepted, and once on our bikes, we fairly flew the 42 miles down the trail.
For most rides, however, keeping the wind at your back the whole time is not feasible, but on days with brisk winds, many riders purposely ride into the wind while outbound and their energy is high, and thus have the wind behind them on the way home, when they are tiring.
Most of us probably don’t know exactly where we’d draw the line because we may have handled unexpected strong gusts while out riding, but not having a wind gauge with us, we didn’t know how powerful the winds were. Nonetheless, many riders set wind speeds of about 20 mph as the limit for their rides.
A word of warning: Wind at almost any speed is not a friend to aero and time-trial wheels, but with strong crosswinds, the risk can be significant. Although the most recent designs in aero wheels handle crosswinds somewhat better than the earlier versions did, you still need to be aware that the wheels can be blown off course by strong winds, and that especially a front aero wheel in wind can make your steering twitchy.
So if you expect high winds, put on your non aero wheels. If you’re riding aero wheels when wind speed increases or starts to gust unexpectedly, slow down and keep your hands on the bars. For info on the physics of aero wheels, see this RBR article.
To learn more about cycling in the wind in general, see this RBR article from Coach Fred Matheny.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.