Cycling into headwind

Leaves across the ground in Hyde Park cycle lane

We started off the year with some rather dramatic wind speeds sweeping across the UK and London. For some cyclists, this meant brushing the dust off the Oyster card and braving the public transport system. Undoubtedly, as soon as the aggressive fare rises were noticed, promises were made to get back on the bike.

So with no option of public transport how do you cycle into headwind?

  • Reduce your resistance: This is the time when bikes with drop handlebars come into their element. Get down low over the handlebars to reduce the amount of wind resistance your body creates. If your bike doesn’t have drop handlebars then you may be able to fit aero bars. Remember to keep your elbows in. For an extreme solution – get on a recumbent bike!
  • Avoid loose fitting clothes: They’ll flap wildly in the wind and slow you down. Think lycra.
  • Gear down: Cycling into headwind feels similar to riding uphill. With someone having a huge fan at full speed in front of your face. You should gear down just as you would when hill climbing. This will help prevent any knee problems.
  • Slipstream: If you are riding with someone or near a fellow commuter there is the option of slipstreaming. This can improve your performance by around 30%. Of course some bike commuters don’t particularly want you slipstreaming them.
  • Pack light: This is the right time to be very strict with what you’ve packed on your bike – aim to reduce it and you’ll feel the benefit more than ever when cycling into a headwind.

Did you brave cycling into the headwind? How did you find it? Any tips for fellow commuters?

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42 Responses to Cycling into headwind

  1. Claire 06/01/2012 at 10:20 am #

    I biked in on Tues Wed and Thursday and twice screamed like a girl when giant gusts pushed me into the middle of my lane. Thank goodness no traffic was near me at that point. Cycling west on Upper Thames Street was particularly dodgy with the gales coming straight off the river.

    Had to take the tube to work this morning – too much to squueze into my rucksack – and sod’s law dictates that the wind has dropped completely!

  2. Dermot, E2 06/01/2012 at 10:21 am #

    Cycling into a headwind is one of my pet hates, and there’s been some serious gusts this week too which have caused a few wobbles (so, extra care taken when cycling in traffic – keeping my distance from large vehicles)

    On the plus side, a strong headwind on the journey to work in the morning usually means a strong tailwind on the journey home!

    • Andreas 06/01/2012 at 10:46 am #

      Good way of looking at it!

  3. hjwatso1 06/01/2012 at 10:21 am #

    Yesterday was a nightmare. With horizontal rain and wind that wouldn’t let up, I had to dismount on the Lower Lea Bridge as I couldn’t move forward not matter how fast I peddled. That’s the worst I have ever encountered.

    What didn’t help was other road users(inc cyclists) passing to close so that if you got hit by a gust you would end up moving a foot in either direction without any control of your position.

    Wort bit was trying to dry my clothes at work… radiators were covered with cyclists kit!

    • Andreas 06/01/2012 at 10:46 am #

      I imagine that as soon as you hit the Thames the gusts were very strong.

      • hjwatso1 06/01/2012 at 10:49 am #

        Nightmare by the river. But at least it’s consistent and you therefore can deal with it. In the city, you don’t know where a cross wind is coming from.

        The waterproof socks didn’t hold up yesterday either. Soaked right thru ;(

  4. Hugh 06/01/2012 at 10:31 am #

    Even without aero bars, try resting the upper part of your forearms on the top of your handlebars with elbows close together and assume an aero position. It takes a bit of practice but is well worth the effort. Search YouTube for clips of Fabian Cancellara leaving the peleton standing in the final 40km of the 2010 Paris-Roubaix race for a masterclass demonstration of this technique.

    And I can understand why some riders do not take too kindly to unknown entities slipstreaming them – it is potentially a very dangerous positon for both riders and if you don’t know the experience of the rider 10″ from your rear tyre, you are probably right to be annoyed.

  5. Andrew Ebling 06/01/2012 at 10:31 am #

    A constant headwind is one thing, but strong gusts as side winds can be really quite dangerous.

    For this reason I use the Met Office 5 day forecast which includes both wind direction/strength but also gusts:

    FWIW they correctly predicted today would be much calmer a whole week in advance. I was hoping to do my 60 mile round trip commute for the first time this year today, but an surface ice warning put an end to that – I came off on black ice before Christmas and have no intention of a repeat performance.

  6. Giles Roadnight 06/01/2012 at 10:32 am #

    Yes, very strong winds. I had 56 MPH headwind gusts according to my phone.

    Headwinds are OK (but not desirable). It’s the sideways gusts that you don’t see coming that push you into the middle of the road which are nasty.

    Was feeling a bit lazy last night so slip streamed a guy for about 10 miles! :-)

  7. Emma 06/01/2012 at 10:33 am #

    I was too gutless on Tuesday but braved Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday morning was tough going getting from South London to West London but I felt like I flew home in the evening :-)

  8. Max 06/01/2012 at 10:36 am #

    I’m new to commuting…only started 4 weeks ago, after not being near a bike in 30 years. Learning to ride again, in winter, across central London…has been testing, to say the least.

    But I totally love it. However, I’m discovering that headwinds are my least favourite thing. I have experienced all of the above users’ comments and been scared half to death a few times in the last few days, especially.

    On the other hand, the thrill of self-accomplishment when I arrive at work, having pushed myself, is very rewarding. What puzzles me, though, is that I seem to hit a headwind whichever direction I ride in, when it’s windy. I look forward to having a tailwind, like Dermot…especially if it’s on the way home!

    • Giles Roadnight 06/01/2012 at 10:40 am #

      You never notice a tail wind though – all you notice is a lack of wind and a calm serenity as you cycle along without the wind whistling past!

      I got in in record time this week with the wind with me but had a nightmare on the way home each night.

      • Ira David 08/01/2012 at 6:08 pm #

        When pedaling into the wind first, I think of the tailwind for the return trip as my reward for having accomplished a difficult feat.

        If I have tailwind on my outbound trip, I think of the headwind home as my “real test” for life having been so much nicer to me earlier in the day.

        :))

  9. PaulR 06/01/2012 at 10:40 am #

    Riding into a headwind is easy enough to deal with. As you say, get low, go aero, use lower gears and accept that your journey is going to take a bit longer. It is the severe cross winds that you get, especially at junctions in the city, that I really hate. The tall buildings channel the wind and can accelerate it, and I’ve seen a lot of riders this week get caught out.

    I have mid profile/semi aero wheels on my road bike most of the time (best upgrade I’ve ever made to the bike in terms of performance) but they just aren’t so suitable when you have severe cross winds as they act like sails. I saw one guy riding down Gray’s Inn Road on a track bike with fancy 3-spoke aero track wheels yesterday. Crossing the junction with Clerkenwell Road the cross wind through him across the road straight into oncoming traffic – he was very lucky that the oncoming car was able to slam its brakes on in time and swerve to avoid him.

    Also, is sliptstreaming when commuting really sensible? I know some people have very strong views on this and I’d be interested to know what people here think. I don’t tend to trust other riders (that I don’t know) enough to be comfortable sitting on their wheel, but do sometimes find myself taking turns now and again when I can see that the other person wants to.

    • Barton 13/01/2012 at 8:33 pm #

      Sadly my views on slipstreaming are selfish. When others slipstream behind me it is b/c I am an obese cyclist who creates a large pocket for them to hide in. I had people who always zip past me pull up and get in my slipstream so they had a break while I did all the work. Last time I suggested they pull in front and do some of the work as well (after about 3 miles of this nonsense): instead they passed me by and continued on, quite refreshed after their break while I was still swearing loudly at mother nature and her blasted wind.

      So yes, I think slipstreaming while commuting is a big no-no, unless you are prepared to share the workload.

  10. hjwatso1 06/01/2012 at 10:46 am #

    Slipstreaming is just a big no no when commuting. Too dangerous. Staying behind someone with a safe distance between you and them, fine. But never slipstream unless you are in a group who know what they are doing out on a training ride.

  11. Hannah 06/01/2012 at 10:54 am #

    I sadly got the tube on Tuesday and Thursday. I am happy to ride into a reasonable headwind, but when there are crazy gusts, I find it quite scary. Not wanting to be blown under a bus, I made do with the Misery Line. People always assume the rain will be the biggest issue for cycling, but it’s really only strong winds (and potentially extreme ice – which is unlikely on main roads in London) which will stop me from riding, simply as it can be so dangerous.

    Constant monitoring of the weather forecast told me today would be fine – and it was! Fingers crossed the storm has passed :)

    • Andrew Ebling 06/01/2012 at 11:03 am #

      Hannah – it’s quite possible to hit ice, even in central London; I’ve come off before. The places to watch out for are bridges, where the wind can chill both the road surface and the ground underneath it.

  12. Dermot, E2 06/01/2012 at 11:03 am #

    You may not notice a tailwind as such, but I clocked up 65kmh (about 40mph) the other night on my way home because I had such a strong wind at my back.

    I’d agree with the comments above on slipstreaming – you never know when the person you’re following is going to stop or turn suddenly so best to keep your distance!

  13. Simon 06/01/2012 at 11:14 am #

    Cycling into strong headwinds is not fun at all. It’s my least favourite pastime, just below drinking petrol. Best advice is shift up a gear and put your head down.

  14. Jozudave 06/01/2012 at 11:28 am #

    The wind was so bad on some bridges recently that it probably would have been avisable for me to just get off and walk across rather than risk being blown in front of a bus.

    Luckily for me I get to work from home one day a week so if I choose wisely then I can avoid the worst day. Happily I chose yesterday so was warm and safe in my living room listening to the branches flap against the windows!

  15. Adrian 06/01/2012 at 11:30 am #

    I’m currently riding in the new forest and usually cruise at 20-23 mph, one gust hit me so hard i stopped dead in front of a HGV with a fully loaded container and heard the driver scream in terror as it happened (it really was that loud). Thank you to whoever designed the brakes on the mercedes actros.

  16. Ben 06/01/2012 at 11:44 am #

    Drop handlebars, get out the saddle but stay low, learn how to wheelie, it teaches you to use your knees to maintain balance when you get sidewinds.

  17. Rob Davies 06/01/2012 at 11:48 am #

    In some ways it was amusing, other ways very worringing on my commute on Tuesday/Wednesday.

    The gusting crosswinds are the worst. Drivers seem oblivious to the effects these would have on cyclists, and wondered why some cyclists were dominating lanes.

    The worst point was the traditionally ‘gusty’ area with the downdraughts by Centrepoint. Two separate cyclists fell off their bikes ahead of me, while others dismounted. Several workmen thought there was something rather funny about that, but then lost their own hard-hats in the wind…

    It’s certainly been a good few days for testing reactions, leaning one way, then the other :-)

    • Andreas 06/01/2012 at 5:54 pm #

      Sounds like you cycled into a mini-hurricane!

  18. Mark S 06/01/2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Cycling into headwind=great resistance training :-) I actually did get a thanks from a commuter last year after I (unknowingly) gave him a tow along CS7 as I turned off opposite the Waitrose in Balham!

    Have to agree with others tho that crosswinds are a far bigger danger, my technique if I’m expecting them is to move further out into the lane so I have a larger safety cushion on my left and try to anticipate them when passing side roads between tail buildings. there is normally a fairly vicious “wall of wind” as you head w-bound along Millbank(CS8) just about in line with the speed camera!

    For the sake of comparision last Tuesday(3rd) I ended up doing 2 morning commutes. My first was about 5.5miles heading s-bound and I managed a moving average of 13.9mph. I then had to ride n-bound into London and did about 12 miles with a moving average of 17.9mph – wanna guess which way the wind was blowing ;-) I even managed to snag a tailwind coming down CS7 towards Stockwell and did a rather effortless overtake on a bus at just shy of 30mph (normally balls out sprint speed….)

  19. Pete 06/01/2012 at 2:13 pm #

    Did Tuesday and Wednesday. Got blown into work and toiled home into the wind! I usually don’t use the cycle paths along the A30 as they slow me down (poor quality, shared with pedestrians etc) but with those gusts I wasn’t going to take any chances.

    Brings me on to the question of cycle paths. What’s the feeling about not using paths that are provided. Some round my way you have to stop every few dozen metres for side roads or the surface is so rough I’d only brave them on my mountain bike. Been abused by a few motorists for not beng in the cycle path/lane over the years but I’m an experienced cyclist and I don’t see that they are or should be compulsory. Have you ever done an article on them Andreas?

    • Mark S 06/01/2012 at 2:27 pm #

      Highway Code 63 states:
      Cycle Lanes. These are marked by a white line (which may be broken) along the carriageway (see Rule 140). Keep within the lane when practicable. When leaving a cycle lane check before pulling out that it is safe to do so and signal your intention clearly to other road users. Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory and will depend on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer.

      Basically if you get moaned at by drivers for not using the cycle lane you could ask them why they aren’t using a motorway ;-) Or ignore them…..

  20. Bethan 06/01/2012 at 3:05 pm #

    I’ll take rain over wind any day, but my bike is heavy like a tank and it just makes life harder rather than more dangerous, though I do have to work hard to keep it steady in gusts. I once saw a cylcist get lifted off the road and dumped onto the pavement on Waterloo Bridge during a thunderstorm. It would have more spectacular if he’d been able to carry on cycling (unfortunately he fell off). Apparently we get either snow or wind in winter, according to the weather peoples, last years snow/ice was far more dicey..

  21. AlexT 06/01/2012 at 4:56 pm #

    The resistance training point has already been made, but in addition to that I must admit that i enjoy the King Canute style sheer bloody-mindedness that I seem to get when cycling into a strong headwind.

    I am quite sure that I can turn back the wind if I yell loud enough right?

  22. CHRIS 06/01/2012 at 6:04 pm #

    All you folk down in London on about some slight wind! I live in northern Scotland and when it gets to 60/70 mph…that’s when we get heads down! Seriously, if on busy roads do take care, go in to a lower gear than you normally would- more control at a slightly higher cadence and grip your handlebars a little more tightly. finally, do wear clear vision cycle glasses- otherwise the wind on your face will at best cause you so squint your eyes at best and make you turn your head down or sideways at worst. I live near the Cairngorms, record speed over the Xmas holidays was 165mph.

  23. Toby 06/01/2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Sure has been gusty over the past few days for my commute from south east to city, got pushed toward traffic a few times and like other people have said already motorists don’t react by giving more space! Just chose low gears and perseverance! It’s been challenging but rewarding too!

  24. Phil Russell 06/01/2012 at 11:02 pm #

    What?? Winds reaching gale-FARCE? (sic) Best to leave the bike at home and suffer with the other bus-and-tube sheep. I got blown clean off the road and onto the walkway outside the Hearses of Parliament, close to Big Bang, about a hundred years ago, but being a wafer-thin seventeen-year-old at the time, I just bounced. No way to treat a Campag-equipped Legnano, I thought, but perseveeered (sic) and rode on, as you do.
    And, as you know, Andreas, White-Van-Men get blown sideways in gusts, as do tall lorries and other vehicles, so although windy riding in traffic can be a larf, you could laugh your way into an ambulance, armstrong. If you give it up for a day or two, you can get stuck in later, innit! Don’t be a statty stick.
    P.R.

  25. Kyklos 07/01/2012 at 10:24 am #

    Ha ha love the above comment, and all the sics. However I salute all ye brave wind warriors!

  26. Dave Barker 07/01/2012 at 11:54 am #

    as a commuter (7 miles each way) it never bothered me too much, but it often provided an opening for talking to other cyclists; and this can develop into agreed pace-sharing; sure – nobody likes to be slipstreamed mile after mile, but that isn’t the only option.
    as a club/long distance rider: agree with your suggestions, plus:
    start very steady to get a feel for the conditions and your own condition;
    look after yourself more carefully than you might normally do: more stops, more food, more drinks, sometimes less clothing (you’ll sweat more)
    if it’s an option: work together ( and there are some very specific tips like a small echelon if, as is usually the case, the wind is not absolutely head on)
    mindset: this will vary, but you need to develop your own

  27. goonz 07/01/2012 at 3:07 pm #

    I braved the wind each day last week on my 18mile round commute. I cycle through Stratford and was very nearly knocked off my bike along the mile end road and over the bridge. I have just finished reading lance Armstrong’s biography and I basically thought to myself what would lance do. So I pushed up a gear and repeated in my mind to mash down on the pedals as hard as I could and beat the wind. After what won’t break you can only make you stronger. Also its much harder on a Mountain bike.

  28. Reigs 08/01/2012 at 11:16 pm #

    Never slipstream without permission it’s just nuts. Change down a few gears, assume the “posish” and think how many calories your burning off.

    • Reigs 08/01/2012 at 11:18 pm #

      *you’re* doh!

  29. Dave Green 09/01/2012 at 1:33 pm #

    I started cycling to work again on Tuesday 3rd January, after a 7 month break – the strong headwind I faced coming from Lewisham to the City weren’t quite the welcome back I was expecting!

    My return to cycling was facilitated by a Christmas gift of a Slicks 25 suit carrier-backpack (http://www.slicks.cc/suit25). This comes personally recommended as a way of getting smart clothes to work on a bike, and it is generally well designed for city cyclists. However, the main drawback (mentioned in all of the reviews) is its weight – bearable on a normal day, but murder on that first day when lugging a suit, shoes, laptop, charger, heavy D-Lock and assorted other things on my back into the strongest wind of the winter!

    Still – in some ways this was a good thing. I got to work in one piece, and resolved that if I’d managed that on day 1, it would be downhill from there!

  30. Tim Karajas 19/01/2012 at 5:09 am #

    Hi from Perth, Western Australia.

    We get some nasty sea breezes in Perth (ever heard of the Fremantle doctor?) but I’m lucky that I usually get a tailwind to and/from work. At this time of year, I have the opposite problem to you Londoners with hot headwinds home on 40 degree (celsius) days.

    Great advice about dropping a couple of gears and taking your time!

    Can anyone offer some clothing advice for wet and windy riding? Is there any product on the market that keeps your legs totally dry in the rain and wind but isn’t completely non-breathable and sail-like?

  31. MontyzL1V 27/01/2012 at 11:23 am #

    Braved the elements myself last SAT – Well it was a nice day when I started. An hour and a half in [with an hour to go] it hit me… a gale and at the worst moment too. Gradual inclines throughout Essex. dropping a couple of gears helped but it was tough. Helped a lot maving to the drop handles and establishing an even pace/cadence. Took longer but some stretches and a hot bath were both ewelcome rewards.

    I find a good rub with Iboproben with diclofenic works wonders for my knees however check that you’re able to take them first and won’t suffer any reaction!

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