Beat the Wind on Your Bike
Whether you’re a racer, commuter, or recreational rider, there’s one invisible force that can suck (or blow) all the fun right out of a ride – wind. Even without it, overcoming air resistance uses up 70%-90% of your energy at normal speeds (the resistance goes up as your speed increases), so when you add in a headwind it can feel like you’re riding with flat tires. Uphill. Underwater. It’s brutal.
Tailwinds on the other hand are theoretical constructs. Like negative squares or Schrodinger’s cat, we have to accept the possibility of tailwinds to make the math work, but nobody’s ever experienced one and as science continues to improve we’ll likely revise our understanding with something more accurate. In the mean time, let’s take a look at what you can do to overcome the windy imbalance and make your rides as breezy (or breezeless) as possible!
The biggest single change you can make to affect wind resistance is your body position. Riding in an upright position with your arms extended means your whole torso is catching wind and creating drag. By getting low, bending your arms, and tucking your elbows into your body you can reduce your surface area by more than half, and that’s 50+% of the wind blowing right past you as opposed to holding you back. Go ahead and give it a shot. Next time you’re huffing away into the wind, get low and watch your speed climb despite your effort staying the same.
And if you find yourself riding into the wind a lot (or constantly riding at the edge of your effort but hungry for more speed), consider making some changes to make your position more permanently aero. Drop bars help you get even lower and duck out of the wind, narrower bars can shrink up your cross-sectional area too as they pull your shoulders together, and a negative angle stem (or turning yours upside down) will also help you get lower and let the wind roll off your back.
Quit Yer’ Flappin’
But what about when you’re already in the most aero position possible? Or when you’re hauling a bag full of stuff that won’t let you get that tight tuck? If your clothes are flapping, you’re probably flailing. Loose clothing not only increases your surface area, but the flapping also creates turbulence that adds to drag. Skin hugging cuts, and slick fabrics on the other hand, help the air slide right off. That’s why you’ll never see the pros ride in anything but low-friction, high-tightness lycra, and in the street a pair of skinny jeans will be faster than JNCOs and a tight t-shirt will outpace an unzipped hoody every day of the week. If you’re out and the wind starts howling, the key to happiness is to ditch the flappiness. Tighten everything down, don your slickest duds, and let the wind bother the other guys.
Speaking of other guys, the very best thing to have with you on a windy ride is a friend! It’s a fact of fluid dynamics that if you ride in a line, the person in the front will bear the brunt of the wind, and you’ll be pulled along comfortably in their wake for a fraction of the effort. Even on a calm day, the trailing rider gets up to a 40% boost to efficiency and the lead rider enjoys a small boost too as the turbulent air coming off her back is smoothed out over the second rider. When the wind’s really pounding, that shelter behind a friend can be the difference between bonking and making it home, just be sure to do some turns at the front to pay your pal back for their efforts.
And it doesn’t have to be a bike. On a city commute, sometimes the difference between mastery and misery is a truck going your direction. Tuck behind one of those big guys and you can get pulled all the way to work by the giant hole they’re blasting through the air. On the super windy days, even a garbage truck is a happy sight. It doesn’t alleviate the smell, but when it’s the difference between a suffering 15mph and an easy 30mph, it’s worth all the smells in the world. Just keep an eye on the road too. The only thing worse than riding into a headwind is riding into the back of your drafting partner when they stop to make another pickup.