How to Reduce the Straining & Use Wind for Training
By Fred Matheny
To many cyclists, wind is the enemy. We grimace when flags whip, stoplights sway above intersections and litter blows in whirlwinds around street corners. A windy weather forecast can scuttle a whole weekend’s riding plans.
It’s not just the thought of groveling into a headwind that makes us opt for the couch. There’s a fear factor too. Nasty crosswinds have blown riders into the opposite traffic lane or completely off the road. In groups, bike handling demands are magnified by unpredictable gusts jostling riders in the paceline. This is especially true when we form an echelon to fight a crosswind. As we’ll see, a small mistake here can take down a whole group of riders.
But although wind’s various challenges require specific skills, these skills aren’t hard to learn. While many cyclists hate wind, if you learn to love it (or at least accept it) you’ll have a big advantage over everyone who is intimidated by those swaying trees.
Even better, you can use wind to become a stronger rider. We’ll see how shortly. But first, a quick example that shows how accepting and even embracing wind is such a benefit.
Colorado’s state 40-km (24.8-mile) time trial championship was on the plains east of Denver. The wind was rocking the car as I huddled inside putting on my shoes. There was no shelter from the relentless gusts anywhere on the treeless course.
To make it even harder psychologically, we had a tailwind to the halfway turnaround, followed by a head-down grind back to the finish. It’s fun going 40+ mph (64 kph) one direction. It’s anything but fun groveling back at less than 15 mph (24 kph).
Davis Phinney, who went on to win 2 stages of the Tour de France and become America’s winningest road racer, took the victory. Of course, he had more power than most of the other riders. But he also won because he didn’t fear the wind.
Davis trained in Boulder where gusts in winter and early spring can exceed hurricane strength, so he knew how to handle the conditions. More important, he believed that the wind was to his advantage. Where other riders dreaded the struggle against the gale, he looked forward to the challenge.
Power, technique and belief are a tough combination to beat!
Why Is Wind So Tough?
A headwind slows a cyclist’s speed by about half the wind speed. For instance, if you’re capable of cruising at 17 mph (27 kph) on a flat road in calm conditions, your speed into a 20-mph (32-kph) headwind can drop to a pedestrian 7 mph (11kph) for the same power output.
What if the headwind is 40 mph? You’ll have to produce enough power to ride 27 mph (43 kph) in calm conditions to go 7 mph into the gale. For most riders it’s an impossible effort to maintain very long.
Quartering headwinds are almost as bad. According to the late Ed Burke, Ph.D., wind tunnel studies show that any wind in the forward 200 degrees of an imaginary circle around a rider will impede speed. Only direct and quartering tailwinds in the trailing 160 degrees will feel helpful. That’s why on some days there seems to be a headwind no matter which way you turn.
To make matters worse, headwinds never seem to end. There’s an ongoing debate among cyclists about which is tougher—a headwind or a long climb. Most votes go to headwinds because they can continue for an entire ride while even the longest climbs are over in an hour or 2.
Mountains have summits, and you know where they are so it’s easy to calculate how long you have to suffer. But with headwinds you never know unless you’ll be making a U- turn. In a RoadBikeRider.com poll, nearly 10 times as many readers said wind was a tougher challenge than hills. I agree, and probably you do too.
The Tale of a Gale
Headwinds are especially evil on long rides or tours that go predominantly in one direction. Because a weather system can stall, touring cyclists can be stuck for days in a headwind that drains their enthusiasm and chips away at their physical reserves.
I got a taste of the psychological cost of headwinds on a ride across the U.S. with PAC Tour. One day’s route in Montana took us 160 miles (258 km) from Butte to West Yellowstone, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Because the road was spiced with 7,000 feet (2,123 m) of elevation gain, we figured that climbing would be the day’s major challenge. But checking the weather forecast the night before, we saw that a cold front was storming in. Winds from the southeast, our direction of travel, were forecast at 25 mph, gusting to over 40.
The day dawned clear, cool . . . and calm. We thought that perhaps we’d dodged a bullet. But clouds moved in during the morning and then began the inevitable progression from gentle zephyrs to a breeze and finally a nagging headwind.
On the long climb from Virginia City to Ennis, the wind suddenly exploded like someone had turned on a gigantic fan. I was descending when I felt the first blasts of a gale that soon resembled the successive waves of a tsunami. It blew me across the centerline on the narrow road as I struggled to control the bike. By the time we got to Ennis where the route turned south directly into the wind, gusts (we learned later) were being measured at 50 mph (80 kph). Half a dozen of us formed a paceline to bore into the invisible wall.
On long tours, riders become adept at calculating how long it will take to reach the next rest stop or the day’s destination. Our group contained the tour’s strongest riders, but we were unable to top 10 mph (16 kph) on that interminable grind along the Madison River. After taking a minute-long pull, each guy would be shot back at enormous speed when he swung off and eased pedal pressure. It took another hard effort merely to latch onto the back of the creeping paceline. At this rate it would be dark before we churned through the remaining 70 miles (113 km) to West Yellowstone.
Fortunately, just when we’d almost reached the limits of our physical and mental reserves, the route turned east at Earthquake Lake. The road became lined by trees that helped shelter us from the crosswind so we could ride a bit faster and beat sundown.
I’ll never forget that July day in 1993—a true epic because it demonstrated all the hazards of wind and the skills required to deal with it. The power necessary to make progress was the least of it. More important were the techniques to keep the bike upright, hold a line on gusty descents, present a small, wind-cheating frontal area and use a paceline for survival.
However, the mental demands were the crux. Hours of extreme, unrelenting effort with such minimal forward progress destroyed some riders’ motivation. They either slowed to a crawl, riding without hope, or they surrendered and waited the sag wagon.
What would you do?
I learned some things about riding in the wind that day, as I have during almost 40 years on a bike in the open ranchlands of Colorado’s western slope.
Throughout this guide, I’ll detail the skills needed to gain the upper hand on windy days. But equally as important, I’ll show you how the wind can be a friend—a training partner— helping you to big improvements in power, bike handling and pedaling skill. You’ll learn to see wind not as an enemy to be avoided but as an aid to your cycling progress.
Read on if you’d like to look forward to windy days rather than dread them.
First, let’s be honest: Wind doesn’t just make bike riding hard, wind can make it dangerous.
When wind gusts reach 35 mph (56 kph) or more, bike control can be impossible. No one will blame you if you choose to forego your ride on a day so windy. It’s not a matter of having the willpower to get out there, but you need to consider several risks. Knowing them can help you make a prudent decision about riding, and it’ll help you reduce the odds of suffering an accident if you do saddle up.
Look Out for Objects!
Unidentified flying objects can be blown into the road. I have ridden in Arizona when strong crosswinds propelled giant tumbleweeds in front of us. These things can jam a wheel and cause a crash or simply knock you over. It’s pretty spooky to have a bouncing ball of brush bearing down on you.
Former professional rider Clark Sheehan once was hit by a flying tin cattle trough while riding in gusty crosswinds on Colorado’s front range.
Much smaller things like dust or sand can get blown into your eyes, so always wear glasses on windy rides. They also block the wind itself, reducing the tearing that can make it hard to see clearly.
If it’s so windy that debris is flying around, you may be better off riding the trainer at home.
Don’t Get Blown Out of Your Lane
Suddenly being blown sideways into traffic or off the road is a danger in gusty, buffeting crosswinds. On a bike you present a much larger surface to wind coming from the side than you do to a headwind. A hard gust can instantly move you over a couple of feet. It could even take out your front wheel and put you down.
Reduce the effect of crosswinds by riding in a low aero position to become more compact and lower your center of gravity. If the shoulder is wide enough and you ride in its center, you can simply allow your bike to be moved to the right or left, going with the gusts rather than fighting them.
These whirlwinds are found primarily in America’s wide-open West. They’re like miniature tornadoes. You can see them moving across the landscape. Dust devils and full-fledged dust storms definitely preclude riding because of their power and because an overtaking driver may not be able to see you. If you’re about to be caught in a dust devil, stop, move off the roadway, and brace for the blast. It’ll be gone in a few seconds.
Wind Makes it Feel Much Colder
Wind in winter can make it feel considerably colder than the actual air temperature. This windchill chart from the National Weather Service shows how wind at various speeds lowers the effective temperature and increases the risk of frostbite.
It pays to know your local conditions. East of my Colorado hometown there’s a gradual climb of 10 miles (16 km) followed by a steeper 4 miles (6.4 km) to the top of Cerro Summit. This canyon is notorious for a raging down-slope wind in all seasons. Just ask participants in the annual midsummer event, Ride the Rockies, who often have to battle a headwind the entire stretch. In winter, the wind is even stronger. It blows ribbons of snow across the road and is guaranteed to freeze a rider quickly. When I know that the Cerro Summit wind is blowing, I head for calmer roads.
Dealing with Thunderstorms
A swirling, gusting wind is likely to accompany a fast-approaching thunderstorm. You could be caught miles from home. These weather fronts usually move quickly so it makes sense to take shelter for a few minutes until the worst wind passes. Do not, however, hide out under a tree or other tall structure if lightning is present. Duck into a building or beneath a house porch or underpass.
When wind velocity can be dangerous, it’s smarter to pedal inside on a trainer than to risk an accident and injury. But there’s no need to let ordinary windy weather stop you from enjoying a road ride and even using the conditions your advantage.
Co-existing with the Wind is the Key
It’s common to use the phrase “fighting the headwind.” But fighting is actually the wrong word. It implies that you can attack and conquer the wind with power and combativeness. Wind, however, is far stronger and has more endurance than any rider. You can hammer yourself into oblivion but a headwind will still be howling. Gales don’t need sports drinks and energy bars to keep going.
So you have to co-exist with wind rather than fight it. You must be smarter because no rider is stronger than nature.
Before we see how to use wind for training, let’s look at key ways to co-exist with a headwind when you simply want to enjoy a ride or you need to ride, as in an event or tour, and want to make it through the day without undue strain.
Become comfortably aero. A headwind needs a surface to work against. If you sit upright, presenting your chest to the wind’s force, you’ll need more power to overcome air resistance. But if you get low and streamlined you’ll slice through the invisible wall with lower power demands.
In a perfect world you’d be able to assume the shape of a bullet train—or own a faired recumbent—but in reality we have to work within the confines of the human form on a road bike.
Decrease your frontal area by moving your hands to the drops so your back is nearly horizontal. Limit the area the wind “sees” by bending your elbows and keeping them in line with your body. Of course, don’t get so low that your vision up the road is compromised. Practice in calm conditions.
If your handlebar is too low relative to the saddle, riding on the drops for any length of time will be uncomfortable. To hone your wind position, try different handlebar heights with your bike on a trainer. Test how they feel, and put a mirror in front so you can see what the wind sees. Also check from the side for a flat back and a relaxed neck and head with good forward vision.
It’ll take some work and perhaps flexibility training, but it’s well worth the effort. When you’re comfortable and at the same time aerodynamic, you’ll be able to ride faster and more efficiently in all conditions, not only against headwinds.
Gear down, spin up. Efficiency is the key to riding against the wind. And most fit riders are optimally efficient at a pedaling rate (cadence) around 90 rpm. The tendency in headwinds is to stay in a hefty gear, pedal harder and let rpm slow. But this effort can’t be kept up for long—usually not as long as the wind blows. It’s an example of fighting the headwind rather than working within the confines of your ability.
So shift to a lower gear (larger cassette cog) to maintain a brisk cadence against the wind. Yes, you’ll go slower than in calm conditions. But spinning is better for your legs (and especially your knees) than grinding with a slow rpm. You’ll be able to maintain the effort much longer when going against an all-day headwind.
A relatively fast cadence is better for your psychology too. If you’re plodding along with aching legs feeling strain on every stroke, the minutes will crawl by. It’s exactly what makes most riders hate wind. You know what follows—a bike hanging on the hook whenever the wind blows. In contrast, spinning at least gives the illusion of speed and control. In a headwind, we all need some help from illusions!
Get a little help from your friends.. It’s a huge advantage to be with other riders on a windy day. By riding in a paceline, each rider has to bore into a headwind only a few seconds before sliding back and getting shelter behind the others.
Despite the obvious benefit of a paceline—or even trading pace with just one other rider—I often see cyclists in centuries and other events grinding solo against the wind. They’re sometimes only a few feet apart and I wonder why they don’t link up. It’s smart to use other riders for mutual advantage even if it takes some organizational skills to gather a group together. (Of course, some cyclists aren’t comfortable in a group, and I offer tips below if that’s your situation.)
The primary rule in headwinds is to keep pulls short—anywhere from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on a host of factors. Riders should never run the risk of becoming so drained in the lead that they are unable to latch onto the end of the paceline after dropping back. Stronger riders can pull longer while weaker riders can swing off immediately after reaching the front. Don’t let ego get in the way of reality. Remember that when it’s really windy, it will be hard even at the back.
Choose sheltered routes. When the gale is blowing, plan a course that includes natural wind breaks such as woods, hedges, cornfields, buildings or walls. Even low barriers will help. For instance, a stone wall 3 feet (1 m) high protects about half of your combined bike and body height if you ride close to it. A field full of mature corn is a great windbreak, but in a cruel irony the wind is always strongest in the spring when the corn hasn’t sprouted but dead calm in August when you’re riding through a green tunnel and wishing for a cooling breeze.
If you have a choice, opt for a course with numerous turns so you’re not riding straight into a headwind for long. If you’re limited to an out-and-back route, start into the wind when you’re fresh and then let it blow you home during the second half. This will give you a physical and mental boost.
In mountainous country some riders like a tailwind up the climb and a headwind back down. When the grade and wind velocity match, you may be able to use the same gear and sustain the same speed in both directions. The opposite scenario—uphill against the wind—has benefits too, especially in hot weather when climbing with a tailwind has the effect of putting you in still air. Overheating is a danger.
Bag the baggy jacket. A loose jacket catches the air like a parachute. You may as well be wearing a kite. Flapping jackets also make an infernal racket, noise that’s wearing psychologically. The roar of the wind is bad enough without having your outer garment yakking at you.
(Which reminds me: A favorite trick of experienced long-distance cyclists in a howling wind is to put cotton in their ears. They say that when the acoustic cue is muffled, a headwind seems easier.)
So wear form-fitting clothing on windy days. If it’s cold and you need a wind-resistant jacket, try putting it under your jersey where it won’t flap.
In cool conditions I wear form-fitting arm warmers and I put an 18×24-inch (46×61-cm) piece of plastic sheeting between my jersey and base layer for chest protection. A plastic shopping bag works great for this. Cut it into 2 sheets. Keep one in your closet to use when dressing for chilly and windy rides. Tuck the other into your seat bag for on-road emergencies.
Start into the wind (or not). Many cyclists take note of wind direction and plan their route to give them a headwind first and then a tailwind during the final miles. When it’s cold, this means they won’t be riding home into a chilly headwind with base layers damp from sweat.
It’s worth noting that a few riders prefer the opposite. They argue that they ride warmer when fighting a headwind so it’s better to work into one when finishing. Try each method to see what works for your metabolism, clothing choices and psychology.
Ride early or late. When brisk wind is predicted, riding at either end of the day may mean breezes instead of gusts.
I was a high school teacher for many years. After a day of holding forth on Shakespeare, I really needed my afternoon ride. But invariably the calm day would degenerate into a howling gale shortly before I got on the bike.
I began to call it the “7th period effect.” All day the leaves on the trees in the commons area outside my classroom would hang limply. But midway through the last class, regular as the tides, first the leaves would tremble, then rustle, then flutter. By the time the final bell rang, the trees would be bent over, clinging with all the power of their root systems to stay upright.
Or so it seemed. Finally I got smart and scheduled some of my rides for early in the morning when it was calm. A little lost sleep was a small price to pay. I also could have waited to ride in the 90 minutes before sunset when those trees became vertical again, but then training would have overlapped the dinner hour. Some things are worse than a windy ride. Delayed dinner is one.
Use mind power. I have a friend who likes to chant to himself as he bangs into the invisible wall: The wind is my friend … the wind is my friend … the wind is my friend… He uses it as a sort of mantra that has the practical benefit of providing a metronome-like beat for his cadence.
However, you don’t need to get mystical to benefit from positive thinking. You can approach it from a pragmatic (some would say cynical) aspect too. Just tell yourself that it’s going to be windy on some rides so quit complaining and get on with it. Period.
Or picture yourself as a grizzled Belgian pro in 1933, spare tubular tire looped across your shoulders in a figure 8, scratchy wool shorts and jersey, goggles resting rakishly on a cloth cycling cap, heading into a cold wind straight off the North Sea. With this mindset the toughest wind-driven rainy ride will be no problem—just another 3 hours on the bike.
Either approach, or the special one you concoct, works fine. Choose according to your personality and remember that it is important. Your attitude about windy rides will go a long way toward determining your acceptance and enjoyment.
I mentioned Shakespeare a bit ago, and here’s the right place for one of my favorite quotes from the Bard:
“There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Bike Handling in the Wind
The same bike-handling skills that help you stay upright in calm conditions work well when the air is agitated. However, there are several techniques that make windy rides safer. They are especially helpful when riding in a group.
Stay loose. Keep your shoulders and elbows relaxed to help your bike remain on course in a gusty wind. If your upper-body muscles are tense, the front wheel won’t be free to move slightly in crosswind gusts and the bike will become more difficult to handle. Loose, relaxed and in control is the ticket.
Stay ready. Anticipate places where the wind is likely to hit you harder. Two examples
are when passing something that serves as a windbreak, and when large vehicles pass
you. A momentary lull in the crosswind will often be followed by a strong blast that pushes you to the side. Don’t be caught off guard.
Descend carefully. Strong winds on steep, long descents can be extra dangerous because you’re going faster. The wind’s power is multiplied—your speed creates a strong headwind and then crosswinds grab your bike and push you to the side. Just as you manage to adjust to the sideways force, the gust diminishes and you find yourself overcorrecting. It can be a continual battle all the way to the bottom.
Again, the trick is not to fight the bike. Traffic permitting, allow a gust to move you sideways a bit. When it first hits, it might seem that you’re going to be blown a couple of meters to the side. But this rarely happens. If you remain relaxed the bike will right itself you’ll be able to regain your line.
It helps to get into an aerodynamic tuck so you present less surface to a crosswind. This also ensures correct weight balance between the wheels. Some riders freak out in these conditions and sit up. This transfers more weight to the rear wheel, lightening the front wheel and making it more susceptible to the wind’s sideways force.
Your bike will be more stable during windy descents if you continue to pedal. Applying even minimal power to the rear wheel helps control. Some theorists contend that the legs’ circular motion acts like a gyroscope. I’m not sure I buy that, but experience says there’s greater stability when pedaling compared to coasting.
Riders in areas where there are fast descents and a good deal of wind have been known to install a big gear—say, a 53×11—so they can put power to the wheel when they’d otherwise be spun out.
Avoid aero wheels. Windy days are not the time for aerodynamic wheels with deep rims. They present a larger surface for crosswinds, which means much more bicycle instability, especially on fast descents. Stick with standard wheels having low, box-section rims and conventional spokes.
Okay, if you can’t bear to be non-aero, use only the fancy rear wheel and put a standard wheel in front. The rear wheel can’t turn the bike, so sideways forces against it don’t affect control. In contrast, making a sail of your front wheel will guarantee that the bike is as unmanageable as a petulant 6-year-old. That’s why time trialists will use a rear disk but a spoked front unless the air is dead calm.
Sit up in a tailwind. When the wind is in the magical 160 degrees behind you, enhance its help by sitting higher like hoisting a sail to increase your surface area. In a tailwind coming somewhat from the side, Colorado rider Tom Petrie even suggests angling your back so a larger amount of its surface catches those high-velocity air molecules.
Here’s Tom’s trick: Let’s say the tailwind is angling in from the left. Move your left hand to the handlebar drop and your right hand to the brake lever hood. This position twists you slightly so your back faces more to the left. Reverse the position for a right-side tailwind. This technique might get you down the road a bit faster or with less energy.
Remember, with greater speed comes greater responsibility. At 30 mph (48 kph) things happen much quicker than at normal cruising pace. Enjoy the tailwind’s help but don’t let it lull you. Road hazards and other obstacles will appear suddenly and give you less time to react.
How to Ride in a Paceline When It’s Windy
A paceline, whether it’s windy or calm, is a team effort. Even if you don’t know the other riders (say, in a race or century ride), as soon as you choose to ride with them you’re responsible for their welfare—and they for yours.
The techniques of paceline riding are pretty simple in calm conditions. But when it’s windy, even skilled riders can have trouble unless 2 rules are obeyed:
1. Ride predictably. Abrupt moves or unexpected actions disrupt the paceline because experienced riders are accustomed to certain ways of doing things. Riding jerkily, pedaling sporadically, sitting up abruptly or failing to point out road hazards are examples of unpredictable riding. When it’s windy, these problems are magnified because riders must think not only about the actions of others but also the wind direction. And if the wind is really strong, the bike becomes harder to control—increasing the danger in close quarters.
2. Know which way the wind is blowing. Wind direction determines where the greatest draft is found. In a direct headwind, a straight line gives each rider maximum shelter. If the wind is from the right side, riders won’t stay directly behind each other. Instead they’ll instinctively move to the left of the bike they’re following, feeling for the least wind resistance. When the road changes direction, so does the wind, and this means each rider’s relationship to the bike in front changes too. You need to develop a sailor’s appreciation and knowledge of the wind direction.
Practice paceline techniques with 2 or more friends. Even in gusty conditions strive to stay steady. Keep 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) between your front wheel and the rear wheel you’re following. Get a feel for the “sweet spot” of maximum draft. You’ll always feel air resistance decrease when you find the right place.
There’s no need to turn paceline practice into interval training. Go steadily but at a moderate speed, working together to develop skill and confidence. Riding with friends in a paceline makes windy days easier and more fun.
It’s always safer not to overlap the wheel of the rider you’re behind, and doing so is never necessary in a headwind, tailwind or light crosswind. In the last condition, merely ride a foot or so to the leeward side of the bike in front. Things change, however, when a crosswind intensifies and riders inch forward in search of better shelter. Instead of a straight and narrow paceline, the riders become staggered diagonally across the road in a formation known as an echelon.
How to Ride in an Echelon
An echelon is a special type of paceline used in crosswinds. Front wheels overlap rear wheels, something to be avoided in most other conditions.
If the wind is from the right, for example, the first cyclist rides as far to the right side of the lane as possible. The second rider tucks in behind with his front wheel on the left of the first rider’s rear wheel. The third rider does the same behind the second rider, and so on. A diagonal line results (illustration next page).
Depending on the velocity of the crosswind, the second rider’s front hub may be even with the lead rider’s rear hub or even his crankset. Other riders follow suit until there’s no room remaining on the shoulder or traffic lane. Then left-out riders form a new echelon behind the first one.
You can imagine the huge risk of riding in an echelon. When wheels are overlapping, a sudden swerve by anyone in the line can knock down those behind like a row of dominoes. This is why echelons are only for experienced cyclists who trust the others.
The imperative rule in echelon riding is to always pull off into the wind. So in our example with the wind from the right, the front rider would move slightly to his right, reduce speed, and slide back along the line to tag on at the end. If he were to move left instead of right, he’d hit the rider behind, who’d hit the next rider, and so on—not a good way to make friends.
Despite the potential for calamity, an echelon is the best way for a small group (or even 2 riders) to handle a strong crosswind. In windy European races you’ll often see tight echelons of a dozen or more riders angled across the road (closed to traffic). Riders fight to get into the front echelon because that’s where the strong men are. Other echelons that form behind often quickly begin losing ground. In a strong crosswind it’s impossible to bridge even a 50-meter gap between fast-moving echelons. Once the selection is made, the race may well be over for those left behind.
How to Use Wind for Cycling Training
Now that you know techniques for riding safely and efficiently in wind, you can make it a potent training tool. Let’s look at 5 effective ways.
But first, note that exercise intensity in this guide is given as a percentage of maximum heart rate (HR). This is a convenient method for determining how hard you should ride. Because pinpointing your max HR requires a red-line physical effort, it is best done in an exercise physiology lab with medical safeguards.
If you have your physician’s permission, you can approximate max HR on your own with the following test. I strongly suggest doing it on an indoor trainer for safety—you can’t go all-out and still be alert for road hazards. Also, it’s easier to have someone with you just in case help is necessary.
Max heart rate test: Wearing a heart monitor that records the maximum HR attained, warm up for 20 minutes. Then select a gear that lets you pedal at about 14 mph (22 kph) at 90 rpm. Hold that cadence throughout the test while increasing speed (and the gear, as necessary) by one mile or kilometer per hour every minute. Keep progressing until you’re pedaling as hard as you can to maintain 90 rpm. When it seems impossible to continue, sprint! Then cool down, regain your vision, and check the heart monitor. The highest heart rate achieved will be very close to your lab-determined maximum. Use it for calculating the percentages that follow.
Training with Headwinds
Develop power. Ride hard for 2-5 minutes several times into a brisk headwind. Pedal easily between each hard effort (“interval”) for about half of its length. For instance, if your “on” interval is 4 minutes, pedal easily for 2 minutes before going again.
The on interval should be done at an intensity that produces a heart rate of around 90% of your maximum during the last third of the effort. Use gearing that allows a cadence of 90-100 rpm. If the wind is strong, this might be a relatively low gear using the small chainring. Don’t make the mistake of overgearing. Grinding along in a big gear won’t help you develop useable power—and it could injure your knees.
A gusty wind means you’ll probably need to shift to maintain your best cadence. The same goes on roads with curves or hedges or other windbreaks that can influence wind velocity. Be ready to change gears to maintain your cadence.
Make mild hills tougher. Suppose you have an event coming up that features numerous steep climbs. But you have only shallow grades on your training roads. How can you
prepare for abrupt hills?
The answer is to climb directly into a headwind. The stronger the wind, the steeper the grade will feel. Many riders dislike climbing into headwinds but this is a potent weapon in your arsenal of climbing techniques.
A headwind also makes a hill longer in the sense that it takes more time to reach the top than in calm conditions. So if you don’t have long or steep climbs to train on, a stiff headwind will artificially make mild hills generate a more pronounced training effect.
Training with Tailwinds
Improve climbing cadence. Many riders bog down on climbs because their pedal speed slows. It’s usually not a matter of fatigue but simply a lack of concentration coupled with the belief that climbing demands a slower cadence. Riding up a gradual grade with a tailwind can help elevate cadence to more efficient levels.
When you encounter a 3-4% climb with a tailwind, do 2-5 minute repeats at a rapid cadence (for climbing) of 85-100 rpm. Between repeats, turn around and pedal easily for about the same time back down the hill.
The goal in this workout is to pedal fast but retain a smooth style. Let the wind help you. Focus on a round pedal stroke. Use a gear that requires intensity a bit below normal climbing intervals. Aim for about 85% of your max heart rate near the end of the effort so you can concentrate on your pedaling form rather than your exertion.
Develop sprint speed. To win any sprint, even for the city limit sign against your friends, you need to be comfortable with the speed that builds in the final kilometer. That’s where sprints are often won as everyone looks for a good wheel to follow. A rapid cadence is necessary as speed cranks up.
Train for this situation with tailwind intervals 30-60 seconds long. Jump out of the saddle to get a big gear rolling and use the wind as you would a rider’s draft to maintain top speed for a minute. Roll easily for 2 minutes to recover, then repeat. Keep your cadence high—100-120 rpm—to simulate riding in a fast pack.
“Motorpace.” Motorpacing is a proven training technique used by racers for decades. It’s traditionally done by riding closely behind a small motorbike, using its draft to simulate the speed experienced in a fast-moving peloton. In the early days of cycling, solo riders drafted behind tandems to get the same effect.
Motorpacing is helpful because a bike feels different at speed. You’ll gain experience with that and work just as hard or harder in the draft of a motorbike because you’re going considerably faster. But motorpacing has obvious dangers and is probably illegal in many places. At the least it requires a driver with the skills to pace you safely.
A great alternative is a raging tailwind. It works just like a pace vehicle to increase your speed, your cadence and demand a full effort. You’ll get a feel for how the bike handles at speeds you couldn’t maintain for long without a tailwind’s help.
Do long repeats of 5-10 minutes with the wind at your back. Concentrate on a smooth, round pedal stroke. Don’t overgear if the wind is relatively weak. A cadence of 100-110 is optimum. Spin easily in a lower gear for several minutes between each wind-assisted interval. If necessary because of the course layout, you may need to U-turn and do the rest interval by pedaling a very low gear back into the wind.
3 Windy Cycling Workouts
This workout combines the power-building efforts of riding into the wind with the speed- and cadence-increasing benefits of a tailwind.
Choose a flat or rolling road that goes directly into a strong wind.
Push along for 30 minutes as a warm-up. Use a low gear and spin—don’t overdo it because this workout is tough.
Still against the wind, ride for 4 minutes at a hard pace. Use a gear big enough to allow a cadence of only around 90 rpm. Pedal smoothly and work on your aerodynamic position. Heart rate should reach about 90% of max in the last minute of this interval.
At the end of the 4 minutes, make a U-turn (check carefully for traffic first) and recover by spinning easily for 1 minute with the tailwind.
Shift to a harder gear and ride as fast as possible for 1 minute, still with the tailwind, while keeping your cadence above 100 rpm.
Ride easily for another minute in the same direction to recover.
U-turn into the wind and start another 4-minute hard interval to repeat the process. In most wind and road conditions, you’ll cover more ground going back with the tailwind during each 7-minute sequence. So after 4 or 5 cycles, you’ll be about where you started your 30-minute warm-up and can spin home.
Wind is almost never steady. It proceeds in gusts and lulls. This doesn’t allow steady work but rather requires an exhausting series of hard efforts against gusts separated by easier pedaling between them, often only seconds apart. To make it tougher, the length of gusts and lulls is never the same. You never know how long you’ll have to pedal really hard. You can use this uncertainty—and the power of the wind—to your advantage because the gusts create a natural interval workout.
After warming up, ride into the wind.
The game is to keep your cadence above 90 rpm against each gust and your intensity at around 90% of your maximum heart rate. Shift gears as necessary, and keep something in reserve because you don’t know how long each gust-enforced interval will last.
When the wind eases, reduce your effort slightly until the next gust forces you to push hard again. I find that these intervals of uncertain length are easier to handle mentally than an endless series of timed repeats. They also mimic the demands of competitive group rides or races where you never know how long—or how often—you’ll have to ride hard.
Find a square or rectangular course with approximately 1-mile (1.6-km) straights. These are especially plentiful in the windy Midwest. By riding around the square, you’ll get 1 mile each of headwind and tailwind along with 2 miles of crosswinds.
Use the headwind section to build power with a gear that allows a cadence of 80- 90 rpm. Effort should elicit a heart rate of around 90-95% of your max. Really work on this section but don’t overgear and let your cadence bog down. As always, pedal smoothly and concentrate on good form.
Use the tailwind section to go as fast as you can. Check your bike computer and try to top your highest maximum speed. Vary the gearing to see what cadence moves you faster and learn how bike handling is affected. Remember that because you’re going faster, road hazards come at you much quicker.
Use one crosswind section for tempo riding with a snappy cadence at an effort of about 80% of max heart rate.
Use the other crosswind section for recovery. Gear way down and spin comfortably, letting your heart rate drop to around 60% of max. As discussed above, wind from the side has a big effect on bike control. So use the crosswind sections of this training to practice keeping your shoulders and arms loose. Stay loose and smooth to reduce the effect of sideways buffeting by gusts. Work to develop an aerodynamic position that you can sustain in spite of the effort and wind.
Poor Man’s Wind Tunnel
Especially if you’re a time trialist or triathlete, refining your position is a great use for a windy day. You can spend significant bucks on an analysis in a real wind tunnel—or you can simply find a flat road with a steady headwind. Here’s the procedure:
Warm up well, then ride into the wind for 1 mile (1.6 km) sitting up with your hands on the bar tops near the stem as if you were climbing. Don’t push too hard. Your heart rate should be about 80% of max. Notice your heart rate, subjective feelings of intensity and ground speed. If you have a power meter, how many watts does it take to maintain your speed?
U-turn and cruise back to the starting point. Ride the mile again at the same speed but this time with your hands on the brake lever hoods. The effort should feel easier due to your lower profile. Your heart rate should decrease slightly, as should the watts required.
Now that you’ve “calibrated” your subjective feelings of effort as well as your heart rate and wattage, ride the mile again at the same speed to work on your aerodynamic position. Try different postures for several hundred meters at a time—head up, head a bit lower, shoulders scrunched in compared to squared, elbows bent or straight.
After your calibration rides, small changes in position should register in your wattage, heart rate or perceived exertion—or all 3. They should decrease as your aero position improves.
Of course, a headwind isn’t always perfectly steady. Its velocity could change during the course of this procedure. And riding at this test speed isn’t the same as race pace. So you’ll have to use some judgment about what is producing less or more effort for a similar speed. But even this admittedly unscientific “wind tunnel” can produce results that are surprisingly revealing and useful.
May the Wind Be at Your Back (and Your Front)
I have to confess, when I started riding I didn’t like blustery wind any more than most cyclists. But during the last 35 years of being on a bike in all conditions at home in Colorado and elsewhere, I’ve come to tolerate, learn from and even enjoy the wind’s challenges. While I was writing this, my wife and I set off on our tandem for one of our favorite rides, up to Black Canyon National Park. The steep 6-mile (10-km) climb to the entrance begins east of town. Getting there requires 7 miles into the legendary Cerro Summit headwind I described earlier. On this day the wind was bending trees as we plugged along on the gradual climb to the turn-off.
As we toiled against the uphill headwind, I inventoried the tricks and techniques I’ve mentioned. We were riding aerodynamically with snug-fitting jerseys. We had geared down so we could keep our cadence around 90 rpm even on the steeper pitches. But most of all we were having fun, even reveling in the challenge of the wind and anticipating the ensuing climb and crosswind descent. And we were looking forward to a wonderful reward for it all—the roaring tailwind back to town!
If you have the right attitude—and the right techniques—even a ferocious wind won’t keep you off your bike. It will help you become a better rider.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.